Above all else, transcribing music is the best thing you can do to improve. This is true for any type of musician in any genre, but especially important for those interested in improvisation. There is absolutely no way for you to be able to truly improvise unless you've transcribed.
Note: The word "transcribe" as used in this post means to listen to and learn, as opposed to reading and learning. Sorry for any confusion.
Why is transcription such a big deal?
You learn vocabulary, technique, rhythm, theory, and most importantly, you get to examine and hear a musician at a level that just can't be acheived by using standard notation or tablature. I'll get into that in a bit, but first let me explain the other benefits.
You can directly equate learning music to learning a language, and I’m sure you’ve heard people compare the two. Say you’re learning Italian. If you needed to learn Italian as fast as possible, what would you do? Buy a book, or buy a ticket to Italy?
When you are in another country learning a language, you’re forced to listen intently to what people are saying to pick up the dialect, vocabulary, and tense of the phrases and words. You also pick up gestures and slang unique to particular regions. This can be compared to going to a jam session or concert. As your listening develops, you’ll actually hear a common vocabulary among players. You’ll hear how they construct their phrases, and how they communicate via their instrument. Just like in speaking, every musician has their own unique tone, volume, phrasing, and ideas.
Also, when at a performance or jam, all of your senses can be engaged - and this is huge. Playing music is an experience, and when you are engaged in the process of transcription, or even just listening for that matter, you are living the music, and that is so important for connecting the dots of how to play an instrument at a high level.
The fastest way to learn anything is by the process of immersion. That is how the best musicians get so damn good at what they do. They’ve spent a whole lot of time with music in their ears - in bars, at jam sessions, with friends, and listening to records.
Technique is tied into vocabulary, but is a more physical experience than mental. When you’re working on your physicality as a musician, what you do with your hands absolutely needs to correspond with what you are hearing in your head. As you transcribe a piece of music, you’re hearing notes from the recording and figuring out different ways to play them on your instrument. If a passage is difficult because of rhythm, or speed, you need improvement in that area of your playing. Transcription allows you to simultaneously enhance your technical chops while improving upon your vocabulary.
When I teach transcription, I tell my students to first transcribe the song or lick they’re interested in, then play along with the recording. This will install aspects of the phrase in your playing, and will improve your ability to hear and improvise in time.
Try to “lock in” as best you can, and if you can’t play a particular passage up to speed, take time to work it up. Playing along with the recording is so crucial to learning because you’ll learn how a certain musician phrases and places the notes in time, and learn how to execute complicated rhythms by learning how a musician phrases, as opposed to learning rhythm with a book. You may notice that some musicians will play behind the beat, and some will play before it. Their phrasing may be choppy and rhythmic, or they might play longer and smoother melodies.
Noticing and analyzing what a particular musician is doing is great as you listen to the music and reflect on it, but transcribing and playing along is the kind of practice that will show you real improvement.
A great way to learn theory is to listen to music, figure out what a soloist is doing, write it down, and analyze. You’ll learn so much more that simply reading about stuff out of a theory book because you’ll hear the solo in context. Where did the soloist place those notes? Why am I attracted to the solo? What is the relationship between the chords and notes being played?
After asking any of these questions, you can investigate the answers in a theory book or ask a teacher, and you can start to utilize some of what you’ve learned in different keys. It’s great to learn a solo, then practice playing it in all 12 keys. You’ll truly master that solo, and you’ll have a whole new appreciation and understanding of what is going on in keys you don’t normally play in.
Transcription allows you to put a musician’s playing under the microscope so you can learn about his or her’s style and vocabulary. But ultimately you get to know the musician at a level which is inaccessible using tab or sheet music.
Sheet music/tab learning = eye based learning
Transcription = ear based learning
Which do you think is better for learning music?
For me, to transcribe is to step into the musician’s shoes and feel and hear what he or she is communicating or feeling. I feel like I'm getting more intimate with the musician every time I hear or play a solo I’ve learned, and I feel like I'm gaining a deeper understanding of what that particular style of music means to me.
The reason I believe this is because to become a great musician, you need to transcribe, which means listening to single recordings hundreds of times. Each time you listen to that individual recording, you’re picking up something from it. You may not be conscious of it, but your mind is getting better at "hearing between the lines”.
It allows you to hear stylistic nuances which are impossible to identify when learning from a source other than the recording. This is HUGE! These nuances, which can be pretty much anything depending on the recording, combined with other solos you’ve learned, will shape your unique voice. This quote pretty much sums it up - “God is in the details.”
So put down your sheet music or tab, go to your computer, tape player, turn table, etc., and just transcribe. There may be resistance, but once you start, it’ll feel great, and you’ll be a better musician for it. Set goals for yourself, and follow through. It’s important to make transcription a priority in your practice routine. It usually takes a little longer than technical practice, so set aside a little bit extra time, and BE PATIENT. Good luck!