10 Tips to Effectively Learn and Transcribe a Solo

10 tips on how to effectively learn and transcribe solos for the beginner and intermediate guitarist + 2 bonus tips on how to learn FROM solos and become a better guitarist in the process.

Ultimate Guitar
10 tips on how to effectively learn and transcribe solos for the beginner and intermediate guitarist + 2 bonus tips on how to learn FROM solos and become a better guitarist in the process.

Let's cut to the chase.

1) Fragment Solo From the Rest of the Song

To save yourself the trouble of having to skip to 5:55 every time you need to learn the solo to "Stairway to Heaven," using a free online audio cutter at mp3cut.net can come in handy. You can focus all your listening attention towards the solo helping you internalize and become more familiar with the sound and feel without being distracted by other sections of the song. 

2) Listen To the Solo Section Repeatedly

After step one is complete. Listen to the solo section repeatedly until you can flawlessly hear it from start to finish in your head without actually listening to it being played. It may sound crazy but it's the first step to fine-tuning your mind and ears to be able to pick apart the solo as accurately as possible by ear. 

3) Learn the Solo by Ear

Ever watch a YouTube cover of one guy playing a solo and think "Wow, that was smooth and effortless. [Insert guitarist] would be proud!" and another guy playing the same solo correctly and thinking "It sounded right, but something's amiss." While this is purely anecdotal, from my experience it's because the former learnt by ear and the latter learnt by tabs. I have noticed that guitarists who rely only on tabs tend to be rigid and lack feel.

Tabs cannot denote whether the guitarist was striking the strings with an angled or flat pick attack or the attitude or power he expressed in a particular passage of the solo. Only your ears can do that. Relying solely on tablature is a lazy and hindering habit that every serious guitarist must grow out of immediately.

Playing by ear has numerous benefits (plenty of articles cover this) It's what separates the masters from the amateurs. However, tabs can be useful if you find it extremely difficult to decipher a certain section. Other people's interpretations may give you some clues if you're in a tough spot. Use them as an aid but not as a preliminary tool to learn songs or solos.

4) Tools for Transcribing

Look, don't throw away money on fancy transcribing software unless it offers you a lot more than your free existing options and is affordable for you. Otherwise good ol'free VLC Media Player works really well for solos I've worked out. 

For those who don't know, it's got a loop function and a playback speed adjuster, which is pretty much all you need. Another free software to look into is Best Practice Music Software. It's greatest feature is the pitch adjuster which saves you the trouble of de-tuning and re-tuning when trying to work out solo's written by Van Halen, Hendrix or Slash who are tuned down a 1/2 step.

5) Transcribe Unplugged

Use a good pair of headphones. Place only one headphone in your ear and leave the other one free. Make sure your guitar is unplugged. This ensures the cleanest possible sound making it easier to transcribe what you hear.

6) Baby Steps

The average duration of a solo ranges between 1-2 mins give or take. Focus on looping out small section until you get to then end. If it's difficult to decipher, slow it down (e.g. - Loop the audio from 0:00-0:10 and reduce the playback speed to 0.72x decipher the piece on using your ears and your guitar and continue).

7) Eliminate Distractions

Transcribing accurately requires a lot of concentration. Get rid of any obvious distractions. Another not so obvious distraction is jumping from one solo to the next without properly finishing either one. The end result is being almost there but not quite. You don't want that. Finish what you start then move on.

8) It Will Never Sound Exactly The Same

It's a futile effort to match the guitarist behind the solo, regardless of how easy or difficult the solo is. You do not have his brain, fingers, precise amp and effects settings, guitar setup, studio environment etc. 

These factors all come together to create the sound he has. Sometimes certain sections are damn near impossible to decipher which will require some improvisation on your part.

The point is, accept that your interpretation is going to sound slightly different but don't fight it, look to play within your style. Your vibrato may not sound like Jimmy Page's but who cares? You're not Jimmy Page. Play how you play.

9) Get a Second Opinion

When you keep working on a piece, it's easy to miss certain notes due to fatigue and loss of concentration. A fresh pair of ears can sometimes detect something that you've failed to hear.

An alternative is taking a break and returning after you're refreshed.

10) Patience


Bonus Tips

1. Don't just "learn" solos. Learn FROM them.

Take "Stairway to Heaven," one of the most epic and well constructed solos from start to finish. If you dissect it, the idea is pretty simple. It begins with a connection of simple A minor pentatonic runs, followed by several more cool sounding licks to create one of the best written solo's to date. 

For those of you who struggle with composing, think of licks as words and a solo as a sentence. Combine words to form a sentence.

You can easily get a lot of good solo ideas by listening carefully to other guitarists and incorporating some of it into your guitar playing and eventually create your own style.

2. Ditch the boring technique exercises.

If you want to get better, don't waste precious time with generic technique exercises that you find all across the internet. These include legato, tremolo picking, string skipping, sweep picking, tapping etc. It's boring, tedious and is of little use if you don't know how to apply them to your guitar playing.

A smarter and more enjoyable idea is to pick any challenging solo (e.g. - Eruption) that incorporates elements of what you'd like to improve in your guitar playing (e.g. - legato/trem picking) and practice those sections (along with the entire solo). 

You kill 4 birds with one stone!

1) You learn the solo (eventually).

2) You become a more skilled player in the process.

3) You stay motivated because you know you aren't merely practicing a mindless exercise that's going nowhere. You're practicing an integral part of a mindblowing solo.

4) You get a live demonstration on how to use a particular lick or phrase in a given situation.

That concludes my comprehensive lesson on transcribing and learning solos. I hope it's been helpful and will make you a better guitarist. Now get to it!

25 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Tip no. 11. If you can't figure it out in 5 minutes, look it up on Ultimate Guitar. (jk)
    some good points. I agree very much with point 8. personally i belive solos are an artists intimate musical expression and unique to the person who plays it. Generally i dont copy other peoples solos
    For me I use tabs as my ears are not 80% accurate but when I read a tab I always think the way of the guitarist plays that part, like thats a vibrator or the way the guitarist play it, and sometimes even the timing sometimes I depend on the same for it, in other meaning I depend on tabs and my ears and my knowledge about the guitarist and his style
    Definitely some good advice. Another suggestion that I think should be meted out is that after you learn the solo, or if you've been trying really hard to nail a particular part and keep hitting a roadblock is to work around the solo if you're having problems with a particular bit, or even if you aren't. It's always nice to have an alternative approach. My weakest link would be my sweep picking and it's been about a year of practice now with only slightly significant improvement. So I decided to swap to string skipping and tapping, Same effect, much cleaner phrasing. So find what works for you. You're not meant to clone the approach. If what you hear is what's on the track, nobody can tell you otherwise (Save the purists/fanboys)
    You could have saved some time by not typing out a list that might as well just say "listen" and "try".
    This list was okay, but it could've been more extensive. You didn't mention transcribing with the beat at all, which is the most important thing in my opinion. Look at some of my newer tabs to see what I mean. You can't really have an accurate tab if you don't have correct spacing of the notes within the beat. If you just bunch a lot of notes together in a box and put it up in a tab, how is anyone going to be able to read it and play from it? A note either falls on a beat or somewhere in-between two beats, that's a fact of life.
    Also I would say to elaborate more on #8. For example I'd say - Transcribe until you can play with 100% accuracy, but only use the knowledge you've gained to create your OWN style. Don't just be content going to parties and pretending you're *insert famous rockstar name here*
    The point of this article is to try to keep guitarists away from tabs unless they need a little guidance, and transcribing to beat is pretty self explanatory. For you to learn a solo by ear you have to get your timing down.
    instead of 3 different programs, you could just use a DAW. Reaper has all the functions mentioned (speed adjust, pitch shift, cutting, looping, etc.) and is de facto for free.
    What if you can't hear anything but noise in Venom's old recordings from Welcome to Hell, Black Metal, etc.? Lol I'll get 'er done
    Like the comment above..learn the chord progression underneath the solo...this will give you the scale used and the notes will be way easier to find
    The best tip I can give is to try and get the sounds in your head as best as you can. Instead of learning by ear and just remembering where the notes go on the fret board, internalize the actual sounds in your head as strongly as you can. This will help with improvisation because ideally you want to be making licks in your head before you play them
    "tabs can be useful if you find it extremely difficult to decipher a certain section. Other people's interpretations may give you some clues if you're in a tough spot. Use them as an aid" This point is a little irrelevant. No tab can tell you anything beyond basics, because they're a simple language; and no score can tell you everything either... Interpretations and inflections are used in all art, from Shakespeare to NoFx tabs...
    What he's saying is if your ears aren't fully developed its going to be hard to figure out some parts that hopefully someone else, with a better ear has been able to accomplish and tabulate on software's such as Guitar Pro. The author of the article didn't say use tabs for the entire solo as it won't be as reliable as using your ears (in the long run), only for certain sections that MAY be hard to decipher and another persons interpretation may give you some guidance in solving the puzzle. Read the entire thing properly instead of quoting one section and trying to argue it.
    A very useful point that some people miss, is: "Never come out of rhythm to rush past a bit you already know or find easy, or slow down a bit you find difficult." Every single bend or inflection should be played at a set percentage of the final solo's speed, else you can't hope to bury the whole piece for when it comes to playing. - Doing this will also help you identify which parts you are having trouble with and which parts you can rely on as 'pivotal rest areas'.
    Nice tips. Really good stuff. I especially like number 8 and the first bonus tip. Thanks for the lesson
    A really good article! I have to respectfully disagree (only slightly) on the ditching of the technical exercises. I think they come in handy (they have in my playing). But, the trick is not to overdo it. I agree that learning actual music is more fun of course. But spending a little of your practice time daily on your technique is well worth it, in my opinion. As for equipment, I find the amazing slowdowner to be invaluable. The free ones you mentioned are quite good as well, but ASD certainly justifies its price tag. Great sound quality. Using a USB pedal to control it means hands off for the most part. Guitar Pro 6 is also a great help, getting used to inputting your transcriptions into it, not only gives you training on pitches, but rhythms as well. Some work on ear training away from guitar is a great help as well!
    Even though what this article says is correct, a beginner won't really be able to do this! So tabs are good if you're starting out or it's hard to decipher what's going on in the solo because if an effect is used, like wah for example, it can be difficult to transcribe
    Thank you dudeguy974. One of the best articles I have read it, simple and clear; and with two working tools very interestings that I don't know: "best practice music" and "mp3cut.net".
    I've hit a block with my playin after 14 years and I fall in the trap of just looking at the tab and playing it mechanically so there is good advice for people like me who are not that good or just too thick to see whats obvious ....therefore thanks for posting some good advice I will definitely be giving it a try!