Dale Turner: 'Step Outside Of Yourself Is Only Way To Grow As Musician'

Dale Turner discusses the finer points of transcribing and provides an enormous wealth of information for the guitarist.

Ultimate Guitar

Dale Turner is the former West Coast Editor (1996-2007) of the now defunct Guitar One magazine, in addition to working as a performing/recording musician and producing engineer, Dale Turner is a long time transcriber for many guitar magazines and author of 50+ instructional books/transcription folios - his latest being Power Plucking - A Rocker's Guide to Acoustic Fingerstyle Guitar. In this revealing and in-depth interview with Joe Matera, he discusses the finer points of transcribing and provides an enormous wealth of information for the guitarist and for those wishing to enter the field of expertise.

UG: Can you tell us a little about your background and how you came to be a transcriber?

Dale Turner: I started getting regular work as a transcriber in January 1992, initially as part of a transcribing "team" assembled by a friend of a friend named Colgan Bryan. The "team" thing is pretty cool for anyone trying to get started in this particular business. Basically, it works like this: An established transcriber gets the work first from a publishing company that's authorized the "team" approach, then shares the workload with his or her team. This is a "win-win" situation for both parties because a small transcribing team allows the established transcriber to accept even more work. You get credited in the book as well, but expect them to take a small cut of your pay because it is they who are getting the work, editing yours, and guaranteeing that it's all up to par.

I started going to companies directly around 1994. Somewhere around 1995, some of the companies I'd been transcribing forHal Leonard and Cherry Lane, in this casealso produced instructional books. They offered me the chance to write a fewSteve Morse and Eric Clapton guitar style books, in the beginning. By then, I'd already begun transcribing for Guitar World, and they'd sometimes have me write up little one-page things. Meanwhile, Wolf Marshall gave birth to Guitar Oneat the time, a joint venture between Hal Leonard and Cherry Lane. I started writing for them in 1996, from their fourth issue onward. For a while, I worked freelance for Guitar World, Guitar One, and Guitar (for the Practicing Musician) until early 1998, when Guitar Onewhich had been growing rapidly, and I really likedhired me as one of their exclusive writers. I was their West Coast Editor, all the way up till the magazine folded in 2007. I loved getting to interview so many of my heroes for them, create detailed instructional features, and all the cool people I got to work with. Now I'm back with Guitar World again, doing an acoustic guitar column! It's a fun part off what I do.

Is there anybody specifically credited with putting together the first guitar transcription?

I'm pretty sure, as far as how guitar notation became refined and eventually standardizedfor rock styles, involving bends, pinch, tapped, and plucked harmonics, vibrato bar usage, tapping stuff, etc.it owes a huge debt to the early 1980s efforts of Wolf Marshall and Andy Aledort. Those guys were actually a big inspiration to me. I really was amazed, back then, how someone could hear a recording, figure out all the parts, and actually have the skill to notate it all. That inspiration put me on the path to becoming "literate," musically. That, in turn, opened up a massive world to me. I personally remember back in the '80s Guitar World was one of the first places I saw a guitar solo transcribed and then I came across a series of books by Dr. Licks

A lot of the pre-1980 Guitar Player magazines had lessons with notation. But I remember ordering a bunch of cassette based "licks" lessons back then, which came with tiny books of strange pre-guitar magazine notation/TAB in them called the Star Guitar instructional series. At least that's the one I got into. For notation, they had a standard five line staff for pitch and rhythm, then directly beneath, they'd use fractions: 2/15 would mean "second string, 15th fret." Interestingly, slides, bends, vibrato, and tremolo picking were notated much the same way they are now.

"You get credited in the book as well, but expect them to take a small cut of your pay because it is they who are getting the work, editing yours, and guaranteeing that it's all up to par."

How does one become a transcriber?

First off, you got to really want to do it. There is much more involved that just "figuring things out by ear. But you first need to really like doing that, and be good at it first; I always liked figuring stuff out by ear since I started playing. You also need to actually enjoy writing the stuff down. As I was learning how to notate stuff, I really liked doing thatbecause then I could see the stuff I was studying, analyze it all right on paper, write down each note's interval relationship to the chord of the moment, etc.

So, assuming you enjoy figuring things out and writing them down, and you actually learn how to do that, the next thing is grappling with all the other things that are involved. And not everyone has the patience, discipline, and detail oriented nature to do that. For instance, every publishing company that prints note-for-note guitar anthologies of popular music includes all lead and background vocal parts, guitars (in standard notation and tablature), and sometimes other instruments (mandolin, banjo, piano, bass, or saxophonearranged for guitar) in their publications, which you'd have to transcribe. The song's lyrics also need to be written out below the transcribed vocal melody, written in direct accordance to the way they are syllabically hy-phen-at-ed in a dictionary. This means you will need to look up some words. Also, all capitalized letters need to be underlined in red pencil, squiggly lines under italicized words, "b.f." for bold-faced, and other details like that.

You also need to understand song formlabeling things with section headings like 1st Verse, Pre-chorus, Chorus, Interlude, Guitar Solo, Bridge, etc., determining their order, and presenting them in an easy to follow layout with repeats, D.S. or D.C. al Coda instructions, and so on. Early on in a transcriber's career, this "arranging" stage can be one of the most frustratingtrying to organize a tune on paper in a "user-friendly" manner while keeping the page count to a minimum to save the publishing company in printing/transcribing costs (transcriber/arrangers are paid by the printed page). Once you've made those arranging decisions, you start figuring out all the guitar parts, but also need to use text-based shortcuts to recall figureslike Rhy. Fig. 1, Riff A, etc.whenever possible. Like anything else, with practice, this process gets faster. But you can't just write out a song from beginning to end. Nobody would be able to follow it, it'd kill a million trees' worth of paper, and no books would get made.

The last ingredient adds another level of potential frustration: The fact that every publishing company has their own copyrighted notational style. This means that Hal Leonard, Alfred Publishing, Cherry Lane, Amsco, and all the guitar magazines have slightly different ways of notating pitch bends, vibrato bar usage, hammer-ons and pull-offs, finger-tapping, harmonics. That also includes everything from physical placement on the page of tempo markings, chord symbols, and figure recalls, to section headings, slur directions in tablature, etc. When an editor receives a manuscript, he or she expects that it will be accurate, legible, intelligently arranged, and written in accordance to their company's notational style so it can to be sent straight to the engraver - the person who manually inputs notes and TAB from your handwritten manuscript into a notational program like Finale, Sibelius, etc.

If all that doesn't scare you off, then maybe you're a candidate to become a transcriber. Just choose one company to submit a sample of your work to. Go out and buy one of their album folios [transcription book of an entire album] of a band that plays tunes with a lot of metrical shifts, involved background vocals, multi-tracked guitar parts and intense guitar solos. The newer the book, the better because every year or so it seems that a company comes up with a more specific way of notating certain things. Pick a current song containing many of the stylistic elements previously mentioned, one that, to your knowledge, has yet to be transcribed in a magazine or book. Use that company's transcription book to model every aspect of your work after. Next, find the name of the company's Music Editor and the company address which is usually listed on the first page of their TAB books. Send that person your transcription, as well as a personal biography, highlighting your music education and versatility as a player and business card. Then toss them a call the following week. If your work is impressive, at the very least, it's possible your name will be forwarded to another working transcriber in your area who may be looking for an apprentice to incorporate into their transcribing team. California, Wisconsin, Florida, and New York are considered "hotbeds" for this. I should also add that it's best to be a fan of all types of music. Have the ability to find something redeeming in all forms of music or you'll get burned out fast. It's the complete opposite of transcribing solos of your favorite players.'

Does one need to be able to be formally trained in music, theory and the like to transcribe music?

Formal study of subjects like Ear Training certainly helps. And to be able to label what you hear, your Music Theory chops also need to be just as good. But I would think it'd be possible to at least learn key signatures, and what makes something be a specific meter; 6/8 versus 3/4, cut-time versus 4/4, 7/8 versus 7/4, etc. from a book, combined with listening to real-life examples. You could also learn all the rules for rhythmic notation, as well as "real world" chord naming with the right resources. The challenge is in knowing what it is, the moment you're hearing it.

But no amount of "schooling" will help you get better at hearing things that are played fast, or parts that are buried deep into a mix, notes that are washed out with delay repeats, or figuring out oddball tunings, what fret a capo is on, and unorthodox chord voicings. You just got to do it and you'll slowly get better. Has the process become more, easier today with the amount technological means at ones' disposal than it was in the early days?

Nowadays, to figure out super-fast playing, it's easy to record stuff into a computer, stretch the audio file's waveform to slow things down, and hear everything slow while retaining the lick's original pitch. You can do the same thing with that new software called Transcribe. I didn't have that stuff when I was doing transcribing full-time, so I'd set my four-track to record things at double speed, which when played back, would be at half speed, dropping the pitch an octave.

Today, YouTube is a blessing, for being able to at least see where somebody played their stuff on the neck. Things like the good old Rhythm Bandit are also helpful, to help hear deeper into a mix. I never had that; I used to use a stereo system that had a karaoke feature. It had a vocal fader that removed vocals almost completely, while boosting other frequencies giving, among other things, distorted rhythm guitar parts a little more clarity and definition. I've personally encountered a few instances where the initial notes played on a guitar with extremely heavy digital echo - during a solo - were difficult to hear. The delay was on another track and disappeared from the mix just as the vocal did when I used this same feature.

Today, things are still generally handwritten, so the editor can make any needed changes right there on the manuscript. But some companies now want the transcriber to be the engraver as wellentering all their transcribed stuff into a notation program and do the entire layout as well, then either upload it via FTP or e-mail the file.

Can you give us an insight into the process that goes on a Guitar transcription book from the initial idea to final publication?

Each bookan entire albumgenerally needs to be done in a month or less. Sometimes you actually get an advanced recording of the albuma couple months before the public has heard it. After you finish transcribing, you send in your manuscript; it gets entered into the computer by the "engraver" person I described earlier. After that's done, the music gets printed out and sent to an editor for the "first proof" stage. They compare the "engraved" version to your handwritten manuscript, to make sure no mistakes were made on entry. It all goes through two more proof stages, during which artwork and photos of the artist are getting approved, and the layout is getting finalized. After all that, it's ready to roll, and they manufacture the book. By the way, I should add that, when someone's trying to get work as a transcriber, it's not uncommon that they will get work first as a "proof editor," before becoming an actual transcriber. What tools are required to undertake the task of guitar transcription?

Killer headphones, something similar to a drafting table or easel that you can write on without having to hunch over, a guitar stand, heavy duty mechanical pencils with 2B lead, lots of erasers, pencil sharpener, and cover-up tape and white-out to mask off unused staff lines. I also had custom paper made long ago, which had a single five-line staff for vocals, and a pair of guitar notation/tab staves directly beneath. But once you get hooked into a company, they will send you their paper.

Is it a long and laborious process?

It certainly can be. The most time-consuming stuff for me has always been transcribing rhythms that don't really relate to the underlying pulse. Believe it or not, a super sloppy, raw as hell, totally out-of-the-pocket rhythmic thing by George Thorogood was one of the hardest things I've ever tried to write out! Things that have a lot of unusual chord voicings will also slow the process down. Or things that are buried in the mix, whether from a wash of effects, to layers of other instruments, can all take extra time. Contrary to what people may think, the "fast playing" stuffif it's someone goodis actually sometimes the easiest stuff to nail. Most fast things you hearespecially when things are 100% pickedare very specific things, played cleanly, with rhythmic precision. What happens if there's a difficult lick you can't seem to decipher?

Well, given the super strict deadlines, it's sometimes hard to nail things 100% in the time you have. I usually get the pitches right, but I've occasionally missed a tuning here and there, mislabeled an effect, had some chord voicings that weren't exactly right, and stuff like that. And of course, it can be pretty tough to tab things in the exact location the original player used. There have been a few cases where, after transcribing stuff someone did, I saw that person play live and went "No!" Back in 1995, I did the entire Frank Gambale Best Of book, and had seen him numerous times beforehand and studied his style. But I saw him play shortly afterwards and noticed stuff fingered in different spots than I thought. Everyone makes mistakes, though we all try our best not to.

"There is much more involved that just "figuring things out by ear."

Is that why transcriptions of the same song can slightly vary?

Yes, the most common "mistake" is putting things on a different string set. It's hard to tell sometimes exactly where a part was played. In the "old days," you had to listen to the tone color of the notea darker tone would maybe be a thicker, heavier, wound string. Or keep your ears open for random "accidental" open strings and harmonics popping out. Or listen to the phrasing of a riff. If you truly hear a slide between a couple notes, you know the guitarist hand just moved up the neck, so the passage is not purely in one position. There are way more things to listen for than just those though, as far as determining fretting locations. And like I mentioned earlier, now you can watch a lot of things on YouTube and see where stuff is played, which makes it way easier and more accurate! What benefits does a transcription bring to a players knowledge of the instrument and his skill?

I think stepping outside of yourself is the only way to keep growing as a musician. And the best way to "step outside" is to really listen to other music. And, if you really take the time to learn what makes music tickmusic you really likeit's only going to broaden your own music-making palette. You don't really need to write it down though, to benefit from that type of study. Seeing the music does make it easier to analyze and reference later though, as you continue to study whatever that particular player or style may be. At the most basic level, transcriptionor merely figuring things out by earwill increase your repertoire and musical vocabulary. You need to be able to learn songs and parts, if you want to function in the real musical world.

As for how it can help someone's soloing style trying to recognize and capture every detail of someone's phrasing on the instrument, and actually write it down, can be tremendously helpful. It will give you a fresh perspective, and inspire you to follow a certain path to come up with your own stuff. It also helps you become more familiar with different approaches you can use for expressing yourself. I think the more you're able to get "inside" a player's touch on the instrumentrecognizing all the nuances in their playing, being able to execute them, and draw upon themthe wider range of "touch" expressivity you'll have, yielding more "humanity" and musicality to your own playing. Looking back, having transcribed for so long has been a huge help in my own music making. I learned a lot about all sorts of "song form" options, a lot about layering of guitars parts, use of "extra" vocals in a musical track I also learned a lot about what I don't like!

What have been some of your favorite transcriptions you've done?

They all had their own challenges and rewards. But I'd have to say the ones I got to do where I'd transcribe some of my actual favorite "guitar jock" players would've been the most fun. The Albert Lee instructional video, a Mike Stern play along transcription book, a lot of the Dream Theater stuff, that Frank Gambale book, a Van Halen one At the same time, I really liked the rock records I got to transcribe for bands I really liked, like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Smashing Pumpkins, the Eagles, Aerosmith, KoRn, White Zombie, Green Day, ZZ Top

In what ways, do you think, transcribing is evolving in today's world?

Well, I think as long as people keep buying books and magazines that print the transcriptions, the job of the "transcriber"at least as it relates to the guitar-type stuff we're talking aboutwill still be a reality. For "non-guitar" transcribing, people will always need charts for show bands and other types of things. At some point, obviously everything will be digital, for better or worse. As long as music copyright laws end up making it possible for the musical artist to still profit from their stuff being transcribed and put online, transcribers will be around. In some cases, this is happening already. But torrent sites with illegal downloads of transcription books, instructional videos, and other sites with unauthorized tabs certainly hasn't helped this area of the industry. Regardless of what the future holds, transcribe to better yourself musically first. If you can morph that into a job, you'll love ityou basically get paid to learn, and improve your ear. There are much worse things musicians could be doing! [Laughs]

Aside from his guitar transcription work, Dale is also an instructor at Hollywood's Musician's Institute (where he teaches Jimi Hendrix-style rhythm guitar improvisation, music theory/ear training, sight-reading, and rhythmic independence for the singing guitarist), and also writes a monthly acoustic guitar column for Guitar World magazine. He also recently released his CD, MANNERISMS MAGNIFIED, of which he composed, arranged, produced, and recorded all by himself, as well as played all the instruments (vocals, guitar, bass, real acoustic drums, piano, accordion, and mandolin). GUITAR PLAYER MAGAZINE said of Mannerisms Magnified; "Smart pop tunes that are crammed with interesting guitar parts and tones ... Like what the Beach Boys might do if they were on an acid trip that was on the verge of getting out of control. Yeah!" For more details visit's Dale's website: http://www.intimateaudio.com/

Interview by Joe Matera Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2010

16 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Very interesting interview. Never really thought about what it's like from a transcriber's point of view.
    very cool interview! i'd wondered what the "official" (professional) transcription process was like. more interviews like this, plz
    i fully concur... thank you, teacher... and i do miss guitar one... thanks again...
    tedstigers wrote: a ton of info here...great interview!
    A ton Of words too...
    Good interview. Good information. Terrible grammatical and spelling errors throughout. Just the title of the article doesn't make any sense.
    askikr91 wrote: Good interview. Good information. Terrible grammatical and spelling errors throughout. Just the title of the article doesn't make any sense.
    Maybe the writer attempted to abbreviate the title like newspapers do. It's a good article, just long answers to one line questions.
    Dale Turner rocks! I really miss his lessons in Guitar One but his acoustic stuff in GW is still cool. As a working musician, I appreciated his comments about musicians having the right to profit from transcriptions of our work. It IS our work, after all. I only get tabs from UG or MX when I can't find the real ones at a site like guitarinstructor.com or sheetmusicdirect.com. And even then, I feel a little bad. Guess I'll take Dale's advice and start working on those transcribing skills.