Making a Living as a Guitar Music Transcriber/Arranger

Since I began playing guitar, I’ve always enjoyed figuring out tunes and solos of various artists. This is something any musician does, especially if they’re interested in popular music (rock, blues, jazz, country, etc.), as a means of increasing their repertoire and their musical vocabulary. As a musician continues to develop, he/she may find that they can play their instrument with greater dexterity, better tone, stylistic appropriateness (taste), and spontaneity. Through time, a musician’s aural skills also develop. A good ear combined with a solid musical education can not only enhance your ability to perform effectively in a variety of musical situations, but also open up a few possibilities for employment in other non-performance-oriented musical fields-like professional transcribing and arranging!

If that sounds interesting to you, read on! This article will enlighten you to the tricks, tools, and traumas of the transcribing trade, as well as provide a realistic battle plan-if you’re interested in seeking work as a transcriber/arranger-for preparing materials to approach a major publishing company.

What’s Expected of a Transcriber?

Every publishing company that prints note-for-note guitar anthologies of popular music includes all lead and background vocalparts, guitars (in standard notation and tablature), and sometimes other instruments (mandolin, banjo, piano, bass, or saxophone-arranged for guitar) in their publications. The vocals are an extremely significant element in a transcription in that they often dictate the tune’s arrangement. For instance, if the first verse of a tune is 16 bars long and the second verse is only 12, chances are you’re going to need to write out both verses in their entirety without being able to use any arranging devices like repeat signs or D.S. al Coda. 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!) The lyrics to each song are usually included in the sleeve of the compact disc and are occasionally labeled with section headings like 1st Verse, Pre-chorus, Chorus, Interlude, Guitar Solo, Bridge, etc., which you may find valuable in determining the song’s form (the order of a song’s sections, once arranged, referred to as a song’s road map). Early on in a transcriber’s career, this stage can be one of the most frustrating-trying to organize a tune on paper in a “user-friendly” manner (i.e., easy to learn) 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) can eat up a lot of hours! Like anything else, with practice, this process becomes far less tedious. Once you have a good sense of how you want to arrange the song, the next stage is usually to figure out all the guitar parts, using text-based shorcuts to recall figures-like Rhy. Fig. 1, Riff A, etc.-whenever possible.

Transcribing Tools, Tips, and Tricks

Some aspects of transcribing guitar parts are more difficult than others, and vary depending on the artist. The tuning of the instrument (dropped-D, tuned down 1/2-step, open-G tuning, etc.) and/or presence of capos must be assessed at the outset. (In either case, listen for open strings that pop up, either on purpose or by accident-like after sliding out of a note-to establish tuning. Harmonics may also tip you off.) Do yourself a huge favor and subscribe to every guitar magazine under the sun so you can read interviews of current artists to see if they reveal any of their trade secrets. When a new album comes out it’s quite common that the interviewer will mention a specific tune and want to discuss any peculiarities (strange tunings, mechanical/noise-making devices used, harmonizing effects, etc.) that may exist in that particular recorded performance. The ability to hear deep into the mix of a tune is another skill that needs to be cultivated, since it will help you determine how many different guitar parts exist on the recording to begin with. Here are a few tricks to try:

  1. If your stereo has an 1/8-inch phone jack and you are using headphones (always use headphones!), try pulling the jack out slightly. On some stereo systems this will actually remove the vocals, enabling you to hear guitar parts more clearly.
  2. Invest in a stereo system that has a karaoke feature. This system (I use AIWA) has a vocal fader that removes 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.
  3. Those of you who own a four-track cassette recorder that records at double speed can record an excerpt of a blazing solo and have it play back at half speed. This drops the pitch an octave but allows you to hear more subtleties in phrasing that can help immensely when it comes to trying to discern the exact location of a particular lick. (Make sure you check your rhythms at regular speed though, so you don’t overly notate vibrato rhythms as pitch bends, among other things.)
  4. The Eventide Harmonizer has a sampling/real-time compression feature that enables you to record (sample) then play back music at a slower tempo (by time-stretching the audio file) while maintaining the instrument’s original pitch. ( NOTE: This article was written well before the widespread availability of digital recording technology. Nowadays, it’s easy to sample a section of a fast solo and time stretch the waveform on a personal computer, slowing the lick down while retaining its original pitch.)

Extreme methods like the above are often necessary to help speed up the transcribing process, given the publishing company’s strict deadlines for each assignment. (Also, realize that the more familiarity you have with a particular style, the more you can use “guitar logic” to your advantage. Knowing things like chord forms, arpeggio patterns, double-stop moves, etc., will put you on the path towards figuring out stuff that’s difficult to hear.)

Tailor-Making Your TABs to a Specific Publishing Company

Every publishing company has their own copyrighted notational style. This means that Hal Leonard, Warner Brothers, CPP/Belwin, Cherry Lane, Amsco, and others all have slightly different ways of notating pitch bends, vibrato bar usage, hammer-ons and pull-offs, finger tapping, harmonics, etc. Keeping this in mind, if you’re serious about trying to get a career as a transcriber off the ground, I offer the following recommendations:

  1. Choose one company to submit a sample of your work to.
  2. 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. (An example would be the addition of microtonal bends indicated in standard notation with alterations to standard flat or sharp signs in recent Hal Leonard publications.)
  3. 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. That means everything from placement of tempo markings, chord symbols, and figure recalls, to section headings, slurs in tablature, etc. REALITY CHECK: When an editor receives a manuscript, he/she expects that it will be accurate, legible, intelligently arranged, and in accordance to their company’s notational style so it can to be sent straight to the engraver. ( NOTE: The “engraver” is the person who manually inputs notes and TAB from your handwritten manuscript into a notational program like Finale, Sibelius, etc.) It’s important to put your best foot forward!
  4. Next, find the name of the company’s Music Editorand the company address (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 in a large #7 envelope (so big that it can’t fit easily in the person’s mailbox so they have to deal with it). Then toss him/her a call the following week.

Getting Work

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 his/her transcribing team. (California, Wisconsin, Florida, and New York are considered “hotbeds” for this.) This is a “win-win” situation for both parties because a small transcribing team allows the established transcriber to accept even more work. (You will be 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.) Better yet, the publishing company you submitted your work to may invite you to audition by having you TAB out a song for one of their current folios in the process of being transcribed. This means better pay, but possibly less steady work. (The company will also likely send you a Style Manual at this point-a book containing almost all of that company’s specific notation preferences, featuring numerous “real life” musical examples.)

In short, the work is out there. It’s up to you to go out and get it. (Disciplined and detail-oriented need only apply!) Good luck 🙂

© 2004 Dale Turner ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
(Originally written/published in 1994; slightly revised in 2004)