Jazz Drummer’s Workshop

Beyond the Noteheads

Benefits and Strategies for Transcribing, Part 1

by Steve Fidyk

I recently thought about my first lesson with the great drummer and educator Ed Soph. I was eighteen years old at the time, and my parents drove me from our home in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to see Ed in New Haven, Connecticut. Before leaving for the lesson, I proudly packed every method book that I’d worked on into an old suitcase. Once we arrived and got settled in his upstairs teaching studio, he began to thumb through my books, briefly commenting on the vast number of materials I’d studied.

He then asked me to play something. I sat behind the drums for what seemed like an eternity of uncomfortable silence, not knowing what to do. I asked, “Would you like to hear a swing beat, or a rock beat, or a solo?” He responded, “Play something you feel comfortable with.”

Ed was the first teacher who asked questions of me, which helped to introduce a thoughtful approach to playing and studying the instrument. Before this lesson with Ed, I wasn’t very confident playing diverse styles of music. I came from a rigorous method-book background and didn’t clearly understand how to connect the concepts from these books to the music I aspired to make. Until this point, I was assigned exercises, one page after another, without knowing how those exercises would help my ability to improvise on the drumset. The question I needed to answer for myself was, What music do I want to play professionally, and how was I preparing myself to that end?

Ed was the first teacher to ask me to transcribe ideas on paper. Initially it was ride cymbal rhythms from drummers like Jimmy Cobb and Shelly Manne. I eventually worked up to accompaniment patterns from drummers like Max Roach, Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, and Philly Joe Jones. This experience led to further study on the subject with the great drummer and educator John Riley. John also had me transcribing accompaniment patterns from legendary drummers, as well as solos that were constructed on song forms from standard tunes. In our lessons, we did a great deal of intensive and critical listening, and we discussed how the drummers on each recording were fitting into the texture and flow of the music.

Listening for Landmarks

When starting to transcribe, sit down and listen to one of your favorite recordings without interruption or distraction. As it plays, determine the arrangement’s format—listen for an introduction, melody, solos, shout chorus, and other elements. What’s the form of the tune (blues, ABA, AABA)? Once you can hear where these landmarks are in the music, listen to how the drummer is working through them.

Try asking yourself the following while listening: How is this player accompanying the music while outlining these landmark sections of the tune? Does the drummer on the recording change texture, dynamics, orchestrations, or sticks while keeping time and interacting with each soloist? Jot down what you hear and try playing along to the recording. Start with your ride cymbal, and pay attention to the drummer’s intensity, sound, and touch.

Next find a recorded example of your favorite drummer playing, and play along with it—again keeping the same sound, pacing, and intensity as the original. Try softly adding the bass drum to work on your feathering skills. Once you have control of these sounds, work on some technique with your favorite recording that features the brushes, and listen for the pulse and articulation you’re achieving with each fan. Practicing sounds from the drumset individually before combining them together can help produce a solid groove and consistent sound once you blend each element together. Try selecting recordings that feature these individual instruments, and focus your attention on each as you play along throughout the phrase.

When performing with a band, the drummer is constantly improvising and creating ideas that connect musically with the composition. Transcribing time and solo examples, bass lines, and melodies can help increase your understanding and provide you with the language of a specific style. Patiently working through and doing your own transcribing can help you understand how and why specific ideas were played in the moment from a recorded performance.

In Part 2 of this series we’ll discuss methods for transcribing, tools for the job, and some of my favorite phrases from legendary players like Harvey Mason, Roy Haynes, Jimmy Cobb, and Alan Dawson.

Steve Fidyk has performed with Terell Stafford, Tim Warfield, Dick Oatts, Doc Severinsen, Wayne Bergeron, Phil Wilson, and Maureen McGovern, and he’s a member of the jazz studies faculty at Temple University in Philadelphia. For more info, including how to sign up for lessons via Skype, visit stevefidyk.com.