Making a Living as a Guitar Music Transcriber/Arranger
By Dale Turner (Originally written/published in 1994; slightly revised in 2004)
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 fieldslike 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 planif you're interested in seeking work as a transcriber/arrangerfor 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 vocal parts, guitars (in standard notation and tablature), and sometimes other instruments (mandolin, banjo, piano, bass, or saxophonearranged 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 frustratingtrying 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 figureslike 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 accidentlike after sliding out of a noteto 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:
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 advantagechord forms, arpeggiation patterns,doublestop moves, etc. to at least 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, fingertapping, 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:
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 pointa book containing almost all of that company's specfic 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 :)
About the Author:
In addition to being a performing/recording musician, Dale Turner is also West Coast Editor of Guitar One magazine, an instructor at Hollywood's Musician's Institute, and has authored numerous guitar publications for Hal Leonard, Cherry Lane, and Warner Brothers. His latest CD, INTERPRETATIONS - Solo Arrangements for Guitar and Voice (available online through CDBaby.com, TowerRecords.com, and Amazon.com), has just been released on the INTIMATE AUDIO label.
© 2004 Dale Turner ALL RIGHTS RESERVED