Just Play: How I Got Into Transcribing Music

I often get asked how I got into transcribing music.

This’ll sound arrogant, but to be completely honest, I think I always transcribed in some way. Even as a little kid, in my head, I was dissecting stuff I heard that appealed to me, even if I didn’t know the terminology.

My earliest memories involve being at home with my mom, and music was frequently on in the house. I have fuzzy memories of The Beatles’ Abbey Road, in particular.

The bass parts would always sound louder to me than everything else, and where most people hum a melody when a song is in their head, I’d hum the bass line. Looking back, it might have been a blessing because bass became the instrument I most naturally gravitated to, but also a curse because I tend to harmonize from the bottom of a chord first, which kind of slows me down as a guitarist.

Anyway, my mom also liked to relax by playing our piano, so that’s probably how I got introduced to harmony and voice leading, however subconsciously.

I always knew I wanted to be on stage playing music, so when I was finally old enough to take up an instrument in school, I jumped at the chance. I was very hungry to learn everything I could about how music worked, which is probably why my ears were good; I was just open to it.

I was fortunate to have parents who were both music teachers, and I’d already had a few piano lessons at age 6 (Those were cut off after about a month; I’d blown off practicing one too many times in favor of going outside to ride my bike or play with my friends).

My dad brought home a bunch of instruments from the school where he taught and had me try them all out. I loved the sound of the French horn, and so with that choice, I learned how to read music pretty quickly while studying the instrument in school.

My teachers would say I had a good ear, even though I wasn’t sure what that meant. My dad, a Juilliard-trained woodwind player, liked to tell me later on that I got my reading and theory chops from him, and my ear from my mom.

I’m talking a lot, but it’s all in the name of answering the question that begins this post.

To be continued!

Guitar World music editor Matt Scharfglass has performed around the country and internationally, playing virtually all types of music with a wide range of artists, including R&B with Ashford & Simpson, old-school swing with the Blue Saracens and gospel with Richard Hartley & Soul Resurrection. Matt appears on the original-cast recording of Evil Dead: The Musical and the Broadway Cares album Home for the Holidays. He also has worked in countless theater pits and plays guitar up in the organ booth to crowds of 18,000 at New York Rangers home games at Madison Square Garden. An accomplished guitar and bass transcriber, Matt has had more than 600 of his transcriptions appear in Guitar World magazine and in books by Warner Brothers, Music Sales and Hal Leonard. He has also authored more than a dozen bass and guitar instructional books, including the You Can Do It...Play Bass! and …Play Guitar! series. He is the bassist and one of the main songwriters for his rock band, The Border Cops.

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