Gain a sense of accomplishment, grow your musical ear and produce new guitar material all by learning to transcribe flamenco guitar with these easy steps. Read on!
One of the most satisfying ways to learn new material is by transcribing music. To transcribe music is to hear something and then learn to play it – by ear. I also suspect that we retain the material we learn this way really well because we are so actively engaged in learning it.
If you’ve never done this before it can seem daunting, but there are a few tips that can get you started and hopefully keep you from getting too frustrated in the beginning.
First Things First
There are a few issues one must solve, particular to transcribing flamenco that we should look at in the beginning. Tackling these issues can seem daunting at first, but learning to address them will also really open up your ears to how the guitar works in flamenco.
I should say at the outset that one advantage of the YouTube era is that you can almost always ‘cheat’ and watch someone play the piece you’re transcribing. This wasn’t an option when I was coming up, and I suspect I would have availed myself of this advantage if I had had the chance when I was younger. But I am also glad that I didn’t have the option, because I think my ears probably developed better as a result.
First Issue: Where’s the capo?
Because so much of flamenco is played with a capo, before you start transcribing you’ll want to make sure you know where the player you’re transcribing has the capo on their guitar. Assuming you don’t have video, you’ll really have to use your ears to determine this.
Let’s say you’re learning a Soleá. The first thing you’ll want to do is listen for where the guitar resolves. Generally, you’ll want to look for a traditional-sounding 10-11-12 (traditionally played on an E-shape chord). Chances are it’s not the open E string you’re hearing but something higher, so at this point you’d slide your finger up the sixth string until you hit the note that’s the root of that ‘E’ chord (I put it in quotes because with the capo it’s no longer really an E, even though it looks like one!). Put your capo there and play some Soleá to see if this sounds like the right key.
Is it in the traditional key?
Occasionally you’ll hear a piece that sounds familiar yet not quite. Maybe a Soleá that resolves differently than you’re used to hearing it, or a Fandango with unusual voicings. It’s very possible that the guitarist is playing in a key other than the most traditional choice. (Again, by ‘key’ I mean a collection of chord voicings [shapes] rather than an actual key, since the capo makes speaking of keys all but irrelevant in flamenco). One common example is that Soleá can be played Por Medio rather than Por Arriba. The main way you would recognize this is by listening to the cadences and seeing if they sound like they’re being played Por Arriba or Por Medio.
Second Issue: Figuring all this out.
So how do you figure this out? Easier said than done!
If you’ve played both Soleá (Por Arriba) and Soleá Por Buleria (Por Medio), then you should have in your ear the sounds of the common chord voicings and cadences. In time, you’ll learn to use this information to tell you if what you’re hearing is Por Medio or Por Arriba.
Think about how Por Arriba we often play that F, E, F rasgueado pattern that resolves to an E, or what the typical Escobilla melodies are. Por Medio we do more of that Bb with the note F on top to C9 to Bb without the F on top, and the resolution to A has different patterns than the resolution to E.
Remember that the time you put in figuring all of this out is time well spent! You’re training your ears and becoming more familiar with how the guitar works in various keys in flamenco.
Third Issue: But what about alternate tunings?
Sometimes you’ll try to learn a piece and realize it’s not in any of the keys you’ve played before. It could be a tangos played in the Taranto key, for example, but it could also be in an alternate tuning.
Alternate tunings are what they sound like – ways of tuning the guitar other than the standard E A D G B E tuning. The most common alternate tuning in flamenco is probably Rondeña tuning, which is D A D F# B E. Another really fun one is Drop B, where we tune the low E all the way down to B and play in the Granaína key.
Until you’ve listened to (and even played) some of the alternate tunings it can be hard to recognize them, but one giveaway is if the lowest note is lower than the low E on your guitar.
If you’re just diving in to transcribing and you’re not sure what the tuning is, I’d recommend finding something a bit easier to start with! If you’re still unsure, this might be a good time to ‘cheat’ and check out YouTube to see if you’re right.
Resolve These Issues First – Recapped:
To review – the three issues to solve we discussed were: firstly, finding where the capo is; secondly, hearing which key the voicings are being played; and thirdly, but not always, is there alternate tuning involved?
Whew! Now that those key issues are solved and out of the way, let’s continue with transcribing….
Learn to Transcribe Music With These Easy Steps.
If you’re just diving in to this I’d recommend starting slow and easy. Choose something fairly traditional so you’re sure about your key and where the capo goes.
Step One – Sing!
Start with something you can sing. Being able to sing it just means you really know it, so chances are better you’ll be able to figure it out. Something with a single line (only one note sounding at a time) to get used to hearing and finding a melody on the guitar.
Step Two – Make it Short
I’d also recommend starting with something short. Trying to sit down and learn a whole piece or even a whole falseta may feel overwhelming, so pick a manageable chunk to start. Maybe learn one compás at a time, or even one phrase, however short, before moving on to the next thing.
Whatever you do, don’t try to figure out more than you can remember in your mind’s ear at any given moment.
Sometimes you even have to just focus on one note in your listening, and once you get that more things fall into place.
Step Three – Finding Your Notes on the Fretboard
Listen to the highest and lowest notes in the phrase to determine where on the fretboard you should be.
If the highest note is up on the seventh fret of the first string, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll be in a higher position. If you have a lot of melody on the low notes on the sixth string there’s a good chance you’ll be in first position.
Now, through a combination of hunt-and-peck and hearing patterns that sound like ones you know, you’ll start to work out the melody.
Step Four – What About Harmony?
For chords I recommend listening for the root or the lowest note in the chord and then combine using your ears with using your flamenco-sense. In Soleá for instance, you know that F often leads to E, and that longer progressions often start on A minor, so if you’re lost you can try those out and see what happens.
Again, any frustration you experience is just you learning to open up your ears and explore. This will pay off in time, even if you don’t get it perfectly the first time.
Step Five – Slow it Down!
Jazzers, for whom transcription is a way of life, will argue about the benefits or dangers of slowing music down in order to transcribe. My take is that slowing the music down is a great way to get started.
My favorite tool for slowing music down is The Amazing Slow Downer. It’s just a great tool for slowing down and looping. I’m sure there are newer apps for this, but this one has served me well for years.
Once you become more proficient at it it’ll be better for your ears to try learning material without slowing down, but sometimes the process just goes faster because you have a chance to really hear a line when it’s slow. If your goal is to just learn the material then go for it. If you’re working on training your ears then maybe resist the temptation.
Perfect? Not Perfect? It’s Okay – Just Stay in Compás!
When I started transcribing I got a lot of notes wrong. Usually because I just couldn’t hear it right. But I still learned a lot of falsetas this way – probably hundreds!
Not having them 100% right has never actually hurt me in any way. I kept them in compás and if I needed to simplify or if I simply got the notes wrong it was just fine.
I remember one time I had just started taking lessons with Enrique Melchor and I was showing off an Alegrias falseta I had transcribed from one of his records. He started laughing and said that I had done a pretty good job, considering that on the record he played it in D and I was playing it in E!
Reward Yourself With Great Musical Ears
Like everything else, transcribing is a skill that will develop the more you work on it. These days there is enough material online that you probably never have to transcribe anything at all if you don’t want to.
The benefit to your ears and to your musician brain is incalculable. I recommend diving in and bracing for a certain amount of frustration at first. Don’t give up, because soon after it will followed by a pretty amazing sense of accomplishment and a new way of hearing the music you love.