How To Transcribe Bluegrass Breaks, Part 1

How To Transcribe Bluegrass Breaks, Part 1

Picture of Marcel Ardans

Marcel Ardans

For roughly the last six months I’ve been releasing a transcribing video every month. Between lessons I take a spare hour to turn the camera on, search through my YouTube comments for a reasonable suggestion, and film myself talking through my process. Hopefully not getting too many things wrong, like in my Trey Hensley video. If you’re not familiar with those videos, the latest installment was Tony Rice’s On And On break. Or you can just binge watch the series up to this point!

The process that you see in those videos is my real life process, it might be hard to see sometimes because I appear to be moving pretty quickly though. Remember, I’m editing out all of the dead air from 45 minutes of transcription and the results are 10-15 minutes of content. No one wants to see me zone out and stare at the wall humming to myself for 5 minutes in the middle of a video.

I get so many people who are curious about my process, that I thought I could break down the specifics here and answer questions like how do I get started? What software do I use? How do I notate rhythm? Etc.

Find The Key

This first step is critical, it is very easy to mess this up and have to redo your work. But Marcel, I think I would notice if I was in the wrong key! Totally, but it’s not just about being in the right key, your capo has to be in the right place and you have to be using the right shapes.

Turn on the recording of a bluegrass song you’d like to transcribe and check up and down your low E string until you can find the root note, identify that note, that’s what key you’re in. Hypothetically, let’s say you were listening to Church Street Blues and you couldn’t watch a ideo of Tony Rice playing it. You would find the root note at 11th fret of your low E string. That would mean we’re in the key of Eb. Go ahead, try it yourself.

Remember, bluegrass musicians don’t like to capo above the 5th fret if they can help it. Having that much of your instrument hidden below a capo is not ideal. Bluegrass musicians also favor playing things with G shapes, C shapes, and D shapes. Those two clues lead us to this chart.

Tony Rice was playing Church Street Blues in Eb, that means he’s either playing with C shapes capo 3rd fret or D shapes capo 1st fret. That’s a lot of information we just knocked out of the way immediately.

Find The Chords

Bluegrass musicians generally try to tailor their lines to fit over the chord changes. That means knowing the chord progression is essential. We’d be looking for notes to transcribe in the dark if we didn’t know the chord progression first.

The good news is that most bluegrass songs revolve around three chords: 1, 4, and 5. Let’s take a look at those in the most common shapes.

If you have already learned a number of bluegrass tunes you’re likely familiar with some of the cliches of the genre. For instance, many songs rely on a chord progression like: |1   |4 |1 |5 | (Little Girl Of Mine In Tennessee) or a chord progression like this: |1 |4 |5 |1 | (Blue Ridge Cabin Home). Being familiar with the cliches will help greatly but just like finding the root note on the low E string, if you’re just starting out be bold with your guesses and don’t get discouraged. This chart exsists for you to start making more educated guesses!

Theory Note For The Nerds: You may notice that the 7th chord is written as a flat 7. The naturally occuring 7th chord is a diminished chord and we don’t see that very often (functionally it kind of does the same thing as a dominant 5 chord so it would be redundant to include). Instead I’ve included the flat 7 chord which you might recognize from fiddle tunes like Big Mon, Salt Creek, and Red Haired Boy. Many bluegrass musicians casually refer to this “flat 7 chord” as the “7 chord” even though that is technically a little misleading.

Using what you now know, see if you can find the key and the chords for this Tony Rice recording.

In part two, we’ll cover getting into a break and transcribing the fun stuff. Trust me, you’ll be glad you got this under your belt first!


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