Transcribing Songs for Guitar Students

Transcribing Songs for Guitar Students

By Shinta Umezawa

I would like to share with you what’s going through my head when I’m transcribing chord progressions for my guitar students in their lessons.  First thing I do is to figure out what key it’s in.  I play along with the song using single notes, look for notes that sound good and try to figure out which scale sounds the best. Let’s say it’s in the key of C major. What are the seven diatonic triads in that key?  C, Dm, Em, F, G, Am, Bdim. I call them “the usual suspects”. What if the song is in the key of Eb? Then we’ve got Eb, Fm, Gm, Ab, Bb, Cm and Ddim. I listen to the song and try to see which chord sounds good where. From experience I know that the vii chord (diminished triad) most likely won’t be there in a pop or rock song, so I’ll be trying out the other six chords. I am also listening to the structure of the song. It may be one of those songs that has the same 4 or 8 measures of chord progression repeat throughout the song. Those are usually great for beginners but might be boring for some. What strumming patterns would work for this song? Was that a bridge? Are they using the verse progression for the guitar solo? Any key change? All these things and plenty more are going through my head as I listen and figure out the right chords.

Not all songs are completely diatonic, so there may be chords in the progression that are not in the harmonic system of its key. There may be a Bb chord in key of C which might give it that C Mixolydian flavor or C minor pentatonic flavor.  There may be an E chord rather than an Em in the key of C major giving it that A harmonic minor feel.  As I figure out the chord progression, I am thinking about if the song is a good candidate for that particular student to learn. Any barre chords? Is the tempo too fast? Does it swing? While key of C is great one for most beginning music students, it’s not the best for beginning guitar students playing chords since the F chord is a barre chord. That’s the IV chord in key of C and IV chords are very, very, very common in all popular music.  Key of G is great for beginning guitar players since only Bm (iii chord) is a barre chord. Key of D is also not bad since only F#m (iii chord) and Bm (vi chord) are barre chords.

Having the student get a capo will vastly expand the number of possible songs they can learn. If a 10 year-old beginning student comes in wanting to play her favorite song “Roar” by Katy Perry, the chance of her being able to play Bb, Cm, Gm and Eb chords (all barre chords) before she decides that guitar is too hard to play is slim to none. However with the capo on the 3rd fret, she can play the same song with G, Am, Em and C chords (all open chords).  I can’t and don’t avoid barre chords forever but they are really tough for younger students playing acoustic guitars. As long as they are having fun playing songs they like, they will continue to make progress in their playing and eventually will be able to play those barre chords.

With more accomplished students who can play all major and minor barre chords, we transcribe the songs together. We go through the process I described above and discuss if there’s any chords that are not in the harmonic system of that particular key. They may have to use a different scale or alter some notes when they try improvising over some chord progressions that are not completely diatonic. When I learned to play the guitar, there was no internet and free online tabs available. If I liked a song, I had to figure out how to play it by ear. While having the unlimited resources online is extremely beneficial to anyone trying to learn to play the guitar, one can learn a whole lot from trying to figure songs out by ear.

About Shinta Umezawa

Shinta teaches guitar, bass, and ukulele at  Music & Arts in Rancho Cucamonga and Corona, CA. Shinta has a BA degree in Music with Liberal Arts Concentration from Cal State Fullerton where he studied guitar with David Grimes. He has been teaching guitar professionally since 1998. Shinta also has experiences managing music stores/schools at Tustin Music Center and Pacific Conservatory. He is convinced that he has the greatest job in the world!

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