How to Learn Tunes (Without the Real Book)

YouTube video


Hey Guys, quick lesson on learning and playing melodies. This month in the BetterSax Studio we are working on “All of Me”, and I always tell my students to learn melodies by playing along with recordings.

You can learn them from sheet music, there’s nothing wrong with that, but if you want to sound more like the musicians you listen to on the records and less like someone who’s reading the exact same real book lead sheet that everyone else has played for the last 50+ years, then take my advice and learn the melodies by playing along with recordings.

This version is Sonny Stitt playing with Jack McDuff on organ and it’s a great example of how to play a jazz standard melody. Let’s go over some of the reasons why and what you can learn from it.

Transcribing from YouTube

First thing I want to show you though is my method for transcribing stuff off of recordings using YouTube.

Besides having an unimaginably vast library of content, Youtube has some nice tools built in that make transcribing, or learning stuff by ear a lot easier.

  1. Pressing the back arrow will automatically rewind 10 seconds, this is a great way to loop sections of a song to play or listen to them over and over again.
  2. Slowing down the audio without changing the pitch. You can go to 75% speed which won’t distort the sound too much, but if the thing you’re trying to transcribe is really fast, you can also go down to 50% speed.

You can set the playback speed by clicking the gear icon or just press the less than sign on your keyboard.

Diving into the Sonny Stitt recording of “All of Me”

Check out the 8 bar intro Sonny Stitt plays on “All of Me”. In that first 8 bar intro he plays the melody note for note, but adds in some subtle embellishments and a flashy fill at the end.

That fast run, is nothing more than the Bb major scale starting on the third and going up an octave. Sounds impressive, but it’s actually very easy to play. Anybody can do that.

In these next 8 bars, it’s more of the same thing. You’ve got all of the notes of the melody there, but a couple of choice, tasty fills make it more interesting, and individual to the player.

That right there is a classic Sonny Stitt embellishment. The actual melody there is “How can I”, but he embellishes it. Again this sounds impressive but is easy to execute.

Back to the melody with a laid back rhythm and ending the phrase with a very simple melodic fill.

Learn Melodies through Transcribing

If you are new to transcribing, I recommend you try learning some melodies you are already familiar with in this way, choose a recording you like at a slow or medium tempo and learn to play the tune just like it is played on the record.

Transcribing is the single most effective thing you can do to improve your musicianship. Everyone can do it, it is not nearly as difficult as you think it is and you cannot learn to improvise or even phrase melodies effectively without practicing this a fair amount.

Up to there it is pretty much note for note the melody with an embellished melodic rhythm. You don’t need to know how to write that rhythm out, just play it over and over again along with the recording until you can match what you’re hearing.

That phrase is is the first time he departs from the original melody a little bit with a new melodic idea. Then he repeats that idea and turns it into this double time fill. Sounds really impressive right?

Here’s what that line looks like on paper, and it lays really well on the tenor saxophone and with a little practice is a line anyone can learn how to play. Just in those first 2 bars of this transcription there is so much to learn.

BetterSax Studio

The members of the BetterSax Studio are working on learning the melody this way, as well as how to improvise over the chord changes. Each month they get new exercises and assignments designed to optimize the learning process and speed up overall progress.

The best part is when our members record themselves playing the assignments and get a video response from me where I can point out things they need to work on. Getting better at music is a long process that requires consistent practice, but you can accelerate your progress tremendously when you have someone coaching you and pointing out exactly what you need to do next.

So if you enjoy this way of learning and would like to benefit from my teaching and personal constructive feedback just like in a live lesson, I invite you to join the BetterSax Studio. I put a link in the description where you can learn more.

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