10 Ways to Become the MacGyver of Transcribing

You may have heard that transcribing is one of the best ways to get better at music. It’s like immersing yourself in a foreign country to learn the language. Unfortunately, many musicians avoid transcribing because it can be arduous, and the benefits don’t usually manifest until many months after the work is done.

Fear not! These ten MacGyver-esque transcribing hacks will help novice and advanced musicians alike become expert transcribers who actually enjoy the process. No toothpicks or chewing gum required!

  1. Use TuneTranscriber.com. It’s the MacGyver hack of transcribing YouTube videos. TuneTranscriber makes it easy to loop sections, stop, start, and pause at specific points, and even adjust the speed of the recording — if you’re into that sort of thing.

  2. Use the beat mapping tool in your DAW. This process takes more knowhow than Tune Transcriber and is more MacGyver the mad scientist than MacGyver the handyman, but lining up a recording with the tempo grid in your DAW session is the easiest and cleanest way to make loops and play along with the music you’re transcribing. I’ll make a video about how to do this in Logic Pro X soon.

  3. Don’t get frustrated if you’re having trouble memorizing the solo you’re trying to transcribe. Remember that MacGyver keeps his cool, and you should too. Know that it can take a few days of working on the same bit of music before it comes to mind organically. Patience is key!

  4. If MacGyver were a musician, he would have probably run into a situation or two where it made more sense to transcribe a line backwards rather than forwards. Sometimes you just have to skip a few notes and work in reverse to close the gap.

  5. MacGyver was a hands-on kinda guy to say the least. What’s my point? Don’t just listen to and play the solos you’re transcribing from afar. Get your jazz hands dirty and actually be able to play along at tempo with the same phrasing as what’s on the record.

  6. If MacGyver were trapped in a barn and needed to transcribe a set of chord changes to diffuse a bomb, he’d probably first listen for the bass notes to figure out the roots of the chords and then direct his attention to the piano or guitar to determine the quality of the chords.

  7. MacGyver avoided the use of violence to solve his problems just like you should avoid the use of sheet music in lieu of memorizing a transcription. That said, it can be valuable to write down a solo after you have it committed to memory. Notating music helps with your understanding of rhythm, and having the pitches in front of you makes doing a theoretical analysis much easier.

  8. MacGyver's most used tool was his Swiss Army Knife. When it comes to transcribing, your most used tool should be your ears, not your fingers. Try to avoid the note guessing game, and instead use your ears to figure out the pitches — before your hands even touch your instrument.

  9. Did you know MacGyver got his bachelor’s degree in physics and chemistry? If you’re into transcribing and thinking of getting a degree in music, grow a mullet and stick with STEM! ;)

  10. Okay, I just listened to the MacGyver theme song, and it’s incredibly cheesy, BUT there is an instance of tritone substitution on the way to the IV chord. Can you hear it?

Listen, at the end of the day, the best way to get better at transcribing is just to do it a lot. I promise it gets easier and more enjoyable with time. And remember, there’s a reason this practice has been so ingrained in the tradition for hundreds of years. So go find a record that you like — one that’s not too hard, and start singing what you hear and playing what you sing. Go! DO IT NOW! Yes, I know that’s an Arnold reference, not MacGyver. I’ll leave you with this instead: "A good relationship is a lot like a car. If you want it to work smoothly, you gotta put a lot of work into it, and have the right tools."

Jeff SchneiderComment