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Try Transcrbing Leadsheets

There are many things you and I should be doing to improve our music skills. I know what these are, but I often ignore them. Here’s a list of some (not all) of the recommendations given to musicians, particularly guitarists, to improve.

What I should be doing

  1. Learn scales and arpeggios in every position.
  2. Learn all the notes on the fingerboard.
  3. Listen to recorded music.
  4. Learn the chords to tunes.
  5. Learn the melody of tunes.
  6. Transcribe the guitar parts of recorded tunes and learn them.
  7. Practice to a metronome, drum beat, or backing track.
  8. Play in a band.

But many of you have slacked off along the way, as have I. We’ve done all of the above but incompletely and are thus still deficient in many areas.

One of the shortcuts most of us have tried is to find complete transcriptions of our favorite tunes as performed on recordings. These could be tabs downloaded from the internet or from purchased books. I have a large collection of books with accurate transcriptions of popular tunes. But, honestly, learning the complete tablature to a tune teaches me some things but can be a crutch that ignores other important lessons.

So here is a suggestion, though it is only a halfway measure and not as good as my first list. Still, this teaches or reinforces certain concepts you might not get from only studying someone else’s transcription.

Try this

  1. Find leadsheets of tunes you want to practice. I have multiple volumes from the RealBook series as well as other fakebooks. But you can find leadsheets online as well.
  2. Transcribe the music into tablature. I like Guitar Pro, which allows you to enter the tablature from the keyboard or use a virtual fingerboard. Other music and tablature editing programs can be used as well.
  3. Listen to the playback of just the melody line while learning it.
Transcribing music from leadsheets to Guitar Pro with a virtual fretboard.


  1. Entering notes on a virtual fingerboard helps you learn the notes on the guitar neck.
  2. Transcribing from standard music notation to tab helps you read music. Maybe you don’t want to read standard notation, but it is a good skill. Give it a try.
  3. Learning the straight melody without chord melodies, chords, fills, or other ornamentation gives you an understanding of scale and arpeggio relationships that might be obscured in a more complex arrangement.
  4. Listening to the playback of the melody can also help you get a feel for the tune.

As a man in his 70s, among my problems from aging is hearing loss. It sucks. I can’t hear notes as clearly as when I was young. Transcribing just the melody and playing it back without drums, bass, keyboard, and so on makes it easier for me to hear the melody line.

Another problem with tab arrangements is it is easy to get locked down into playing a riff or tune exactly as transcribed. But to improve my playing, I want to learn most pieces in multiple playing positions. I want to practice both from a single scale position when possible and from chord and arpeggio positions that match the changes. But I find that I often default to playing a tab arrangement exactly as written, even though other positions might actually be better.

An obvious alternative to transcribing leadsheets is to learn to read music and play from the leadsheet. But that doesn’t solve the problem of wanting to hear how the tune sounds. Listening to recorded music, I often find I can’t tell what certain notes are being played because of my hearing loss, but also because the guitar part is hidden within the band.


Online notation apps

The following online apps have free and subscription plans. They can create guitar tabs and standard music notation. Other than browsing their websites, I have no experience with any of these, but they look interesting. The number of scores you can create on the free versions is limited.

Tab and Standard Notation

ABC Notation

ABC notation is a text-based method of encoding music. Free software is available for your computer or online. The following two are online editors. ABC is primitive compared to other programs but is, in fact, quite useful. However, if the point is to help learn all the notes on the guitar neck, this won’t help. There is no virtual fretboard. The music is all text. I last wrote about ABC in August of 2010. I just wrote a new post explaining ABC.

Free notation software

Note that my computer is a Mac. Most of these are cross-platform, and some include support for Linux. But I only know the Mac version.

  • MuseScore – Tab and Standard Notation. I find it challenging to use, but it can do standard notation and tab and has advanced features.
  • EasyABC download | – ABC notation with export to other formats. Because it can export tunes as MusicXML or Midi, the tunes you create can be imported into most tab editors.
  • TuxGuitar download | – Intended for guitar tab. Once was a great app. I no longer use it because it was buggy the last time I tried. Some users report it works fine now, but others still complain.
  • Visual Studio Code– This plain text editor is intended for coding software. But extensions can be added, including several for writing and displaying ABC code (try the ABCjs extension). There are also extensions for Lilypond, which is another notation program but geared to printing beautiful scores rather than as a practice tool.

Commercial Products (I own)

The following are both designed as tablature editors but can also create standard notation and tablature for other stringed instruments. I recommend Guitar Pro and have used it since GP2 on a Windows computer. I’ve used TablEdit as long as Guitar Pro, but it is not my first choice for a commercial product.

I am NOT an affiliate for either of these and do not get paid for recommending them.

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