I am learning how to play Children of the Sea by Black Sabbath. A tab that I found on the internet seems pretty accurate and straightforward, though I found the video of this guy playing and I found pretty cool the lick that he added to it (between 1:10 and 1:12).

As he provided no tab, I am trying to figure out what sequence of notes the lick is composed of.

The strategy that I developed so far is:

  1. Find the key that the song is played: based on the chords it appears to me that it is played in the key of Em (potentially D#m, considering the D# standard tuning?)
  2. Play around with the notes of the Em (or it corresponding major scale, which is G - considering that the song is played in the key of Em (not D#m))

I did play around with the notes of the key of G and I did not get quite there. How is my strategy to identify the notes of that lick? Should I also consider the pentatonic scale? It appears that he is potentially using two different shapes of the pentatonic scale

Please note that this is not a general question as for the best approach to transcribe music. Rather it is about a specific tool (scale) to aid in transcribing it

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    It sounds like you're thinking about how to "reverse engineer" a lick, to get inside the guy's head and find the music theory behind the choices he made. That could be a useful exercise, especially for informing your own improvisation, but for practical purposes, it might be easier just to listen and look. You can slow down youtube playback, and you can see which frets he hits clearly. There's a fair bit of bending going on too. Dec 1, 2021 at 18:40
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    Does this answer your question? How to transcribe music by ear? Dec 1, 2021 at 19:29
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    @AndyBonner yes that was kind of my idea, to use scales as a tool to aid 'reverse engineering'. The first thing that I tried indeed was looking at the frets he played. They were not super clear though, I may need to look closer
    – BCArg
    Dec 2, 2021 at 9:42
  • There is very clear video of him playing the lick. Why not look at where he puts his fingers?
    – Yorik
    Dec 2, 2021 at 15:03
  • @Yorik see my answer above
    – BCArg
    Dec 2, 2021 at 15:47

3 Answers 3


I'll attempt an answer that addresses the spirit of the question. You're not simply seeking the most pragmatic way to transcribe, but hoping to understand the music theory and idioms that cause musicians to make the improvisatory choices they do. Even if the end goal is transcription, this is not an unreasonable desire; I can transcribe a simple Mozart phrase more easily if I have the most rudimentary understanding of cadences and know that a IV is probably followed by a V and a I, and I don't have to painstakingly hear every single note in a chord.

Unfortunately, the best way to "reverse engineer" is simply to "forward engineer." The suggestion to "just learn all the scales, then play around with them and see what feels good" doesn't give you the analytical detail you're looking for, but it's a good place to start. Ultimately though, you'll probably benefit by identifying the chord changes (and overall tonality) that the improviser is soloing over. A solo doesn't have to constrain itself to these chords, but if it departs from them, it usually does so by conscious choice.

As mentioned, "find the key of the song" is the first step, but definitely not enough. "Long Distance Runaround" by Yes is overall in E major, but the riff that the instrumental intro is constructed around is in G natural minor (maybe. Plus some funky whole-tone stuff.). You'll also want to identify the actual chords going on at the moment of the lick in question.

Next, while one improv tool is to simply play your way up or down a scale, and while one might choose from multiple such scales (e.g. if the underlying chord is A minor, you might play an A minor, pentatonic, dorian, or blues scale), it can get boring and you might aspire to break into something more interesting. You could of course arpeggiate across chords ("Giant Steps," anyone?), or by mixing up your up-vs-down directions and the size of your leaps, before long you're just constructing a melody.

Since we're reverse-engineering here, listen for notes that "stick out" from the underlying chord. For instance, in the intro to "Heart of the Sunrise" (can you tell I like Yes?), they do simply run up and down an A pentatonic minor scale, but they fill in a few "gaps" chromatically, adding a C# and D#. Any non-chordal tones, bends, blue notes, etc. that "clash" with the underlying chord can point to what structural element they came from or are going to.

And finally, a smart solo-er will keep in mind where they're headed. You don't want to just run out of time and be left hanging at a point that doesn't mean anything. You want to aim for a final chord (maybe there's even a modulation involved!). You might want to wind up in a certain register—do you want to "go out on a high note," with a Dizzy-Gillespie squeal? Did you build up from a low register, but need to get back there to resume the rest of the song?

In the Black Sabbath lick in question, the lick is only a few notes long, and we can hear that it descends. The first thing I notice off the bat is that it covers an octave (seems to start on an A and end on the A an octave below), and to move in a mostly scalar fashion (i.e., it mostly goes down one step at a time, but not entirely, there are some intervallic skips). At that point, I hear the main notes as A G E D C A, which is pentatonic. There are some other squiggles, squeals, and bends going on, but now I have a starting point.

  • that's a very thorough and didactic answer, thanks very much. Still need some time (and more music theory under my belt) to understand 100% of what you wrote, will digest everything over time. Thanks again
    – BCArg
    Dec 20, 2021 at 14:01

The fact of a song being 'in a key' doesn't necessarily pin down the notes and chords in that song. The key and its basic scale is a framework - but ONLY a framework. Other notes and chords will occur.

I suggest you just listen carefully and work it out note by note. If you recognise a familiar scale pattern, good!

Software than slows down, loops a portion etc. of a track will help. I like this one. There are others. Even plain old Windows Media Player allows slowdown.



I played guitar for about 20 years now. When I was learning, I would go through scales, I learnt just about every scale you can imagine, and learnt how to make them fit with pretty much anything playing through my speakers, it's fun being able to just pick up my guitar and improvise along to my favourite tunes. You can work out from there which notes the song is using more easily. If you can hear the note and learn to know how each note sounds on the guitar you can quickly find each note 1 by 1 and piece them together. My favourite learning software back when I was learning was guitar pro. You can hear if the tab is accurate and go through each section and play along to get your rhythm spot on as well as just the notation. Also if you're workign out chords, do it note by note so you can hear the chord being built, that way you won't have an off note by playing just a chord that fits the scale.

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