Here's a classic (Hey, 2011 is classic, right?) blog post by Matt Scharfglass, a multi-instrumentalist, professional musician and former music editor at Guitar World. It's the result of our having innocently asked him, "What's the most difficult song you've ever transcribed?" P.S.: You can find more vintage Scharfglass columns under RELATED ARTICLES below.
I’m often asked what’s the hardest song I’ve ever transcribed. The answer is not an offering by Yngwie Malmsteen, Dream Theater or Buckethead. It’s “Mrs. Potter's Lullaby” by Counting Crows, a song from 1999's This Desert Life.
Let me begin by saying that there's only a handful of bands/artists I actively dislike. My tastes are pretty eclectic and run the gamut from dissonant/atonal/harsh/obscure to the most syrupy, accessible pop. Even if something doesn’t move me, or if I simply don’t like it, I can still understand why other people might, and I’ll appreciate it for what it is.
In the first draft of this blog entry, right here was where I listed the many reasons I can’t deal with [Counting Crows frontman] Adam Duritz. But after a good night’s sleep and some cookies, I now feel comfortable with making column this less about Duritz and more about “Mrs. Potter.” I have therefore decided to take the high road.
The playing, as you might have assumed, is not difficult. But the production is stacked. There are four guitar tracks using three different tunings—and one has a capo—so each guitar part needs to be written out separately (meaning no arranging two similar parts for one guitar). And the parts are through-arranged, meaning no one ever plays the same thing from one verse/chorus to the next—read: minimal repeats and rhythm figures; almost every note from beginning to end must be written out.
Wherever the capoed part appears, I have to write out two rows of harmonic analysis (chord symbols)—one for the capoed key, one for concert key. And finally, writing out every single note from beginning to end is fine and dandy, as long as you can dig them out from under the layers of piano and organ that also are on the track.
Add to this the fact that there are, like, 92 verses, sung in Duritz’ verbose, self-impressed warble (dammit, I said I was gonna take the high road—sorry), the vocal lines for which, by the way, also need to be painstakingly written out.
Mind you, I’m not blaming Duritz’s band. From what I can tell, they are all capable musicians who are simply following orders. I'm not knocking the playing or the band’s collective musicianship. But this thing where Duritz thinks he’s Bob Dylan? No comment.
Final page count: 27. For one song.
After sending it in, I remember informing the editor at Hal Leonard that I needed to take a few days.
Matt Scharfglass has worked in countless theater pits and plays guitar up in the organ booth to crowds of 18,000 at New York Rangers home games. Matt has had more than 600 of his transcriptions appear in Guitar World and in books by Warner Brothers, Music Sales and Hal Leonard. He has authored more than a dozen bass and guitar instructional books, including the "You Can Do It...Play Bass!" and "…Play Guitar!" series.