‘Both Sides Now’ – Two Distinct Approaches to the Joni Mitchell Classic

Inspired by a passage in the Saul Bellow novel 'Henderson the Rain King', Joni Mitchell penned what would become one of her most popular songs in 1966.

Inspired by a passage in the Saul Bellow novel Henderson the Rain King, Joni Mitchell penned what would become one of her most popular songs, “Both Sides Now,” in 1966. The tune was a hit for Judy Collins in 1967, and Mitchell first recorded it for herself on her 1969 album, Clouds, and then, with lush orchestration for her 2000 album, Both Sides Now.

The arrangement here is based on the 1969 version from Clouds. Mitchell recorded the song in open-D tuning, with a capo at the fourth fret, which caused it to sound in the key of F# major, unusual for guitar. (In concert, she sometimes used a capo at the fifth fret, moving the sounding key up to G.)


“Both Sides Now” reveals a hallmark of Mitchell’s approach to the guitar. Instead of playing standard-issue open I, IV, and V chords (D, G, and A in the fingered key of D), she uses grips with ringing open strings, not only making the instrument easier to play than with barre chords, but resulting in colorful harmonies. The open low D string (sounding as F#) lends a majestic quality as the strummed chords above it progress.

When the guitarist Randy Scruggs recorded an arrangement of “Both Sides Now” for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1972 collaborative album, Will the Circle be Unbroken, he took an entirely different approach, while staying faithful to the spirit of Mitchell’s song. Scruggs opted for a solo fingerstyle setting, in open-G tuning.

Play the transcription as you would any piece in this context—pick the bass strings with your thumb and the higher strings with your index, middle, and ring fingers. Remember to make sure that the melody, shown in the up-stemmed notes, stands out from the lower voices, and keep Mitchell’s lyrics in mind when you play it.

This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine. For the complete lesson, including musical notation and tablature, pick up a copy at the Acoustic Guitar Store.

Adam Perlmutter
Adam Perlmutter

Adam Perlmutter holds a bachelor of music degree from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and a master's degree in Contemporary Improvisation from the New England Conservatory. He is the editor of Acoustic Guitar.

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