At the heart of the music of Joni Mitchell is a constant sense of surprise and discovery. The melodies and harmonies rarely unfold in ways that our ears, tamed by pop-music conventions, have come to expect. Her guitar doesn’t really sound like a guitar: The treble strings become a cool-jazz horn section; the bass snaps out syncopations like a snare drum; the notes ring out in clusters that simply don’t come out of a normal six-string. And her voice adds another layer of invention, extending the harmonic implications of the chords and coloring the melody with plainspoken commentary as well as charged poetic imagery.
Even though all these qualities have made Mitchell one of the most revered songwriters of our time, an inspiration for several generations of musicians, the creative processes and impulses behind her music have always been clouded in mystery. A guitarist haunted by Mitchell’s playing on an album like Court and Spark or Hejira, for instance, can’t find much help in the music store in exploring that sound; what she plays, from the way she tunes her strings to the way she strokes them with her right hand, is utterly off the chart of how most of us approach the guitar. The only published documentation of her 30-year guitar odyssey is four single-album songbooks transcribed by Joel Bernstein, her longtime guitar tech and musical/photographic archivist, which show the real tunings and chord shapes. But that’s a very small slice of a career that spans 17 albums, each one a departure—often a radical one—from what came before. Remarkably, Mitchell herself relies on Bernstein’s encyclopedic knowledge of her work—because she has forged ahead with new tunings throughout her career and rarely plays her past repertoire, Bernstein has at several junctures helped her relearn some of her older songs.
In the wake of her 1996 Grammy for Best Pop Album for Turbulent Indigo, which marked the stunning return of her acoustic guitar to center stage, Joni Mitchell met with me in Los Angeles to offer a rare, in-depth view into her craft as a guitarist and composer.
“There’s a certain kind of restlessness that not many artists are cursed or blessed with, depending on how you look at it,” Mitchell said. “Craving change, craving growth, seeing always room for improvement in your work.” In that statement lies the key to her music: seeing it as an ongoing process of invention, rather than a series of discrete and final statements.
Joni Mitchell began playing the guitar like countless young musicians of the ’60s, but she quickly turned onto a less-traveled path. “When I was learning to play guitar, I got Pete Seeger’s The Folksinger’s Guitar Guide” she recalled. “I went straight to the Cotten picking. Your thumb went from [imitates alternating-bass sound] the sixth string, fifth string, sixth string, fifth string… I couldn’t do that, so I ended up playing mostly the sixth string, but banging it into the fifth string. So Elizabeth Cotten definitely is an influence; it’s me not being able to play like her. If I could have I would have, but it’s a good thing I couldn’t, because it came out original.”
At the same time that she departed from standard folk fingerpicking, Mitchell departed from standard tuning as well (only two of her songs—“Tin Angel” and “Urge for Going”—are in standard tuning). “In the beginning, I built the repertoire of the open major tunings that the old blues guys came up with,” she said. “It was only three or four. The simplest one is D modal [D A D G B D]; Neil Young uses that a lot. And then open G [D G D G B D], with the fifth string removed, which is all Keith Richards plays in. And open D [D A D F# A D]. Then going between them I started to get more ‘modern’ chords, for lack of a better word.” As she began to write songs in the mid-’60s, these tunings became inextricably tied to her composing.
On Mitchell’s first three albums, Joni Mitchell (1968), Clouds (1969), and Ladies of the Canyon (1970), conventional open tunings coexist with other tunings that stake out some new territory. “Both Sides, Now” (capo II) and “Big Yellow Taxi,” for instance, are in open E (E B E G# B E—the same as open D but a whole step higher); and “The Circle Game” (capo IV) and “Marcie” are in open G. But it was more adventurous tunings, like C G D F C E (“Sisotowbell Lane”), with its complex chords created by simple fingerings, that enthralled her and became the foundation of her music from the early ’70s on.
“Pure majors are like major colors; they evoke pure well-being,” she said. “Anybody’s life at this time has pure majors in it, given, but there’s an element of tragedy. No matter what your disposition is, we are air breathers, and the rain forests coming down at the rate they are… there’s just so much insanity afoot. We live in a dissonant world. Hawaiian [music], in the pure major—in paradise, that makes sense. But it doesn’t make sense to make music in such a dissonant world that does not contain some dissonances.”
The word dissonances seems to imply harsh or jarring sounds, but in fact the “modern chords” that Mitchell found in alternate tunings have an overall softness to them, with consonances and dissonances gently playing off each other. It’s difficult to put a label on these sounds, but Mitchell is emphatic about one thing: They’re a long way from folk music. “It’s closer to Debussy and to classical composition, and it has its own harmonic movement which doesn’t belong to any camp,” she said. “It’s not jazz, like people like to think. It has in common with jazz that the harmony is very wide, but there are laws to jazz chordal movement, and this is outside those laws for the most part.”
So how does Mitchell discover the tunings and fingerings that create these expansive harmonies? Here’s how she described the process: “You’re twiddling and you find the tuning. Now the left hand has to learn where the chords are, because it’s a whole new ballpark, right? So you’re groping around, looking for where the chords are, using very simple shapes. Put it in a tuning and you’ve got four chords immediately—open, barre five, barre seven, and you higher octave, like half fingering on the 12th. Then you’ve got to find where the interesting colors are—that’s the exciting part.
“Sometimes I’ll tune to some piece of music and find [an open tuning] that way, sometimes I just find one going from one to another, and sometimes I’ll tune to the environment. Like ‘The Magdalene Laundries’ [from Turbulent Indigo; the tuning is B F# B E A E]: I tuned to the day in a certain place, taking the pitch of birdsongs and the general frequency sitting on a rock in that landscape.”
Mitchell likens her use of continually changing tunings to sitting down at a typewriter on which the letters are rearranged each day. It’s inevitable that you get lost and type some gibberish, and those mistakes are actually the main reason to use this system in the first place. “If you’re only working off what you know, then you can’t grow,” she said. “It’s only through error that discovery is made, and in order to discover you have to set up some sort of situation with a random element—a strange attractor, using contemporary physics terms. The more I can surprise myself, the more I’ll stay in this business, and the twiddling of the notes is one way to keep the pilgrimage going. You’re constantly pulling the rug out from under yourself, so you don’t get a chance to settle into any kind of formula.”
To date, Mitchell said that she has used 51 tunings. This number is so extraordinarily high in part because her tunings have lowered steadily over the years, so some tunings recur at several pitches. Generally speaking, her tunings started at a base of open E and dropped to D and then to C, and these days some even plummet to B or A in the bass. This evolution reflects the steady lowering of her voice since the ’60s, a likely consequence of heavy smoking.
When Mitchell performs an older song today, she typically uses a lowered version of the original tuning. “Big Yellow Taxi,” originally in open E, is now played in a low version of open C (C G C E G C, which is the same as open E dropped two whole steps). She recorded “Cherokee Louise” on Night Ride Home with the tuning D A E F# A D; when she performed it on the Canadian TV show Much Music last year, she played it in C G D E G C—a whole step lower. (This C tuning, also used for “Night Ride Home,” is her current favorite, according to Joel Bernstein.)
In some cases, the same relative tuning pops up in different registers for different songs: “Cool Water” (Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm) and “Slouching towards Bethlehem” (Night Ride Home) are in D A E G A D; a half step down,
C# G# D# F# G# C#, is the tuning for “My Secret Place” (Chalk Mark); and a whole step below that, B F# C# E F# B, is the tuning for “Hejira.”
These connections allow Mitchell, in some cases, to carry fingerings from one tuning to another and find a measure of consistency, but each tuning has its own little universe of sounds and possibilities. “You never really can begin to learn the neck like a standard player, linearly and orderly,” she said. “You have to think in a different way, in moving blocks. Within the context of moving blocks, there are certain things that you’ll try from tuning to tuning that will apply.”
An interesting tuning can be fertile ground for writing a song—as a whole pile of new-age guitar CDs amply illustrate—it’s how you work the tuning with your hands and compositional sense that counts. Throughout her music, Mitchell makes the most of the freedom that open tunings allow in traveling around the neck. One of her stylistic signatures is the way she juxtaposes notes fretted high on the neck against ringing open strings. This is a great way to extend the range of the accompaniment, as you can hear on songs like “Chelsea Morning” (Clouds, open E), in which she plays a riff up high on the top two strings that dances over the open bass strings, followed by a fretted bass part that moves below the open treble strings.
In Mitchell’s later songs, with their more radical tunings, the ringing open strings take on a different sort of drone quality—she uses them between chords as a sort of connecting thread in the harmony. “It’s like a wash,” she said. “In painting, if I start a canvas now, to get rid of the vertigo of the blank page, I cover the whole thing in olive green, then start working the color into it. So every color is permeated with that green. It doesn’t really green the colors out but it antiques them, burnishes them. The drones kind of burnish the chord in the same way. That color remains as a wash. These other colors then drop in, but always against that wash.”
Upper melodies, moving bass lines, drone strings—all these components of Mitchell’s guitar style are rooted in her conception of the guitar as a multivoiced instrument. “When I’m playing the guitar,” she said, “I hear it as an orchestra: the top three strings being my horn section, the bottom three being cello, viola, and bass—the bass being indicated but not rooted.”
This article originally appeared in the August 1996 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine and was reprinted in the September/October 2020 issue.
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