From the February 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar | BY JEFFREY PEPPER RODGERS
The first and last time Joni Mitchell tried to learn guitar in a conventional way, she was just starting to play—swept up in the folk revival of the early ’60s—and picked up a Pete Seeger instructional record.
“I went straight to the Cotten picking,” she told me in an Acoustic Guitar interview back in 1996. “Your thumb went from 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.”
Fortunately for all of us, what Mitchell accomplished on guitar, instead of copping Cotten’s fingerpicking style, was something far more significant: She learned to play like herself—and no one else. Using an ever-changing array of alternate tunings to generate unusual harmonies, and a unique harp-like picking style, Mitchell reinvented the guitar as a vehicle for accompaniment and songwriting. The evolution of her guitar style is inseparable from her journey as one of the defining singer-songwriters of her generation.
In the past, trying to decipher how Mitchell created those lush guitar sounds on seminal albums like Court and Spark or Hejira involved some real detective work, but nowadays her guitar work is much better documented. The official Mitchell website offers an exhaustive library of transcriptions, many YouTube lessons are available, and after decades in development, the Joni Mitchell Complete So Far . . . guitar songbook (with tunings and shapes for 167 songs, and my 1996 AG cover story as the foreword) was finally published in 2014.
Even with all these resources, it is easy to become dazed and confused while exploring Mitchell’s world of guitar—as I was just reminded when I picked up a guitar I’d left in the tuning Bb F Db Eb Ab C (used in “Last Chance Lost” from Turbulent Indigo) and felt like I’d stepped into the Twilight Zone. The best way to study her style is step by step, progressing from the more folk-rooted songs of her first few albums to her later, jazzier music, and that’s the aim of this lesson. For additional guidance, I reached out to Howard Wright, Sue Tierney, and Dave Blackburn—three Mitchell guitar obsessives who’ve contributed to the guitar sections of jonimitchell.com—as well as singer-songwriter Eric Andersen, who helped Mitchell get started on the open-tuning path.
Mitchell released her last studio album, Shine, in 2007, and has been mostly out of the public eye for the last decade, especially since suffering a brain aneurysm in 2015. She turned 75 in November, an event celebrated at a gala concert in Los Angeles with performances by Graham Nash, James Taylor, Chaka Khan, Emmylou Harris, Norah Jones, Los Lobos, and many more. So this is an apt time to explore the legacy of a pioneering guitarist whose music is a wellspring of ideas for going beyond standard approaches to the instrument.
Tunings by Number
To wrap your head around Mitchell’s tunings, it’s helpful to understand her own system (by way of her guitar archivist, Joel Bernstein) for tracking tunings: Name the pitch of the lowest string and then, for the others, the fret number that equals the pitch of the next string. Standard tuning, by this system, is E 5 5 5 4 5: from the low E string to the A string is five frets; from the A string to the D string is five frets; and so on. Open D (D A D F# A D) is D 7 5 4 3 5. This number system is not only handy for getting in tune string by string but shows how the same relative tunings recur at different pitches. Mitchell’s tunings lowered over the years along with her voice, so while she started off with open E or open D, for instance, later she favored open C or even open B—all with the same intervals between strings (bass note and then 7 5 4 3 5). Many of her tunings use 7 7 or 7 5 on the low end, with varied intervals on top. You can see how these tuning families work in the well-designed database on jonimitchell.com, and in the tuning tables in the Complete So Far songbook.
Strumming in Open D
Almost right out of the gate as a guitarist and songwriter, Mitchell started using alternate tunings; one likely reason she went in this direction, according to David Yaffe’s recent biography Reckless Daughter, is that tuning to an open chord made playing easier on her hands, weakened by childhood polio. Only a couple of her very early songs (“The Urge for Going,” “Tin Angel”) and one late one (“Harlem in Havana”) are in standard tuning.
Mitchell’s tuning odyssey began in the mid-’60s, when she was living in Detroit and performing as a duo with her then-husband, Chuck Mitchell. One fateful night, Joni went to the local folk club Chessmate to hear Eric Andersen, who’d gotten into open tunings from slide players like Muddy Waters and Mississippi Fred McDowell.
“She hated playing guitar in standard tuning,” Andersen recalls. “Standard tuning could be difficult—think learning and playing the F barre chord—and, in her case, boring, missing many musical regions she had in mind. In my show in Detroit I was playing in E, D, and G tunings. Afterwards we went to her lovely home. She was curious about these tunings, so I showed her. From there, the rest was history.”
A good entry point into Mitchell’s style is open D (D A D F# A D), as heard on some of her most covered songs, such as “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Both Sides Now.” She also strummed these songs, so the picking-hand technique is straightforward compared with what came later.
In the Complete So Far songbook, “Big Yellow Taxi” and “Both Sides Now,” along with other songs from her early albums, are shown as open E (E B E G# B E), which is the same as open D up a whole step. Since open E involves raising strings 5, 4, and 3 higher than standard, which could be inadvisable depending on the guitar and string gauge, I use open D and capo up to match the original keys.
In Example 1, strum through a progression based on “Conversation,” from Ladies of the Canyon, using open D with a capo at the fourth fret. As in most Mitchell songs, there are only a few repeating shapes and lots of ringing open strings. (You’ll see some of the same shapes at work in the full transcription of “Both Sides Now,” included in the February 2019 print edition.) For the F and E chords, use a one-finger barre at the third and second frets, respectively.
One of the beauties of open tunings is how they facilitate playing fretted notes high up the neck over open bass strings, widening the range of the instrument. Mitchell took advantage of this sound early on in “Chelsea Morning,” another open D (or open E) strummer. In Example 2, based on the verse, start way up at the tenth and 12th frets (above the capo) on the high strings, then shift down the neck to play a one-finger A barre chord at the fifth fret. As in Example 1, play open strings between chord shapes. Example 3 shows a sweet passage based on the refrain (“Oh, won’t you stay/ We’ll put on the day . . .”), where the descending bass line adds a touch of bluesiness to an otherwise bright, major-sounding progression.
Even as Mitchell ventured into more radical tunings, she continued to come back to open D in songs such as “People’s Parties” and “Amelia” (down a step from open D to open C: C G C E G C).
Fingerpicking in Open G
In her early songs, Mitchell also made use of the other common open tuning she learned from Andersen, open G (D G D G B D).
One open-G classic is “The Circle Game,” which had already been covered by Ian and Sylvia, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Tom Rush before Mitchell released her own version on Ladies of the Canyon in 1970. As you can see in Example 4, based on the chorus, the shapes are simple but the fingerpicking pattern is a little tricky: It follows a syncopated 1-2-3/1-2-3/1-2 rhythm, with bass notes on each 1. Sue Tierney refers to the precise picking on songs like this as Mitchell’s “music box fingerstyle.” Practice the pattern just on the open G, as in measure 1, slowly at first. You may notice that the upper notes of the fingerpicking part hint at the melody; Mitchell’s vocal and guitar are always closely intertwined.
If you want to venture further in learning “The Circle Game,” be aware that she actually reached over the bass side of the fretboard with her index finger for two barre shapes, as shown in Example 5. This is reminiscent of the thumb fretting technique of her contemporary Richie Havens, in his case using open-D tuning.
For additional practice with open-G fingerpicking, play Example 6, based on “Little Green.” In conjunction with the open tuning, the simple fingerings create some nice extended harmonies.
Tuning in and Finding Shapes
Especially starting with For the Roses (1972), Mitchell went off the charts in terms of tunings and picking technique.
Some songs on For the Roses use variations on open D (like “Barangrill,” in the D7 tuning D A C F# A D) or open G (like “For the Roses,” G G D G B D, with the sixth string an octave below the fifth). She used open G with the sixth string down to C on “Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire.” In Example 7, shift from a bluesy bass riff to lush chords fretted on the middle strings and surrounded by open strings.
On For the Roses, a sign of things to come is “Woman of Heart and Mind,” played in B F# C# E B D#—that’s a B major chord with the 9th and 11th added. Try it in Example 8, which for simplicity’s sake uses this tuning a half step higher (C G D F C E). Fretting the middle strings up the neck creates some gorgeous sounds. Another Mitchell guitar gem in this tuning (the C version), and using similar shapes, is “Just Like This Train” from Court and Spark. Over time, Mitchell favored tunings like this that easily generate rich harmonies such as suspended, 6th, 7th, 9th, and 13th chord voicings.
For all the fanciness of the chord names, the shapes Mitchell used throughout her songs are remarkably simple and consistent—one-finger barres and a few recurring shapes like the one used for Fadd9 and D9 in Ex. 8. (For the record, though the chord grids show using four fingers for this shape, Mitchell herself often used her thumb to fret the sixth string.) The harmonic complexity is under the hood of the tunings, not from the fingerings. Here’s how Mitchell described her approach to chord shapes: “Put it in a tuning and you’ve got three chords immediately—open, barre five, barre seven, and your higher octave, like half-fingering on the 12th,” she said. “Then you’ve got to find where your minors are and where the interesting colors are—that’s the exciting part.”
Though she used simple shapes overall, Mitchell rarely strummed them as block chords. She described the guitar as a mini orchestra, with the top strings as her horn section and the bottom three as cello and viola (and on albums like Court and Spark, she made these conceptions literal by doubling some of her horn-style guitar lines with actual horns and woodwinds). In many songs she used partial chords and played harmonized melodies on pairs of strings. You can hear this effect in Example 9, based on “Refuge of the Roads” (from Hejira, in the tuning C A C F A C). Play a melodic riff on the treble strings on top of one-finger barres at the seventh and fifth frets.
Gearing Up for Tuning Down
A deep dive into Mitchell’s tunings can be disorienting not only for your fingers but for your guitar. Just ask Dave Blackburn, who with his wife, Robin Adler, has performed six entire Mitchell albums, from Blue to Mingus. “What really doesn’t work is tuning and retuning one guitar from song to song as she valiantly did, without a tuner, in the early club days,” he says. “The neck hates the tension changes, and the strings chafe against the nut and saddle and break often, even when tuning lower. What works for me is to set up a few guitars with appropriate string gauges and leave them that way for days or weeks.” For Mitchell tunings in which the bass strings go way down while the trebles are fairly close to standard, you may be well served with a string set like D’Addario’s EJ19, with medium-gauge bass strings and lights on top. For tunings that are low across the board, Blackburn recommends setting up an inexpensive baritone acoustic, such as the Alvarez ABT60, with custom gauges that are matched as closely as possible to their intended pitches.
“So, for example, for songs that are in the C G D E G C tuning, I’ll put a .059 or .065 on the bottom, an A string dropped to G for the fifth, a regular D on the fourth, a very light D tuned up to E for the third, a wound G for the second, and a B string tuned up to C for the first,” he says. “It intonates perfectly, as all the strings are close to their normal tension, and the scale of the baritone helps the deep strings resonate.”
One of the most challenging aspects of Mitchell’s guitar style to emulate is the picking-hand technique that she favored from the mid-’70s onward—a blend of fingerstyle picking and strumming often described as a brush stroke. In Howard Wright’s words, “Much of the time, she uses only her thumb for the lowest strings, with two or three fingers working together to strum partial chords on the other strings (with upstrokes), and individual fingers sometimes picking out phrases and melodic lines.” Maintaining nails that extend beyond the fingertips, he adds, is essential for getting a clear tone on the upstrokes.
In addition to covering the low end, the thumb provides percussion with light slaps on the bass strings. As Mitchell put it, “A lot of my style is raking the chords and slapping it so that the bass string is almost more of a snare drum. It’s sometimes quite atonal.”
If you watch live videos of Mitchell—highly recommended to get a handle on this aspect of her style—notice the graceful, undulating motion of her right hand. “She has long, slender hands,” says Dave Blackburn, “and she was able to drape them over the strings in a wonderfully relaxed way, with her picking direction very perpendicular to the strings using a perfect wrist arc.”
Practice Mitchell’s picking style in Example 10, based on her lesser-known gem “Night Ride Home,” in the Cadd9 tuning C G D E G C. Pick bass notes with your thumb and upstrokes on the treble strings with your fingers, and drop your thumb gently onto the bass strings for a light slap, mostly on beat 2—an effect like a tap on the hi-hat. For inspiration, check YouTube for Mitchell’s gorgeous solo rendition of “Night Ride Home” taped for Dutch national TV in 1988.
Try a similar groove in Example 11, going back and forth between two chord shapes used in “The Magdalene Laundries,” the haunting track from Turbulent Indigo. The tuning B F# B E A E, used on no other Mitchell song, has a huge range, with the sixth string plunging to B and the first at the standard E. Note that this song is not in the key of B, as you might expect, but in A; the I chord is rooted at the tenth fret of the sixth string. In terms of percussion, the main thumb slap is again on beat 2, though throughout her songs Mitchell freely adds syncopated accents, like a jazz drummer.
In considering her rhythmic sense, it’s interesting to check out what happened when Mitchell revisited “Big Yellow Taxi” in 2007 for the album Shine. Gone was the straight-up folk-rock strumming of the original. Instead she played a syncopated groove similar to Example 12, actually using a keyboard to simulate a strummed acoustic guitar. You may find, as I did, that using your fingers, rather than a pick, makes it easier to approximate the sound.
Two Guitars Are Better than One
If you spend time trying to learn Mitchell’s precise guitar parts off the records, you’ll soon discover one complication: Often there are two or more guitars playing similar but not exactly the same parts. Even early songs like “The Circle Game” have double-tracked guitars. The effect was particularly pronounced on Hejira, where the guitar parts were looser. On a song like “Hejira,” says Howard Wright, “the way the doubled guitars create accidental—or perhaps deliberate—small variations, there’s a beautiful blurring and softening effect.” Mitchell carried the multitracking approach to its extreme on Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm, overlaying 20-some guitar tracks in songs like “My Secret Place.”
Since it isn’t possible to recreate the multitracked sound precisely using one guitar, once you get the shapes down, focus on the overall feel rather than following an exact pattern. That’s true to the way Mitchell did it, too.
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On the Path
Mitchell’s approach to guitar no doubt has inspired many players to turn those tuners and search for new ideas by getting lost in alternate tunings. Some contemporary guitarist/songwriters come across as highly influenced by Mitchell—the talented young artist Madison Cunningham is one example I recently encountered. But Mitchell’s whole style is so unusual that you’d be hard-pressed to find a true soundalike guitarist. Sue Tierney sees Mitchell in this regard as an outlier: “The only other person I would put in this category,” she says, “is Michael Hedges, who took the guitar and made it sound like a completely different instrument.”
Blackburn comments, “I do see players like David Wilcox and Jonatha Brooke playing in the Joni-esque hybrid style. But it’s not just a technique or ‘style,’ anyway; it is her whole vision of inventing fresh sonorities and voicings from one song to the next, always in search of an emotional color suitable to the lyrics. James Taylor, Joni’s old friend and lover, described her composing as not just painting on a canvas but designing a fresh canvas first—for each song! How many of us have the patience or the doggedness to do that?”
It’s poignant to delve into Mitchell’s music like this at a time when the artist herself is no longer active. A few years ago, following her near-fatal aneurysm, reports of her health were grim. But Eric Andersen, who remains in close touch with Mitchell—she is the godmother of his daughter, Sari—shares a hopeful image from a recent visit to her home. He sang Mitchell’s own classic “River” to her, and the songwriter herself joined in, softly.
“They told us it was the first time she sang since her collapse and recovery,” he says. “I put an open-tuning guitar in her lap and she strummed it a while. Very moving to see my sister in action.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.