The words “genius”, “original” and “unique” probably get thrown around a little more freely than they really ought to when it comes to enthusing about great musicians and their work. In reality, it’s rare for an artist - no matter how skilled - to possess an exceptional natural capacity (genius) for creating musical blueprints that go on to inspire others (original), and for their work to be truly unparalleled by anything that has come before or since (unique).
But they’re all essential terms if we’re even going to try and get to grips with the idiosyncratic brilliance of Joni Mitchell’s guitar craft.
From her earliest recordings to her seminal 1971 work Blue, through to 1994’s Grammy-winning Turbulent Indigo and beyond, Joni’s sound has always been in a constant state of evolution. Sure, she’s best known for memorable folk-hued hits like Big Yellow Taxi, The Circle Game, Chelsea Morning, A Case Of You and California (the latter of which both get their characteristic chime from an Appalachian Dulcimer), but there’s so much more to the groundbreaking, risk-taking artist that is Joni Mitchell.
Born and raised in rural Canada, a childhood bout of polio left Joni with a weakened left hand, and not long into her playing journey, she discovered that dabbling in open tunings would allow her to access chord shapes and voicings that were beyond reach in good ol’ standard. Tuning her guitar to open chords – like open E (E-B-E-G♯-B-E), Open D (D-A-D-F♯-A-D) or Open G (D-G-D-G-B-D) – literally opened up a whole new world of harmonic possibilities for the young songwriter and encouraged an exploratory approach that was altogether unencumbered by traditional fretboard wisdom.
It’s an approach that’s come to define her sound, and Joni herself estimates that she’s used upwards of 55 different tunings throughout her career – many of which are of her own design. To cope with the sheer volume, she’s also devised a system for naming and remembering them all, which is as ingenious as it is intuitive.
In Joni’s world, instead of writing the individual names of each note in any given tuning, she uses one letter to denote the pitch of the lowest string, followed by five numbers - each relating to the fret that can be used as a reference for tuning the string directly above. For example, Joni wouldn’t express Open D as ‘D-A-D-F♯-A-D,’ but as ‘D75435’. Likewise, standard tuning would be written as ‘E55545,’ rather than E-A-D-G-B-E in Joni’s way of thinking.
Not only is it a cool system for remembering your tunings, but it’s great for helping you spot common relationships between different tunings, and therefore to conquer more of them. On the face of it, for example, you wouldn’t necessarily think that all your favourite open chord shapes could be played in a tuning as exotic looking as C-F-Bb-Eb-G-C. But, expressed as C55545 using ‘The Joni System’, it’s easy to see that it’s simply a lowered version of standard tuning. See, genius!
Thanks to working on her ever-shifting fretboard, Joni Mitchell’s music is absolutely littered with fresh ideas, unconventional progressions and gorgeous altered and suspended chords that have allowed her to deftly traverse two musical worlds that normally mix about as well as oil and water: folk and jazz.
Below, we take a look at five super cool Joni tunes (and some of their tunings) that guitarists must check out if they want to delve a little deeper into her unique (yes, we said it!) life on six strings.
1. Urge For Going - B-side to You Turn Me On I’m A Radio (1972) / Hits (1996)
Now, we might have started this feature by emphasising the importance of open and altered tunings in Joni Mitchell’s work, but ‘Urge For Going’ is interesting because it’s actually one of only two songs in her entire catalogue that she composed in standard tuning.*
Still, some interesting chord voicings, ringing open strings and tasty embellishments make this a cut above your ‘standard’ singer-songwriter fare.
Joni wrote Urge For Going when she yearned to leave Canada in the mid-sixties, and the song actually played a part in helping her get to where she wanted to be – both professionally and geographically speaking – when a Chet Atkins-produced rendition by George Hamilton IV became popular in 1967. Breaking into the country charts inside the top 10, it was the first time Joni really tasted success as a songwriter.
In the same year, she moved to New York City and took up residence in the artsy district of Chelsea, where her career really began to flourish.
But Joni didn’t cut a studio version of the wistful gem herself until she began working on material for Blue. Ultimately dropped in favour of newer and more emotionally topical material, ‘Urge For Going’ was left off the album and only saw the light of day in 1972, when it was released as the B-side to the pop-tastic strum-along classic, You Turn Me On I’m a Radio. Two and a half decades later, Joni signalled her fondness for the somewhat overlooked tune by making it the opener of her mid-nineties Hits compilation.
With a capo at the third fret, crisp fingerpicked chords shine as clear and icy as the song's subject matter, and the introduction of a very slightly staggered second acoustic gives a chimey twelve-string quality. Both parts were likely recorded on a prized (and slightly shrapnel damaged) 1956 Martin D-28 that Joni received from a US Marine who’d taken the guitar with him during his service in the Vietnam War.
*For bonus Joni trivia points, the other is ‘Tin Angel’ from 1969’s Clouds.
2. Little Green - Blue (1971)
Almost universally regarded as her magnum opus, Blue captures its author at her most emotionally exposed.
Written not about some tumultuous love affair, but about the experience of having to give up her infant daughter while living as a dirt poor folk singer in Toronto, ‘Little Green’ is about as deeply personal as songwriting gets. But it’s not just the lyrics that help to convey Joni’s deeply conflicted feelings about the subject.
Throughout her career, she’s made masterful use of chords that are neither fully major or minor in colouration, and that’s because complex emotions demand a complex harmonic palette.
An array of major sevenths, ninths, minor elevenths and suspended chords come into play on this beautifully contemplative track and she’s able to access them with relative ease because her guitar is tuned to an open G chord (D-G-D-G-B-D, or D57543 as per The Joni System). Frankly, some of the voicings used would probably be impossible to replicate on a regular six-stringed guitar in standard tuning being played by a regular two-handed human - or even *gasp* by a trained jazz musician.
In the film Joni Mitchell - Woman of Heart and Mind: A Life Story, the queen of open tunings demystified the connection between chords with strange names and her ability to musically express the full spectrum of her emotions:
“For years, everyone said, ‘Joni’s weird chords, Joni’s weird chords.’ And I thought, ‘How can there be weird chords?’ Chords are depictions of emotions. These chords that I was getting by twisting the knobs on the guitar until I could get these chords that I heard inside that suited me – they feel like my feelings. You know, I called them, not knowing, ‘chords of inquiry’. They had a question mark in them. There were so many unresolved things in me that those chords suited me.”
On the subject of “unresolved things”, Joni was reunited with her daughter in 1997 and it’s tempting to speculate that Stay In Touch from 1998’s Taming The Tiger might be about just that. If so, it’s rather happily set in a slight inversion of one of the most uplifting tunings of all: Open C Major.
3. Amelia - Hejira (1976)
Joni Mitchell’s eighth studio album is where things really started to get substantially more freeform and jazzy. Notably, Joni drafted in Jaco Pastorius to impart his liquid fretless bass skills to several of Hejira’s tracks, and plenty more of the finest session players of the time assembled to be part of the sprawling, travel-inspired collection.
On Amelia, we hear just a trio of musicians: Joni performs electric guitar and vocals, vibraphone player Victor Feldman contributes a handful of well-placed trills and that beautifully glassy, pedal steel-esque lead guitar playing comes courtesy of none other than Larry Carlton.
Lyrically, Amelia compares Joni’s not entirely successful love life with the mysterious disappearance of Amelia Earhart, who went missing while attempting to circumnavigate the globe in a light aircraft back in 1937. Musically, the song reflects the never-ending search for answers in both narrative strands with a progression that never quite feels like it truly resolves.
Sticking with the aviation metaphor, as the chords modulate upwards through the keys of F Major, G Major and Bb Major in the intro and verse, they create soaring levels of harmonic lift. But, like an aeroplane ascending cloudwards, there’s majesty and potential peril in their direction of travel. Next, suspenseful minor hues are hurled into the mix for an altogether unpredictable ride as Joni refuses to let the song’s melody unfold in a way that pop and rock conventions have conditioned our ears to expect. It’s really clever stuff.
It’s also well worth checking out this killer live version that was captured at the Santa Barbara Bowl in September 1979, where Joni conjures seriously dreamy tones from a semi-hollow Ibanez GB10NT George Benson arch-top electric, while a young Pat Metheny takes the baton from Carlton with some truly awe-inspiring lead work.
This one’s played in Open C (C-G-C-E-G-C, or C75435).
4. Overture / Cotton Avenue - Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977)
Receiving mixed reviews upon its release, Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter probably isn’t many people’s favourite Joni Mitchell album. It’s expansive, experimental and features an image of Mitchell wearing blackface on the front cover. We won’t even get into how or why she thought that might have been a good idea in this particular article, but there’s a whole BBC story on the poorly judged episode if you find yourself curious to know more about “Art Nouveau”, her so-called “alter ego.”
But the album does contain some interesting musical ideas - and they’re a far cry from her folksinger roots, where the guitar functioned primarily as a vital means of self-accompaniment.
The Overture section of this two-track combo emerges out of a haze of fragmented guitar and vocal sketches. It’s thought that Joni layered up six separate acoustic guitar tracks - with at least one in a different tuning from all the rest - to build the atmospheric textures that almost envelop the listener in this abstract, dreamlike composition.
Bell-like harmonics give way to the clangour of down-tuned open strings being struck with real force, and soothing fingerpicked snippets fall in and out of the frame before the unmistakable voice of Jaco Pastorius’ fretless bass playing comes in to really glue the disparate, reverb-soaked sonics together.
Around the three-minute mark, Overture segues into the more conventional jazz-pop structure of Cotton Avenue - a lazy, finger snap-inducing depiction of a late night rhythm and blues dance club.
Experimenting with the expectations of genre and form, this is not the work of an artist whose primary concern was to sell records. In fact, Joni’s ever-evolving sound had already bewildered a sizable chunk of her original fanbase, and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter only managed to peak at No. 25 on the Billboard charts.
5. If - Shine (2007)
Appearing on Joni’s 19th and (probably) final studio album, and based on the Rudyard Kipling poem of the same name, If is stacked with sublime natural harmonics and oozes with the effortlessly cool folk-meets-jazz feel that had long since become a signature sound.
Naturally, its ponderous tone comes from an unorthodox tuning - probably C-G-Bb-Eb-F-Bb (or C73525), which is a kind of Open Cm11 chord.
In 2002, Joni had vowed to quit the music industry, calling it an “an insane business” and a “cesspool” in a contemporary interview with Rolling Stone. So, when rumours started to bubble in 2006 that there would soon be a fresh collection of songs, it came as a welcome surprise and Shine landed higher up the charts than the majority of Joni's ‘80’, ‘90s and early ‘00s efforts – peaking at No.14 in the US and No.36 in the UK.
Still, she refrained from touring the album and made public appearances only very rarely in the years that followed. Then, in 2015, Joni suffered a brain aneurysm that left her unable to walk or talk. Her days of writing and performing music seemed well and truly over. But, against all the odds, she slowly re-acquired her playing skills by watching videos online.
This summer, Joni played her first headline show in 23 years on Saturday 10 of June at the Gorge Amphitheatre in Washington State, giving ‘If’ its first real live outing as part of her three-hour set’s triumphant encore.
Sitting down to play, she rocked a Parker Fly Concert guitar – a now discontinued electric model that was designed by Ken Parker to be able to emulate acoustic sounds, thanks to a hidden Fishman piezo pickup system.
Performed using mainly single finger barre chords, the fretwork might not be as involved as in some of the masterworks of her heyday, but it’s the unconventional, unresolved and unmistakable sound of the great Joni Mitchell nonetheless – and it’s a joy to watch.