Joni Mitchell's altered-tuning innovations
CANADIAN-BORN JONI MITCHELL originally intended to be a fine artist and considered herself a hobbyist musician in the early Sixties, occasionally playing paid gigs to support her painting studies. That all changed by the mid Sixties, when personal issues, including needing to give a child up for adoption, inspired her to channel her troubled thoughts into original songs—music that would soon be covered by established folk artists like Tom Rush and Judy Collins, who had a Top-10 hit with Mitchell's Both Sides Now in 1967.
In 1965, Mitchell moved to the U.S., performing her own material in coffee houses and folk clubs along the East Coast. At a Florida gig in 1967, she met David Crosby (soon to form Crosby, Stills and Nash), who was floored by her soaring voice, innovative use of altered tunings and profound lyrics. He convinced her to move to California and encouraged Reprise Records to release her solo acoustic debut (SONGS TO A SEAGULL) in 1968. By the end of that decade, Joni Mitchell was a household name. This month, I'll examine the tunings and techniques of this legend's signature songs.
Originally released as the B-side of Your Turn Me On, I'm A Radio in 1972, the song Urge For Going, reminiscent of FIGURE 1, is actually one of Mitchell's earliest compositions (her first to achieve commercial success, as recorded by country performer George Hamilton IV in 1967). It's also one of her few songs written in standard tuning (played with a capo at the third fret). This passage is highlighted by step-wise note movements—scalar lines, albeit plucked arpeggio-style—resulting from fretting notes high up the neck while the open top string rings in their midst.
Playing the complete Mitchell discography would require literally 50-plus altered/open/slack tunings. Some of her more manageable tunings include double drop-D (low to high, D A D G B D) and open G tuning (low to high, D G D G B D). Mitchell used double drop-D on Free Man In Paris (COURT AND SPARK), and FIGURE 2 is similar to that song's strummed opening (she plays the song with a pick.)
Performed in open G tuning and with a capo at the fourth fret, FIGURE 3 is a fingerstyle pattern inspired by Circle Game (LADIES OF THE CANYON). If you're still in double drop-D, simply lower your fifth string's pitch one whole step, to G.
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