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The guitar odyssey of Joni Mitchell

by Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
Acoustic Guitar (Magazine)
August 1996

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This article is part of a longer Joni Mitchell interview/profile that appears in Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers' book Rock Troubadours. For more info on the book, click here.

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.

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. To orient myself better in the world of Mitchell's guitar, I also spoke with Joel Bernstein, who's now based in San Francisco and helping to compile a Neil Young anthology. 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.

"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 How to Play Folk-Style Guitar," 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 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 black 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 your higher octave, like half fingering on the 12th. Then you've got to find where your minors are and 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."

Mitchell has come up with a way to categorize her tunings into families, based on the number of half steps between the notes of adjacent strings. "Standard tuning's numerical system is 5 5 5 4 5, with the knowledge that your bass string is E, right?" she said. "Most of my tunings at this point are 7 5 or 7 7, where the 5 5 on the bottom is. The 7 7 and the 7 5 family tunings are where I started from." Examples of 7 5 tunings are D A D G B D (used for "Free Man in Paris," Court and Spark) and C G C E G C ("Amelia," Hejira): in both cases, the fifth string is tuned to the seventh fret of the sixth string, and the fourth string is tuned to the fifth fret of the fifth string. Similarly, examples of 7 7 tunings are C G D G B D ("Cold Blue Steel and Sweet Fire," For the Roses) and C# G# D# E: G# C# ("Sunny Sunday," Turbulent Indigo): the intervals between the sixth and fifth strings, and the fifth and fourth strings, are seven frets.

Mitchell continued, "However, the dreaded 7 9 family - I have about seven songs in 7 9 tunings - are in total conflict with the 7 5 and the 7 7 families. They're just outlaws. They're guaranteed bass clams [laughs], 'cause the thumb gets used to going automatically into these shapes, and it has to make this slight adaptation." Mitchell's 7 9 songs include "Borderline," "Turbulent Indigo," and "How Do You Stop" (Turbulent Indigo), all of which are in the tuning B F# D# D# F# B.

Just to confuse the fingers further, Mitchell also has some renegade tunings in which she's written only one song. Consider the tuning for "Black Crow," from Hejira: Bflat Bflat Dflat F Aflat Bflat, with the fifth and sixth strings an octave apart. By Mitchell's numerical system, this would be a 12 3 tuning - a very long way from 7 7 or 7 5, and a thousand miles from standard tuning.

An interesting tuning can be fertile ground for writing a song, but - 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 multi-voiced 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." The orchestral effect is particularly vivid on "Just Like This Train", with its "muted trumpet parts" and independent lines on the top, middle, and bottom strings.

Mitchell compares the right-hand technique that maintains these separate voices to harp playing, with its fluid movement over the strings. Here's how Joel Bernstein describes the evolution of that style: "Her first album has some very fine, detailed fingerpicking - note for note, there are very specific figures. As time goes on, she gets into more of a strumming thing until it becomes more like a brush stroke - it's a real expressive rhythmic thing. Her early stuff doesn't really swing, there's not jazz stuff going on in it, and she's not implying a rhythm section as much, whereas now she obviously has a lot going on in the right hand. It's at the same time simpler and deeper."

Ever since the Blue album, percussive sounds have been central to Mitchell's guitar style - a clear influence on all sorts of tapping and slapping contemporary players. Mitchell's inspiration for these sounds came from a surprising place: an encounter with a dulcimer maker at the 1969 Big Sur Festival. "I had never seen one played," she said. "Traditionally it's picked with a quill, and it's a very delicate thing that sits across your knee. The only instrument I had ever had across my knee was a bongo drum, so when I started to play the dulcimer I beat it. I just slapped it with my hands. Anyway, I bought it, and I took off to Europe carrying a flute and this dulcimer because it was very light for backpacking around Europe. I wrote most of Blue on it."

For about a year, Mitchell played the dulcimer and didn't have a guitar on hand. "I was craving a guitar so badly in Greece," she said. "The junta had repressed the population at that time. They were not allowed public meeting; they were not allowed any kind of boisterous or colorful expression. The military was sitting on their souls, and even the poets had to move around. We found this floating poets' gathering place, and there was an apple crate of a guitar there that people played. I bought it off them for 50 bucks and sat in the Athens underground with transvestites and, you know, the underbelly running around - and it was like a romance. It was a terrible guitar, but I hadn't played one for so long, and I began slapping it because I had been slapping this dulcimer. That's when I noticed that my style had changed.

"I thought that slap came purely from the dulcimer until I saw a television show [recently] that I did the day after Woodstock, where Crosby, Nash, and Stills showed up. Stephen slapped his guitar, which is a kind of flamenco way of playing it, so l would have to cite Stephen Stills also as an influence in that department. But it was latent and not conscious. It wasn't like I studied him and tried to play like him, but I admired the way he played. That's the way I grow, by admiration and not by intellect. Anytime I admire something, something expands, and somewhere down the road that admiration works on me as an influence."

Joni Mitchell's first five albums are essentially solo works, driven by her guitar, dulcimer, piano, and voice. But the pared-down production wasn't a reflection of a back-to-basics philosophy, as one might have guessed. "There were no drummers or bass players that could play my music," she said. "I tried the same sections that Carole King and James Taylor were using. I couldn't get on the airwaves because there was no bass and drums on [my records], so I had incentive, but everything they added was arbitrary. They were imposing style on something with out seeing what the something was that they were playing to. I thought, 'They're putting big, dark polka dots along the bottom of the music, and fence posts.' I'd end up trying to tell them how to play, and they'd say, 'Isn't it cute, she was telling me how to play my ax, and I've played with James Brown....' So it was difficult as a female to guide males into playing [what I wanted], and to make observations in regard to the music that they had not made. Finally a drummer said, 'Joni, you're going to have to play with jazz musicians.' So I started scouting the clubs, and I found the L.A. Express, but that was for my sixth album [Court and Spark]. It took me that long.

"You have to understand, not only was it difficult to be a woman in the business at that time, but the camps of music were very isolated from one another. Jazzers and rockers and folkies did not mix, and I had moved through all of these camps. I was moving into the jazz camp. As far as the rockers were concerned, that was betrayal, and definitely to the folkies. But [jazz musicians] could write out lead sheets; they also could analyze my chords. They were kind of snobbish at first when they heard the music, but when they wrote out what the chord was, they were surprised, because it would be like A sus diminished - these were not normal chords. In standard tuning these chords are very difficult. They would come around with kind of a different respect, or a curiosity at least."

As Mitchell began to work with full band arrangements, she still maintained strict control over the parts. For Court and Spark, she said, "I sang all the countermelody to a scribe, who wrote it out. So anything that's added is my composition. In a few exceptions I'll cut a player loose, but then I'll edit him, move him around, so even though he's given me free lines I'm still collaging them into place.

"I've tried to remain true to my own compositional instincts by eliminating the producer, who laminates you to the popular sounds of your time. I've been in conflict with the popular sounds of my time, for the most part. All through the '70s I never liked the sound of the bass or the drums, just on a sonic level, but I couldn't get any [drummers] to take the pillow out of their kick and I couldn't get [bassists] to put fresh strings on and give me a resonant sound, because they were scared to be unhip. Hip is a herd mentality, and it's very conservative, especially among boys."

Mitchell's dissatisfaction with the standard bass sounds of the '70s eventually led to one of the most extraordinary collaborations of her career. "Finally, someone said, 'There's this kid in Florida named Jaco Pastorius. He's really weird; you'd probably like him.' So I sent for Jaco, and he had the sound I was looking for - big and fat and resonant."

The interplay of Mitchell's guitar and Pastorius' bass, first heard on Hejira, is a marvel. Pastorius both expands on her chords and harmonics and weaves melodies around her vocal line (including several Stravinsky quotes). His rhythmic/melodic approach, which revolutionized the world of the electric bass, was so thick and up-front that it demanded new approaches on Mitchell's side. "Although I wanted a wide bass sound, his was even wider, and he insisted that he be mixed up so that I was like his background singer," she said. "So to get enough meat to hold his sound, I doubled the guitar loosely - I just played it twice."

Years later, in the recording of Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm (1988), Mitchell carried this concept to its extreme, taking advantage of developments in studio technology that allowed the recording of 48 tracks - two 24-track tapes linked together. "I decided to use up one of the reels of the tape doubling the part 24 times. 'My Secret Place' is 24 guitars playing the same part," she said. Her reason for this experiment says as much about her adventurousness as a musician as it does about her obsession with defying categorization. "On that whole album, all of the guitars are played 24 or 16 times, not in order to get a [Phil] Spector sound but to get people to hear my guitar playing. I thought, 'Well, maybe it's just too thin and silvery sounding. If I beef it up and make a whole section of the guitars, maybe they'll notice how these chords are moving and stop calling it folk music.'"

As the "My Secret Place" story suggests, Joni Mitchell delved deeply into studio craft during the 1980s, especially in the synthesizer based Dog Eat Dog. On Night Ride Home (1991), her acoustic guitar rose again in the mix, paving the way for its full return in Turbulent Indigo, a masterpiece of instrumental understatement that ranks as some of the most haunting work of her career. Turbulent Indigo also received the warmest reviews she's gotten in many years, and her first Grammy victory since 1975.

Does that mean we should expect more of the same in her next album? Naturally not, because Mitchell is in the midst of yet another radical departure, one that she calls "probably the biggest break for me since Court and Spark."

The new influence at work is an electric guitar that Mitchell's old friend Fred Walecki built for her to alleviate her ongoing frustrations with using alternate tunings - one of the reasons why she stopped touring in 1983 and was on the verge of quitting the stage permanently in the spring of '95. Walecki, of Westwood Music in Los Angeles, designed the Stratocaster-style guitar to work with the Roland VG-8 - the Virtual Guitar - a very sophisticated processor capable of electronically creating her tunings. While the strings physically stay in standard tuning, the VG-8 tweaks the pickup signals so that they come out of the speakers in an altered tuning. This means that Mitchell can use one guitar on stage, with an offstage tech punching in the preprogrammed tuning for each song.

"This new guitar that I'm working with eliminated a certain amount of problems that I had with the acoustic guitar," Mitchell explained. "Problems isn't even the right word; maddening frustrations is more accurate. The guitar is intended to be played in standard tuning; the neck is calibrated and everything. Twiddling it around isn't good for the instrument, generally speaking. It's not good for the neck; it unsettles the intonation. I have very good pitch, so if I'm never quite in tune, that's frustrating." Over the years, Mitchell has learned to slightly bend the strings to compensate for the intonation error, but that effort is still often defeated by the extreme slackness of her tunings. "In some of those tunings I've got an A on the bottom or a B-flat, and it's banging against the string next to it and kicking the thing out of tune as I play, no matter how carefully I tweak it." The VG-8 sidesteps all these problems: as long as the strings are accurately in standard tuning, she can play all over the neck in the virtual alternate tunings and sound in tune.

In every gig since the 1995 New Orleans Jazz Festival, Mitchell has used the VG-8, using its effects to build a guitar sound reminiscent of her Hejira era. But the VG-8 is having a much more far reaching impact on her music than just providing a workable stage setup. In composing and recording the songs for her next album, she's thrown herself into a heady exploration of the VG-8's sampled sounds. "Sonically, it's very new," she said of the tracks recorded so far. "I don't know what you'd call it. It's my impression, in a way, of '40s music. Because I don't like a lot of contemporary music - it's just so formulated and artificial and false - I kind of cleared my ear and didn't listen to anything for a while, and what emerged were these vague memories of '40s and early '50s sounds. Swinging brass - not Benny Goodman and not Glenn Miller but my own brand, pulled through Miles [Davis] and different harmonic stuff that I absorbed in the '50s. Because this guitar has heavy-metal sounds in it and pretty good brass sounds, I'm mixing heavy-metal sounds with a brass section, so it's a really strange hybrid kind of music. I'm a bit scared of it sometimes, you know. I don't know what it is."

The richest irony of Mitchell's VG-8 experience thus far is that this guitar rig, which was intended to make her alternate tunings more practical and usable, drove her to write her first song in 30 years in standard tuning! A technical barrier was responsible: the VG-8's synth patches were created to be used with a guitar in standard tuning, and initially they were not accessible in conjunction with her alternate tunings (Roland has since fixed this problem).

So Mitchell's first VG-8 composition, "Harlem in Havana," is in that vaguely remembered thing called standard tuning. "You'd never know it was in standard tuning because I haven't played in standard tuning for 30 years. I don't know how to play in standard tuning, so I treated standard tuning like it was a new tuning and used my repertoire of shapes.

"It's a strange piece of music. The guitar sound that I'm using is like a marimba, but it's not like any marimba part you've ever heard because it's fingerpicked. The bass string is almost atonal and sounds almost like a didgeridoo. But off of it I'm building huge horn sections, and the poem that's going to it is about two little girls in my hometown getting into this black revue called Harlem in Havana, which was an AfroCuban burlesque kind of show that you weren't supposed to stand in front of, let alone go in."

Heavy metal mixed with brass, guitar-generated marimbas, Afro-Cuban and swing rhythms: all indications are that Mitchell's next creation, slated for an early '97 release, will be a real ear-opener and a direct challenge to our settled perceptions of the music of Joni Mitchell. In the meantime, a number of other projects are percolating. A best-of collection is in the works, and the VG-8 seems to be encouraging her tentative steps back onto the stage (in November '95, she played her first full-length gig in years, at the Fez in New York). Further into the future, we can look forward to a new CD anthology and probably - keep your fingers crossed - a complete songbook, with all the tunings and basic chord shapes. That book will be an invaluable map for retracing the steps of one of the most amazing guitar journeys of our time, while Joni Mitchell herself disappears around the next bend.

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