Joni Mitchell, who turns 74 today, once described herself as a "painter derailed by circumstance." She often speaks of the colors of a song referring to the harmonic complexity of a chord or a progression. When starting out in the folk clubs of the late 1960s, she noticed the predominance of the standard progressions, song after song with standard chord shapes in standard tuning.
When trying to create the richer sounds she heard in her head, she realized she'd have to contort her fingers into uncomfortable or even impossible shapes. In a 1998 Austin Chronicle interview, Mitchell said that, after she wrote her first song, "Urge for Going," in standard tuning, fellow folk-songwriter Eric Andersen taught her the open G and drop D tunings.
"Well, soon they seemed to be explored, and I didn't seem to be able to get any fresh colors out of them," Mitchell said. "So then I started tuning the guitar to chords that I heard in my head. And that's the way it went."
From there, Mitchell spent a career expanding her palette. She eventually wrote songs in no fewer than 51 tunings, frequently shifting keys with a capo or otherwise changing her arrangements throughout decades of live performances.
Today, we're going to explore some personal favorite Joni tunings and songs, from her hit "You Turn Me On I'm a Radio" to the mysterious "Hejira."
We start here with Joni's use of a fairly common tuning, open D major: D-A-D-F#-A-D.
For you folks who haven't explored open tunings much, this one is a great one to start with. Open D gives us what we like with an open tuning: a wide open quality and easy shapes. This song is a great example of how I, IV, and V in an open tuning can open up a world of possibility. You can even try throwing the capo around and playing those progressions all over the neck.
"You Turn Me On I'm a Radio" begins with a progression of I - Imaj7 - IV - V. Work your way through it and take note of the power in simplicity. Check out that move that makes the I major a Imaj7.
To keep playing around with this tuning, you can check out our "Learn to Play: Three Songs from Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks." for more.
I can't speak for all guitarists, but I'd say that most of us started learning how to play using shapes. Shapes are easy to understand and visualized, and they allow us to get into learning songs without necessarily knowing the ins and outs of the progression.
But with a unique tuning, you have to throw your shapes out of the window, and discover new possibilities with your instrument.
The intro to "Marcie" is beautiful and captivating, haunting right at the top before taking us to a comfortable resolution. The tuning - D-G-D-G-B-D - is fairly common, and it is easy to hear the open G.
Since we don't automatically know what chords these shapes are making in an open tuning, analyzing can be a bit tricky, so I like to boil it down. Find the triads within the chords first. This gives our ears somewhat of a rudimentary listening experience that's easy to follow and easy to track.
Also, spell the chords. What's in the bass? Where's the root? In this case, the note order of these triads is: root - 5th - 3rd. This sure does help with identifying the next chord. Root and 5th stay put, while the 3rd moves down a half step. That A major (II major) is now an A minor (ii minor).
Our ears are starting to hear this progression settle down to its tonic key. That ii minor to I major movement is something we are all familiar with. After resolving to the home key, we feel resolved. And then we get taken right back to the haunting bIII chord again. This time, we know where we're going.
"Little Green" uses the same tuning as "Marcie," but with a capo on the 4th fret to change key. By slapping that capo on the 4th fret, our open position is now a B chord. You have already learned some cool chord shapes in this tuning with "Marcie," so explore by using those same shapes in this position.
In simple terms, the tune is essentially B - D#m - C#m - Bsus - B. Our analysis being: I - iii - ii - I(sus) - I. This analysis gives us a clear visual of a diatonic progression. Now, when we add in the tensions, our analysis becomes: Imaj7 - iii(#5) - ii7(11) - I(sus) - I.
Now, let's say we wanted to play these same shapes without the capo, in the open position. Our analysis would still be: Imaj7 - iii(#5) - ii7(11) - I(sus) - I.
For me, "Hejira" is the other end of the spectrum, as far as familiar tunings go. I had never played in a B-F#-C#-E-F#-B tuning.
If we look at it with B as the root, I would maybe call it a Bsus2(11). The first shape is simple, but its harmonic quality is complex, a mysterious C#m9(11). As we move the same shape up a fret, we get a Dadd9 with a 13.
This is a wonderful tuning to get completely lost in. I encourage you to explore the sonic qualities, even if you don't know where your chord tones and tensions are.
For an extensive dive into the rest of Joni's tunings and an introduction to the unique notation system she developed to keep track of them all, check out the "Tunings Notation" page on her website. You can also read more about the alternate tunings of Joni and other guitarists in our recent piece, The Essential Alternate Tunings of 8 Groundbreaking Guitarists.
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