© 1998 Marian Russell
SONG GROUPS AND TUNING RELATIONSHIPS:
Marcie, and Nathan LaFraneer both have the same tuning of DGDGBD (D57543). For the song Little Green, the same tuning is used as a starting point, but the capo is then applied to the 4th fret, changing the tuning to GCGCEG (G57543). Now just looking at the letter names of the two tunings, many people would conclude that the tuning for Little Green and the tuning for Marcie are entirely different tunings, but they really have exactly the same essential pattern and therefore belong to the same group of songs for tuning purposes. The only change we have made by putting the capo on the 4th fret is that we have raised the key. You can use the same tuning for Little Green to play Marcie - you will be able to use the same chord shapes - except that with the capo on the 4th fret, you will have to sing higher.
Now if you take the Marcie tuning DGDGBD (D57543) and tune the bottom string down an additional step to CGDGBD (C77543), you can play the songs Sweet Bird and Cold Blue Steel. This new tuning is very closely related to the first tuning, but it has a different essential pattern.
GENERIC TUNING PATTERNS:
When I organized the songs according to the actual letter names of the notes of their tunings, I could identify more than 60 apparently different tunings (more than 80 if using the capo is considered to create a different tuning) in Joni's compositions. From my own experience, though, I knew that the true number of distinct essential patterns was lower than this.
I wanted to know the true number of distinct essential patterns and to be able to organize the songs into groups having the same essential pattern, but I could not do this by using the letter names of the tunings or the Joni notation. I needed a more general tuning notation, so I replaced the root note in each tuning with "x", followed by the fret locations required to find the remaining notes (e.g., x93525), and coined the term "generic tuning pattern" to describe the new notation.
Using generic tuning patterns made it possible to organize (sort) the songs into their true groups irrespective of the actual notes of their tunings and showed that the true number of distinct essential patterns was somewhere in the neighborhood of 45. (I apologize for being somewhat vague about the true number, but since there are still some questions among the JMDL guitarists about certain tunings, it is impossible to be more precise.)
RATIONALE FOR GENERIC PATTERNS:
Going back to our previous example, as long as you use the pattern x57543, you can still play Marcie using the same chord shapes whether you create the tuning starting with a bottom note of C#, or D, or put the capo on one of the frets; you just have to sing higher or lower depending on which note you use as a starting point for the pattern. Of course, if you are wanting to sing along with one of Joni's recorded songs, then you will need to tune your root note to hers. The tunings and capo postions in the links below are those for playing along with Joni's recordings.
In general, I find the top three digits of the patterns most useful for organizing the songs into groups that are related to each other. The songs which have 543 as the top digits of their tuning patterns are the largest example of several related groups, but other close relationships exist which are not so immediately obvious from looking at the numbers. Compare the following tuning patterns, and you will see what I mean:
x77235 and x77325
x77354 and x78254
x73635 and x73725
x75435 and x73635
This kind of information is useful for organizing a setlist for performance - you can organize the songs you want to sing into their groups and then organize the groups so that the tuning changes you need to make are very minor ones. If two songs in one group have different roots, you might consider tuning the guitar to the lower of the two tunings, then using the capo when you want to play the song in the higher tuning.
NOTES ON THE TUNINGS SELECTED FOR THE REPORTS:
The tunings in these lists have been reviewed by the JMDL guitarists and represent our collective "best guesses" as to the tunings Joni actually uses in her recorded songs. We agree on the tunings for most of the songs, and any songs that we could not agree on appear more than once in the reports under each possible tuning.
The selected tunings are a subset of all of the tunings recorded in the Joni Mitchell Guitar Files database. Because of this, the total number of tunings and tuning patterns in the database - that is, the numbers you see when you first enter the site - and the numbers quoted here in this article are not the same. The reasons for this are as follows:
(1) Tunings for dulcimer transcriptions are not included in the reports.
(2) Tunings from arrangements, which by definition are played some other way than Joni's original version, are not included.
(3) The database contains a number of songs which have more than one transcription, and it is not unusual to find that different transcribers have used different tunings for the same song. Sometimes two (or more) completely different tuning patterns have been used for the same song, but sometimes the apparent difference between one tuning and another is simply a different starting note for the same pattern (which is the same as having the same base tuning, but applying the capo to one of the frets). In all cases of multiple tunings for the same song, an effort has been made to select the tunings and capo positions that are the ones Joni has used for her recorded songs, whether the source is a studio or a live recording. A song may appear more than once if Joni recorded more than one version using different keys or if, as stated before, the JMDL guitarists disagree on the correct tuning.
The JMDL guitarists have tried to select a definitive list of tunings, but we are not infallible and our selection is certainly not the last word. Joni's archivist, a man named Joel Bernstein, has kept a record of all of Joni's tunings since the very beginning. He contributed to the introductions of the Hits and Misses songbooks and is probably the only person on earth besides Joni herself who could produce a totally accurate list of her tunings. We suspect that there are a few tunings given here which are close, but not exactly right, as well as other tunings which Joni has used, but which have not yet been documented. Also, since we are still in the process of resolving differences between what's in the database and what is on the recordings, there may still be some minor discrepancies (i.e., you may find instances of songs with the right tuning pattern, but the wrong starting note or capo position). We welcome all suggestions and feedback, and we'd especially like to know if you find anything you think is incorrect or unclear. You can send your questions/comments either to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or to all of us at this address.
DESCRIPTION OF THE REPORTS:
In the generic patterns, if one note and the next higher note are an octave apart, this is indicated with the letter "o" - for example, xo7354. If one note and the next higher note are in unison, this is indicated with a zero - for example, x50735.
I find both lists very useful. The list sorted by pattern helps me find all the songs I can play using one particular pattern, and the alphabetical list is useful when I just want to play a few songs and I can't remember what their patterns are. Hopefully, you will also find both lists useful for navigating more quickly between songs, and the list by pattern especially useful for learning to see and understand the relationships between the different tunings.
Please email me if you have any comments, suggestions, or questions.
In addition to many of Joni's tunings, Jim's article contains Howard Wright's explanation of Joni's numerical tuning notation system which Howard has recently further elaborated in "Joni Tunings Notation" (there is also a link in the left panel of this page). Although I have been familiar with this type of notation since my early guitar-playing days, I had never used it to keep track of the four Joni tunings I knew up until I found Jim's article - four tunings were not hard to remember and I had no reason to use any kind of special system to recall them. Since learning that Joni has used so many tunings, however, I have found her numerical notation the only practical way to organize and navigate between them all. If you are not familiar with this type of notation, I urge you to read Howard's explanation.
Finally, I am very thankful to Sue McNamara and Les Irvin for the existence of the Joni Mitchell Guitar Files, and also to all of the people who have made contributions to the files over the years. This resource has enriched my life in countless and wonderful ways and I will be forever grateful.