© 1998-2020 Marian Russell
In all but a few of Joni Mitchell's songs with guitar, the guitar is tuned to an other-than-standard (commonly known as "alternate" or "open") tuning. The explanation which follows should help make it easier for you to understand open tunings in general, and Joni Mitchell's open tunings in particular.
From my own experience of playing Joni's songs, I knew that there were groups of songs that could be played using the same essential tuning, as well as close relationships between tunings. Let's look at an example.
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 5th 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 5th 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 5th 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.
In order to be able to see the relationships between Joni's tunings and to learn to navigate more easily between songs with different tunings, I made a database from the tunings in an article by Jim Leahy and tried organizing it in various ways. 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" to describe the new notation. The term “generic tuning” was used for many years in the site, but the term “tuning pattern” is now used.
Using 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.
The starting note of the pattern determines the key which will result when the pattern is applied to the strings (note that the starting note of the pattern may be different from the root of the actual key which results when the pattern is applied). However, knowing or being able to determine exactly the specific starting note of the pattern is not essential for being able to play one of Joni's songs. You might be in a situation where you don't have access to a pitch-finder to help you set the pattern's starting tone. Not to worry - you can tune the bottom string down to what you think the approximate starting note should be and then apply the pattern for the song you want to play to find the tones for the remaining strings (do take care that the starting note is not too high for the pattern, otherwise you can easily break strings - for example, you would not want to start the tuning used for Sisotowbell Lane with a root higher than the C below the standard tuning E position).
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 the pattern’s starting note to hers. We have tried as far as possible to ensure that the tunings and capo postions in the site’s transcriptions are those for playing along with Joni's recordings.
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.
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. You can move between any song with the pattern x57543 to any song with the pattern x77543 simply by tuning the bottom string a whole step down.
In addition to tunings with the top three strings in common, 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:
tune the 3rd string 1/2 step higher to change x77235 into x77325
tune the 4th string 1/2 step higher to change x77354 into x78254
tune the 3rd string 1/2 step higher to change x73635 into x73725
tune the 4th string 1 whole step lower to change x75435 into x73635
This kind of information is useful for organizing a set list 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 starting notes, 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.
I probably never would or could have written this document had I not found, in September 1996, Jim Leahy's article containing tuning suggestions for many of Joni Mitchell's songs for guitar. Jim's article inspired me to start playing my guitar again after not touching it for nearly 15 years and, more importantly, helped me in the initial effort of establishing an accurate database. I am very grateful to him and his pioneering work. Students of alternate tunings should find his article interesting as well as useful for comparison.
Joni’s numerical tuning notation is truly the only practical way to organize and navigate between all of her many tunings. If you are not familiar with this type of notation, I urge you to read Howard Wright's entry on this topic.
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.