Stringed canvas: Joni Mitchell’s musico-visual imagination

 


If songwriting entails the deliberate selection of chords, melodies, and lyrics, then why not consciously craft your tunings too? For Joni, it makes no sense to skip this step – after all, what painter would stick to the same six colour pots when a near-infinite selection lie within easy reach?


Early sparks | Hejira | Dulcimers | Joni’s paintings | This Flight Tonight | Roundup

No matter what you play, Joni Mitchell’s imaginative approach to the guitar presents a wealth of fresh ideas. Her creative process is a fluid, intuitive blend of many musical elements, spanning blues and banjo techniques to jazz harmony and indigenous folk chants.

 

By her own estimation, the Saskatoon songstress has used over 50 different tunings over the years (80+ if you count capoed variants). Here, we delve into some of the core inspirations behind them, exploring how she formulates her six-string starting points…

  • Coyote: live at Gordon Lightfoot’s house (1975):

“I sing my sorrow…and I paint my joy”


• Early Sparks •

Born to a military father and a schoolteacher mother in smalltown Canada, Joni was initially drawn towards painting and poetry rather than music, obsessing over the former in particular. Despite an inquisitive mindset, she struggled to find inspiration in her school curriculum – save for a bond with one encouraging teacher. She describes this nameless early influence in awe-inspiring terms: “A great disciplinarian in his own punk style…more of a social worker or a renegade priest…He extracted the individuality of his pupils, creating monsters who were almost ungovernable within the rigidity of that system. We nearly drove our next year’s teacher nuts.

 

Similarly, the tight strictures of classical piano lessons did not enthuse her: “I wasn’t into music….I wanted to do what I do now, which is to lay my hand on it and to memorize what comes off…But my music teacher told me I played by ear, which was a sin, you know“. She eventually asked for a guitar, but her mother – reportedly wary of its “hillbilly associations” – got her a ukulele instead. When she did manage to get hold of an acoustic, she taught herself from a book by banjoist Pete Seeger, also learning old blues tunes – notably the alternating bass style of Elizabeth Cotten:

 


  • Freight Train – Elizabeth Cotten:

“At the age of seven, [Elizabeth Cotten] would steal into her brother’s room while he was at work, and play his homemade banjo. Broken strings betrayed her borrowing, but, even though her brother complained about it, he never scolded her…[She] tried to learn with the banjo re-strung for a left-handed player, but eventually returned to her upside-down method…” (L.L. Demerle)


 

So even at this early stage, Joni was used to switching between different instruments and string layouts: 4-string uke, 5-string banjo ideas on 6-string guitar, etc (additionally, a serious polio episode had weakened her hands, which, according to some, made the physical ease of slacker tunings more attractive). As a young performer she was entranced by seeing guitarist Eric Andersen play in a Detroit nightclub. Andersen, who had studied the slidework of Muddy Waters and Mississippi Fred McDowell, recounts that Joni “hated playing [in] Standard“, finding it “boring: missing many musical regions she had in mind.”

 

He adds, “I was playing in E, D, and G tunings. Afterwards we went to her lovely home. She was curious about these tunings, so I showed her…”. They would go on to record together (e.g. the excellent Blue River), and remain close today (Joni is godmother to Eric’s daughter). The three tunings mentioned by McDowell – which Joni used as initial fuel for decades’ worth of multidirectional exploration – are Open E (E-B-E-G♯-B-E), Open D (D-A-D-F♯-A-D), and Open G (D-G-D-G-B-D). Here they are:

 


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Below, we break down three Joni-style tunings. In keeping with her own approach, we’ll be treating them more like ‘colour palettes’, without much focus on harmonic analysis or ‘theory’. In her words, “I was a bad English student…[although] I was good in composition, but I wasn’t good in the dissection…I didn’t like to break it down and analyze it in that manner”. This, of course, is absolutely no barrier to expression!

• 1 – ‘Hejira’ •

Joni’s fascination for blending folksy melodies with nuanced jazz harmony reached its loftiest heights on her collaborations with Jaco Pastorius – an extraordinary musician, often described as ‘Hendrix of the fretless bass’. She describes what led to their partnership: “I’d tried all along to add other musicians…nearly every bass player that I tried did the same thing: they would put up a dark picket fence through my music, and I thought, ‘why does it have to go ploddy ploddy ploddy?’ Finally one guy said to me, ‘Joni, you better play with jazz musicians’.”

 

Jaco overdubbed several sublime bass parts for Joni’s 1976 album Hejira: an term she loosely transliterated from an Arabic dictionary to mean ‘rupture’ or ‘break with the past’, signifying the migration of Muhammad to Medina (in her words, she was searching for a term that meant ‘running away with honour’ – a recurring lyrical theme). The album’s title track presents a perfect balance of their distinctive sonorities. For Joni, it was “probably the toughest tune on the album to write”, with lyrics tackling a recent breakup with jazz-rock drummer John Guerin (…although three tracks later, on Blue Motel Room, she muses on whether the relationship should be rekindled: in CGDFAD tuning).

 


  • Hejira (album) – Joni Mitchell (1976):

“This culture sets up an addiction to romance based on insecurity: the uncertainty of whether or not you’re truly united with the object of your obsession…I’ve seen this pattern so much in myself and my friends, and some people never get off that line. But along with developing my superficial side, I always nurtured a deeper longing, so even when I was falling into the trap of that other kind of love, I was hip to what I was doing…”


 

It was also one of Jaco’s very first experiments with overdubbing, something he would later apply in the live setting with a loop pedal. For Hejira he recorded four separate layers of bass, combining them sparingly with Joni’s two not-quite-identical guitar parts. In the exercise below, we modify Joni’s original Hejira tuning, dropping the 1str of her CGDFGC to a super-slack Bb. We can see the arrangement as follows (once you’ve tuned the 6str, the ‘pattern’ is the fret you press to match the next one down: like ‘5>5>5>4>5’ for Standard):

 


  • Tuning: C-G-D-F-G-Bb
  • Pattern: 7>7>3>2>3
  • Intervals: 1-5-2-4-5-b7

 

This next study reworks some of Hejira’s characteristic fingerpicking patterns (although it works fine with a plectrum too if you can handle the direction changes: I’m a big advocate of doing this sort of thing to improve your flatpicking). Hear how the open strings add floating, harp-like resonations, which hang in the air and recolour the notes around them, becoming ‘recharged’ to full volume each time they’re visited in the sequence (somewhat akin to the sounds of the Hindustani santoor):

 


  • Ex. 1: ‘Hejira’-style tuning: arpeggiations


“With a long relationship, things die, then are rekindled – and that shared process of rebirth deepens the love”


• 2 – ‘Appalachian Dulcimer’ •

Joni didn’t just play guitar and piano. She also performed on the Appalachian dulcimer, a 3-to-5-string folk zither placed flat on the lap. Joellen Lapidus, who first introduced it to her, tells the story: “One day I found out there was going to be the Big Sur Folk Festival and I thought to myself, ‘I’ll make a dulcimer and call it the Festival Model. And I’ll sell it to either Joni Mitchell or The Incredible String Band’. They were both my idols at the time….I told all my friends and they said ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’. So, anyway, I went out into woods, looking for inspiration, and there were these beautiful red, wild columbines. And I just thought, ‘That’s it…’”

 

Another of Joellen Lapidus’ creations

 

“I brought it to the festival…and I saw Joni walking down the path, and I just put the dulcimer right in front of her…She said, ‘Oh, what is that instrument?’ And I said, ‘It’s a mountain dulcimer.’ She said, ‘Well, what does it sound like?’ So I played for her and I told her, ‘You know, this is something that you could really get into, because it’s all open tunings…”. Joni immediately saw what she meant, going on to play dulcimer on some of her best-known songs (e.g. Carey, A Case of You, All I Want, and California). Her approach to learning it gives us core insights into her guitaristic thinking too – she bought it without really knowing anything about how it was supposed to be played, so had to work it out herself based on her own intuitions and musical desires.

 


  • Carey (Live in London) – Joni Mitchell (1983):

“You’re twiddling and you find a 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…you’ve got four chords immediately: open, barre [5fr & 7fr], and your higher octave, like half-fingering on [12fr]. Then you’ve got to find where your minors are, and where the interesting colors are…”


 

She explained the beginnings of this journey in a 1996 interview: “The only instrument I had ever held against my knee was a bongo drum…so when I started to play the dulcimer I beat it. I just slapped it with my hands…”. She would retain this percussive essence, supplementing it with other non-standard ideas such as characteristic palm-muted strums.

 

In fact, the only dulcimeric instruction she ever received in these early days was when Joellen briefly showed her a few strumming techniques around the time of purchase. And Joellen, a self-taught player, had in turn adapted her own style from her main skill as a folk guitarist. But these two ‘outsiders’ are now hailed as pioneers by the global dulcimer community – Joni for doing more than anyone before or since to popularise the instrument, and Joellen for how she sings and playswith complex rhythms, incorporating a variety of musical genres from folk to jazz to Arabic“. See more of their dulcimeric interactions here!

 

Joni with Buddy the Oval Office dog (1998)

 

In the next exercise we go ‘back to source’, imitating Joni’s guitar-derived dulcimer style with some folksy chords on the actual guitar. In keeping with her general approach, she turned to a variety of dulcimer tunings over the years, and even rearranged the strings for a time, putting the bass in the middle for a less ‘directional’ strumming resonance.

 

Actual Appalachian dulcimers take a wide variety of tunings – although fifths tend to predominate. Here, we approximate the droning arrangement Joni used on Carey (DDAA), tuning to a wide, pure-toned setup of CGCGGC from low to high (equivalent to a tone-down transposition of Zen Drone).

 


  • Notes: C-G-C-G-G-C
  • Pattern: 7>5>7>0>5
  • Intervals: 1-5-1-5-5-1

 

In the exercise below, we imitate the dulcimer’s limited range of strings by only fretting on the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th strings, just using the others to add colour and textural depth. So in the exercise below, be careful not to pluck too hard, or push down on the fretboard with undue force:

 


  • Ex. 2: ‘Appalachian dulcimer’ sequence

 

Side Note: What is ‘inharmonicity’? Your slackened strings will probably sound buzzy and unstable. To some degree this is part of the dulcimeric tone we want, although shorter necks and thinner string sets may struggle when tuned very low. We also have to contend with ‘inharmonicity’ – essentially, the fact that the physical vibration of a string is essentially a small, ever-shifting set of ‘bends’. This means that – in literal terms – all strings always ring a little sharp of their fundamental (as they must do with any type of bend). In Standard we don’t need to worry about this much, as the effect is miniscule, but it comes into play with low, loose tunings, especially if plucked forcefully. Hear it in action on my downtuned 6str (and learn more in my Audio Glossary):

 


  • Inharmonicity on superlow 6str:

• Joni’s paintings: vivid windows •

Joni described herself as a “painter derailed by circumstance”. As detailed, her first creative passion was art rather than music – in her teens she studied with designer Henry Bonli (he found her “an argumentative pupil”), and later enrolled at the Alberta College of Art before dropping out aged 20. She has painted obsessively throughout her career, designing dozens of her own album covers and receiving acclaim for exhibitions.

 

All facets of creativity are interconnected – especially for Joni. Many of her tracks have corresponding paintings, made in tandem, and in several interviews she refers to how she visualizes sound itself, seeing it as “colours and shapes”. She would often draw or paint to settle nerves and pass the time before concerts, and describes sometimes having to be “dragged away” from the activity when it was time to get onstage. A CBS profile describes how she “frequently gets so wrapped up in her work that she forgets to eat and sleep”.

 

(Self-portrait: Both Sides Now)

 

So I think it’s useful to think of Joni’s approach to tuning in similar terms. For example: you can just pick up a guitar and play it, but you can’t start painting without deliberately picking out which colours you want on the brush. Joni treats the tuning process more like this initial ‘colour selection’ step – each one brings its own tones, shades, and densities, meaning she can draw on a fuller spectrum in her work. To her, confining yourself to Standard is like ignoring all the other paint pots…

 

So to get closer to her music, have a look at some of her art too (I don’t have the copyright to reprint here): e.g her vivid self-portraits, and Morning Glory on the Vine, a book of watercolours originally produced for friends which includes a striking portrait of close friend Neil Young. (n.b. Music-colour association is a fascinating universe – e.g. ‘chromatic’ comes from the Greek for ‘colour’, and the Indian ‘raga’ translates from Sanskrit as ‘that which colours the mind’.)

 


“A painter…has the joy of creating it, it hangs on a wall, and somebody buys it, and somebody buys it again, or maybe nobody buys it and it sits up in a loft until he dies. But nobody ever said to Van Gogh, ‘paint Starry Night again, man!’ You know? He painted it, and that was it.”

• 3 – ‘This Flight Tonight’ •

Finally, we turn to one of the few non-piano songs from Blue. As noted by Howard Wright, This Flight Tonight takes a tuning of Ab-Ab-Eb-Ab-C-Eb, essentially the Open G we came across before (D-G-D-G-B-D) moved up a half-step, with the 6th string lowered to a whole octave below the 5th for some low-end buzz (also see my Banjo and ‘Slack Thwack’ A pages).

 


  • This Flight Tonight (album) – Joni Mitchell (1971):

Everybody has a superficial side and a deep side, but this culture doesn’t place much value on depth. We don’t have shamans or soothsayers…


 

Here’s how we can mirror a similar idea while also minimising retuning:

  • Notes: G-G-D-G-B-D
  • Pattern: 12>7>5>4>3
  • Intervals: 1-1-5-1-3-5

 

As mentioned, Joni found herself frustrated by the exacting nature of her early art lessons. In this spirit, I’m just going to give you a brief chord sequence for this one, which aims to capture the character of her ambiguous, cycling resolutions (as she christened them, “Joni’s weird chords”). See what you can draw with these starting shades…

 


  • Ex. 3: ‘This Flight Tonight’: colour palette


“I didn’t like the sound of people gasping at the mere mention of my name. It horrified me.”

• Roundup •

Naturally, this article is only a small window into a long lifetime of tuning explorations. Joni’s arrangements gradually moved lower down as the pitch of her voice dropped with age, and she contended with the added complexities of touring by simplifying her system, bringing along five separate Ibanez jazz guitars, each strung differently to allow for a clear tone at different tensions. Ever keen to experiment, she played through a Roland VG-8 synth for a time, which allowed her to digitally alter the guitar’s tuning without actually retuning the strings themselves (also tried out by Frank Gambale).

 

If you want to use Joni’s other tunings as starting points, see her entry on my Altered-Tuned Artists page – as well as the heroic, fan-compiled ‘transcriptions by tuning pattern‘ list on her website, and a superb tips for guitarists page covering such things as string gauges, fingerpicking techniques, and her gently microtonal, James Taylor-style ‘stretched tunings. Thankfully, her legacy is in little danger of being forgotten.

 

The purpose of this lesson isn’t really to teach specific tunings. It’s more to remind us that we can take a ‘step back’ in our creative process, making deliberate choices about the natural colours of our tuning patterns as well as the chords and melodies we set to them. So for each of the exercises above, explore how you can recolour things by further altering the strings. Before long, you’ll have stumbled into some entrancing sonic spaces, that you would never otherwise have found. And you’ll never run out of new combinations

 


  • Blank on Blank – Joni on illusions (1986):

“The hexagram of the heavens, the strings of my guitar…”


• Further learnings •

—More Joni from elsewhere in the World of Tuning: see her listing in my Altered-Tuned Artists article – and also see individual tuning pages for Black Crow and Coyote (like a lovechild of Hejira and Open C), which gives root to the sensual strums of the album’s opening track – hailed by literary academic Dr. Ruth Charnock as “either the most flirtatious song about fucking or the most graphic song about flirting ever written”.

 

—Read curious tales of Joni’s guitars: “The first professional instrument she owned was acquired back in 1966, when she received a 1956 Martin D-28 from a Marine captain. The captain was in Vietnam when his tent was hit with shrapnel, injuring him. The captain had two guitars inside his tent at the time. Joni claimed this Martin to be her best guitar ever. She wondered if the explosion did something to the nodules in the wood…”

 

—Hear more from Joni herself in a revealing NPR interview: “Her music has consistently made her vulnerability clear. And it is not the pretty kind. In another excerpt from an interview played at the concert, Mitchell complained of ‘being stereotyped as a magic princess…the sort of ‘twinkle, twinkle, little star’ kind of attitude’. Vulnerability, in Mitchell’s songs, is often dissembling…”

 


  • ‘The Dawntreader’ set (bootlegged by Hendrix himself!):

“Sometimes I’ll tune to some piece of music…sometimes I just find one going from one [tuning] to another…sometimes I’ll tune to the environment…taking the pitch of birdsongs, and the general frequency sitting on a rock in that landscape…If you’re only working off what you know, then you can’t grow. It’s only through error that discovery is made: in order to discover you [need] a random element, a ‘strange attractor’… 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…” (1996 interview with Jeffery Pepper Rogers)


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George Howlett is a London-based musician, writer, and teacher (guitars, sitar, tabla, & santoor). Above all I seek to enthuse fellow sonic searchers, interconnecting fresh vibrations with the voices, cultures, and passions behind them. See Home & Writings, and hit me up for Online Lessons!

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