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New songbook gets to the heart - and technique - of Joni Mitchell's signature guitar style

by Mark Segal Kemp
Acoustic Guitar (Magazine)
June 2014

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Joni Mitchell is an enigma - anyone who knows anything about the legendary Canadian artist knows this. For nearly half a century, she's been a major voice for her generation, her words and music having influenced countless singer-songwriters and inspired scores of young girls to pick up acoustic guitars. And yet Mitchell considers herself to be a painter first, a musician second. From her rare, sometimes combative interviews to her wholly individual style of acoustic guitar playing, Mitchell has always been nearly impossible to peg.

In the foreword to the new songbook Joni Mitchell Complete So Far..., Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers, Acoustic Guitar's editor-at-large, writes that "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."

Those words come from a piece Rodgers wrote about Mitchell for this magazine in 1996, and from that time until now, her guitar style has remained as enigmatic as ever.

The operative words in that last sentence are "until now."

This new songbook, supervised by Aaron Stang, compiles 167 compositions from across Mitchell's rich and variegated songwriting career - early acoustic classics like the gauzy "Michael from Mountains" and bright "Chelsea Morning" (from her 1968 debut Song to a Seagull and its follow-up Clouds, respectively) through her prolific run of classic '70s songs such as "Big Yellow Taxi," "Woodstock," "Carey," "You Turn Me on, I'm a Radio," and "Coyote," to her later jazz-based music and her occasional return to acoustic-based songs in the '90s and 2000s. Best of all, the book shows exactly how Mitchell plays these songs, with chord diagrams in the correct tunings and sections of tab for song intros and key instrumental passages.

Famous for her alternate tunings, Mitchell includes a tuning index here that's categorized into chord families "based upon either similarity to standard tuning, or quality (major/minor) of the open chord implied by the component notes." Using Mitchell's numeric system, the index indicates what kinds of tunings she employs for specific songs (for example, standard for "Urge for Going," double dropped D for "Free Man in Paris," major seventh for "Help Me," and so on), as well as which songs require a capo.

Instructions make the process relatively easy to understand: "Joni has devised a system of tuning notation using the letter name of the note found on the sixth string followed by five numbers representing the fret to which the next string will be tuned. For instance, standard tuning would be notated E-5-5-5-4-5. The open sixth string is tuned to an E note. The open fifth string is tuned to the note at the fifth fret of the sixth string. The open fourth string is tuned to the note at the fifth fret of the fifth string, and so on." Non-guitar songs in the book - such as "The Last Time I Saw Richard" and "California," which Mitchell played on piano and dulcimer, respectively - are not included in the tuning index, although the music for those songs has been arranged for guitar. ("California" also includes the dulcimer tuning and a line of dulcimer tab.)

While Joni Mitchell Complete So Far... is first and foremost a songbook, it also includes nine pages of photos, by photographer and former Modern Folk Quartet member Henry Diltz, mostly taken from the '70s and '80s. One shows her alone in a field playing a dulcimer; another has her sitting next to David Crosby in Laurel Canyon, picking on a Martin dread-nought; and another shows her onstage, playing a Gibson Dove, with saxophonist Tom Scott.

And then there's the foreword, "My Secret Place: The Guitar Odyssey of Joni Mitchell," in which Rodgers, Mitchell, and others use technical language as well as art metaphors to get to the heart of how and why she does what she does. "When I'm playing the guitar," Mitchell says, "I hear it as an orchestra: the top three strings being my horn section, the bottom three being cello, viola - the bass being indicated, but not rooted yet."

Joel Bernstein, Mitchell's longtime guitar tech, telescopes the evolution of her playing. "Her first album has some very fine, detailed finger-picking - note for note, there are very specific figures," he says. "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."

Simple yet deep.

That's how many of Mitchell's songs have appeared to her fans over the decades. And though she may remain an enigma, Joni Mitchell Complete So Far... cracks open the window just a little bit more.

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