by Howard Wright
This notation may look a little strange at first but is in fact very easy to use.
Take the example of standard guitar tuning: EADGBE
Most people learn to tune a guitar by first tuning the bottom string to E (using a standard pitch reference such as a guitar tuner, tuning fork etc), then fretting this string at the 5th fret to tune the open A, then fretting the A string at the 5th fret to tune the open D and so on. The tuning notation used by Joni is a simple way of writing down this tuning process by noting the pitch for the lowest string, and the fret numbers needed to tune successive open strings.
Writing normal guitar tuning in "Joni tuning notation" gives : E 55545
Which means :
Note that you only need one note name and five numbers to specify each tuning.
If you tune up using this method, you will usually need to make small adjustments to get the tuning just right. Try strumming the open strings, or some simple chords to see if any strings need some fine tuning.
Exploring alternative tunings
Using Joni's tuning notation, all you need to do is find which fret on the bottom string gives you the note for the open 5th string, then which fret on the 5th string gives you the note for the open 4th string and so on. You'll be able to write down the tuning this way by describing the relationship between strings in terms of frets.
Comparing different tunings
Tuning 1 = C# F# B E G# C#
Writing the two in the 'Joni' system, the connection becomes immediately clear :
Tuning 1 = C# 55545
In other words, the relative tuning of the strings is the same, it's just the reference pitch for the lowest string which differs.
Similarly, when tunings such as D A E F# A D and B F# C# D# F# B are written in Joni's tuning notation, their similarity is revealed: D 77235 and B 77235.
If the relative tuning of strings is the same, as in the two examples above, the same chord shapes that are used in one tuning can be used in the second tuning - the only difference is that the chords will be in a different key. This is useful, as it allows you to 'transfer your knowledge' from one tuning to another. Marian Russell has written a lot more about this and the concept of tuning patterns on this page.
Joni herself sometimes refers to tuning families:
Mitchell has come up with a way to categorize her tunings into families, based on the number of half steps between the notes of adjacent strings. "Standard tuning's numerical system is 5 5 5 4 5, with the knowledge that your bass string is E, right?" she said. "Most of my tunings at this point are 7 5 or 7 7, where the 5 5 on the bottom is. The 7 7 and the 7 5 family tunings are where I started from."
Mitchell continued, "However, the dreaded 7 9 family - I have about seven songs in 7 9 tunings - are in total conflict with the 7 5 and the 7 7 families. They're just outlaws"
Octave and unison tunings
Pitch intervals between strings
You can use this table to see what the musical intervals are between strings for different Joni tunings. For example, looking up the intervals that correspond to the fret numbers for the tuning C 77235, we find the tuning has the following intervals between strings: perfect 5th, perfect 5th, 2nd, minor 3rd, perfect 4th.
The most common intervals for Joni's tunings are perfect 5ths, perfect 4ths, major 3rds, minor 3rds and 2nds.