Tuning Patterns

© 1998 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 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.  


    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 Jim Leahy's article (with changes and additions from the Joni Mitchell Guitar Files) 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 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.)


    The root of the pattern determines the key which will result when the pattern is applied to the strings (please note that the root of the pattern may be different from the root of the key which results when the pattern is applied), but knowing the specific root 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 root note.   Not to worry - you can tune the bottom string down to what you think the approximate root 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 root 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 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
       tune the 3rd string 1/2 step higher to change x77235 into x77325

    x77354 and x78254
       tune the 4th string 1/2 step higher to change x77354 into x78254

    x73635 and x73725
       tune the 3rd string 1/2 step higher to change x73635 into x73725

    x75435 and x73635
       tune the 4th string 1 whole step lower to change x75435 into 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.  


    The tunings listed in the reports at the bottom of this page contain many of the suggestions from Jim Leahy's article, as well as changes and additions which resulted from the transcription work carried out in the last few years by contributors to the Joni Mitchell Guitar Files.  The reports are generated automatically from the JMDL database directly from transcriptions contained in the database.  This means that you can find a corresponding transcription in the proper tuning in our database for every song which appears in these lists.  

    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 or to all of us at this address.


    In the first link below, you will find the songs organized according to their generic patterns.   The sorting is by the top three notes of the pattern, then by pattern, then by song title.  For each song, the bottom note (Root), letter names of the notes (Notes), and the capo position (Capo), if any, are given.   The second list, sorted alphabetically by song title, shows the capo position, notes of the tuning, generic pattern and song title.  

    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.


    Most recent change(s):


    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.

    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.