Striking an unusual chord
Understanding those weird Joni Mitchell guitar chords
Beyond the subtle power and unique beauty of her melodies, lyrics, voice and arrangements, Joni Mitchell is an accomplished and unusual guitarist. While she may not be a guitar hero in the sense of Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Eddie van Halen, Steve Vai or Steve Wilson, she has an excellent command of the fretboard and an adventurous approach to shaping chords and notes.
Earlier in her career, Mitchell relied almost exclusively on the acoustic guitar or piano to write and record songs. In the mid-1970s, however, she turned increasingly to the electric guitar and, in the mid-1980s, she also began to explore the inherently vast musical scope of Fairlight and other synthesizers. She wrote most of her guitar-based songs using an open or non-standard tuning, working with more than 50 different tunings she has referred to as "Joni's weird chords".
The singer-songwriter who has drawn on various forms of rock 'n' roll, rockabilly, folk, rock, blues and jazz for her main structural and chordal ideas has said that her use of alternative and unorthodox tunings enabled her to express harmonies that were more varied, complex and adventurous without having to resort to complex chord shapes.
By watching some of her concert video footage, a literate guitarist will soon sense her approach towards simpler chord shapes made all the more distinct not only by using alternative tunings, but also by her distinctive, if not emphatic, rhythmic combination of strumming and picking. Her guitar style also entails the occasional use of percussive hand slaps on the body of her guitar.
Besides her great and novel guitar style, Mitchell is also a good piano player. More notable, however, is her touching soprano voice, characterised by unusual phrasings and, at its best earlier in her career, one that ranged over more than four octaves.
With the passing of time, her smoking habit has darkened her voice and, in many ways, given it more character, especially when she touches on more desolate or disconcerting topics, as she did so convincingly on Turbulent Indigo.
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Added to Library on September 23, 2007. (7791)
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