One of the most innovative aspects of Joni Mitchell and her guitar playing involves the way she tunes her instrument. While most guitars are kept at standard tuning, strung E-A-D-G-B-E from low to high, Mitchell almost never uses a standard tuning set-up for anything. Instead, her guitar could be tuned to any number of wild intervals that would baffle even the most complex jazz players.
With a left hand weakened from a childhood battle with polio, Mitchell simply couldn’t press down on the strings as hard as her peers. It was from some of those peers that she took her first forays into alternate tunings.
“In the beginning, I built the repertoire of the open major tunings that the old black blues guys came up with,” Mitchell told journalist Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers in 1996. “It was only three or four. The simplest one is D modal [D A D G B D]; Neil Young uses that a lot. And then open G [D G D G B D], with the fifth string removed, which is all Keith Richards plays in. And open D [D A D F#A D]. Then going between them I started to get more ‘modern’ chords, for lack of a better word.”
From there, Mitchell began experimenting outside of traditional open chord tunings. Instead of focusing closely on theory or exact notes, Mitchell instead relied on her background as a painter and an artist to help guide her through her tuning choices.
“Pure majors are like major colours; they evoke pure well-being,” Mitchell said. “Anybody’s life at this time has pure majors in it, given, but there’s an element of tragedy. No matter what your disposition is, we are air breathers, and the rain forests coming down at the rate they are…there’s just so much insanity afoot. We live in a dissonant world. Hawaiian [music], in the pure major – in paradise, that makes sense. But it doesn’t make sense to make music in such a dissonant world that does not contain some dissonances.”
Eventually, Mitchell stumbled into some wild tunings. There are the wild low growls of ‘This Flight Tonight’, the puzzling dissonance of ‘Sistowbell Lane’, and the insistent drone of ‘The Magdalene Laundries’. While some artists amassed a collection of a few alternate tunings, nearly every single song Mitchell ever wrote and recorded has its own unique tuning pattern associated with it.
The re-tuning process became so complicated that Mitchell even devised her own numerical system to catalogue all of her different tunings. “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.”
“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. They’re guaranteed bass clams [laughs], ’cause the thumb gets used to going automatically into these shapes, and it has to make this slight adaptation,” Mitchell explains. As should be expected, all these different tunings caused problems when Mitchell would perform live. Multiple guitars would be brought on the road, but even that system couldn’t keep up.
In 1995, luthier Fred Walecki conjured up a solution to Mitchell’s maddening tuning and re-tuning issues: an electric guitar that was in standard tuning, but its pickups could alter the signal to create alternate tunings within the guitar’s built-in synthesiser. The result would be that, when Mitchell strummed a chord, the result would be any of her custom tunings that she’s accumulated over the years.
“This new guitar that I’m working with eliminated a certain amount of problems that I had with the acoustic guitar,” Mitchell explained. “Problems isn’t even the right word; maddening frustrations is more accurate. The guitar is intended to be played in standard tuning; the neck is calibrated and everything. Twiddling it around isn’t good for the instrument, generally speaking. It’s not good for the neck; it unsettles the intonation. I have very good pitch, so if I’m never quite in tune, that’s frustrating.”
Check out Mitchell using the custom guitar in a performance of ‘Just Like This Train’ in 1996.