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Credit: Paul C Babin

Music

The explosive story behind Joni Mitchell's favourite guitar

@TylerGolsen

Joni Mitchell had a legendary love affair with an acoustic guitar. The instrument of choice for the Canadian singer, acoustic guitars were a necessity in her initial folk period, but even as she branched out to the piano and Appalachian dulcimer, Mitchell always seemed to return the hallowed six-string instrument that gave her so much inspiration and success.

Being an acoustic guitar in Mitchell’s arsenal wasn’t an easy job: known for her wide range of alternate tunings, Mitchell would often experiment and cause tension on the strings, neck, and body of a guitar that it wasn’t originally made to endure. Whether it was dropping a bottom string down an entire octave to play ‘This Flight Tonight’ or tuning to the famous DADF#AD tuning responsible for songs like ‘Chelsea Morning’ (capo: 2nd fret to put it in E) and ‘Both Sides Now’ (capo: 4th fret), Joni’s guitars had to endure uncommon intervals at best and glutenous punishment at worst, even from the notoriously delicate strums of Mitchell.

That’s why, all throughout her initial career, on albums from Song to a Seagull through to For the Roses, Mitchell mostly stuck with just a single guitar: a Martin D-28. As it turns out, the acoustic has a bit of an explosive backstory. The guitar originally belonged to a Marine Captain in Vietnam, and when enemy forces targeted the owner, the tent containing the guitar was hit with shrapnel.

“There were two instruments and all this captain’s stuff in there,” Mitchell explained to Acoustic Guitar Magazine back in 1996. “When they cleared the wreckage, all that survived was this guitar. I don’t know whether the explosion did something to the modules in the wood, but that guitar was a trooper, man.”

The Martin perfectly matched Mitchell’s necessary requirements, and she cherished its ability to stay in tune while bringing her melodies to life. “I need really good intonation, and one of the signs of really good intonation is how flashy the harmonics are with a light touch. You should be able to get them to bloom like jewels.”

Mitchell used the guitar up until the recording of Court and Spark. While touring, the guitar that she called “my dear one” was damaged by an airline, and when Mitchell later landed in Maui, the Martin was stolen at the luggage carousel. Mitchell still lamented the guitar’s theft twenty years later: “I’ve never found an acoustic that could compare with it.” 

Watch Joni Mitchell perform with the Martin D-28 during her appearance at the BBC Studios in 1970.