Personalities | Joni Mitchell | Creative Tuner | Guitar Heroes
Joni Mitchell (b. 1943) evolved from a traditional folk singer in the 1960s to a world-class singer, composer and innovator whose unique guitar tunings and jazz explorations in the 1970s and 1980s are still widely influential.
Mitchell began singing in small nightclubs in Canada. In 1965, she moved to the United States and began touring. Some of her original songs were covered by notable folk singers, which led to her debut album in 1968. Popular songs like ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ and ‘Woodstock’ expanded her popularity, and her 1971 album Blue received wide critical and popular acclaim. Mitchell began exploring jazz rhythms on 1974’s Court And Spark, her bestselling LP, which featured the radio hits ‘Help Me’ and ‘Free Man In Paris’.
Her gymnastic vocals and distinctive open-tuned guitar and piano compositions grew more complex as she explored jazz, melding it with influences of rock’n’roll, R&B, classical music and non-Western rhythms. In the late 1970s, she began working closely with noted jazz musicians, among them Jaco Pastorius, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny and Charles Mingus, who asked her to collaborate on his final recordings. She is the sole record producer credited on most of her albums, including all her work in the 1970s. She has designed her own album artwork throughout her career.
Mitchell initially learned guitar from a folk songbook, but polio in childhood had weakened her left hand, and some fingerings were difficult for her to execute. As she added new folk songs to her repertoire, she began to devise alternative tunings that allowed her to play each song. Later, she said, this improvised approach would be ‘a tool to break free of standard approaches to harmony and structure’ in her own songwriting.
Almost every song Mitchell composes on the guitar uses a non-standard open tuning, and she has written songs in some 50 tunings. In 1995, Mitchell began using a Roland VG system that could reproduce her numerous tunings electronically without the need to physically change the tuning of the guitar. Mitchell’s longtime archivist, the San Francisco-based Joel Bernstein, maintains a detailed list of all her tunings at jonimitchell.com, and has assisted her in relearning the tunings for several older songs.
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