Hole Notes: Joni Mitchell’s Altered-Tuning Innovations

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Canadian-born Joni Mitchell originally intended to be a fine artist and considered herself a hobbyist musician in the early Sixties, occasionally playing paid gigs to support her painting studies.

That all changed by the mid Sixties, when personal issues, including needing to give a child up for adoption, inspired her to channel her troubled thoughts into original songs—music that would soon be covered by established folk artists like Tom Rush and Judy Collins, who had a Top-10 hit with Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” in 1967.

In 1965, Mitchell moved to the U.S., performing her own material in coffee houses and folk clubs along the East Coast. At a Florida gig in 1967, she met David Crosby (soon to form Crosby, Stills and Nash), who was floored by her soaring voice, innovative use of altered tunings and profound lyrics.

He convinced her to move to California and encouraged Reprise Records to release her solo acoustic debut (Songs to a Seagull) in 1968. By the end of that decade, Joni Mitchell was a household name. This month, I’ll examine the tunings and techniques of this legend’s signature songs.

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A singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist/film composer, Musician's Institute instructor, and author of 50+ transcription/instructional books, Dale Turner is also Guitar World's "Hole Notes"/"Acoustic Nation" columnist, and the former West Coast Editor of Guitar One magazine. Some of Dale’s old, weird, rare, and/or exotic instruments are featured in his score for WEEDS, the first animated short completed within the Filmmakers Co-op at Disney Feature Animation. His most recent CD, Mannerisms Magnified, was praised by Guitar Player magazine for its "Smart pop tunes that are crammed with interesting guitar parts and tones ... Like what the Beach Boys might do if they were on an acid trip that was on the verge of getting out of control. Yeah!"