The Real Reason Why Joni Mitchell’s Guitar Playing Was So Unique

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Joni Mitchell is rightly feted as one of the most distinctive songwriters is her time. A stunning artist, she was blessed with mastery over two instruments – her voice, so nimble and pure, and her incredibly creative approach to the guitar.

The Canadian songwriter was known for using inventive open tunings, carefully tuning each string up and down until she could uncover the right chords. Indeed, this approach was tied to its emotional impact – little wonder each song ended up sounding like a symphony unto itself.

As she once told Acoustic Player: “Pure majors are like major colours; they evoke pure well-being. 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.”

A stunning blend of light and shade, the beauty inherent in Joni Mitchell’s music was often rooted in darker aspects of her life – the heartbreak, the frustration, and her own battle to survive. Diagnosed with polio at the age of nine, she was hospitalised for long periods of time, and this resulted in her left hand becoming weakened.

When approaching the guitar, this meant that some traditional chord shapes would make her uncomfortable when playing for long periods of time. During her school years, Joni Mitchell tucked herself away with a songbook crafted by Pete Seeger, and decided to re-tune the guitar herself to let her left hand sit in a more natural shape.

“When I play the guitar,” she explained, “I hear it as an orchestra: the top three strings being horn section, the bottom three being cello, viola, and bass—the bass being indicated but not rooted.”

It’s a facet that can sometimes be overlooked, but not by those close to her – and certainly not by her peers. David Crosby famously stumbled across Joni Mitchell’s talents in a coffeehouse, and worked closely on the Canadian artist’s debut album.

The late Croz once opined to Rolling Stone:  “She was a folkie who had learned to play what they call an indicated arrangement. Where you are like a band in the way you approach a chord and string the melody along. She was so new and fresh with how she approached it.” 

“It’s the reason I fell in love with her music. She was a fantastic rhythm player and growing so fast. She had mastered the idea that she could tune the guitar any way she wanted, to get other inversions of the chords. I was doing that too, but she went further.” 

Check out an archive clip below to see Joni Mitchell’s guitar playing up close.

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