Your guitar can be an amazingly flexible instrument. This comes in handy when you want to break your songwriting habits and experiment with some new sounds.
Alternate tunings can be a powerful tool to expand your sound palette and make your songs more interesting. After all, the number of popular hits based on alternate tunings is quite high. Some examples include You Can't Always Get What You Want by The Rolling Stones, Iris by the Goo Goo Dolls, and Simple Twist of Fate by Bob Dylan.
Among the many artists and songwriters who frequently used alternate guitar tunings to expand their sonic and harmonic possibilities, Joni Mitchell is probably the undisputed queen.
With more than 52 different guitar tunings in her repertoire, Joni is an endless source of inspiration for any songwriter who would like to experiment with a different approach to the instrument.
In this article, I will guide you through five alternate tunings inspired by Joni Mitchell. I am sure these will help you in finding new interesting solutions for your next song.
Before moving on, let me send a huge thank you and give a shoutout to the amazing community behind the website jonimitchell.com. Some amazing musicians there took the time to transcribe all of Joni's songs and classify them according to their tuning. It is a great resource for beginner songwriters and guitarists. Make sure to check the website out and maybe send them some love.
CGDFBbD - as in Edith And The Kingpin
I want to start with a pretty uncommon tuning that Joni only uses in a bunch of songs, such as Edith And The Kingpin.
With its ethereal sound and flexible performance, this tuning is particularly useful if you want to write a jazzy song.
As with many other tunings employed by Joni Mitchell, with this set of strings, it is very easy to build suspended chords. In fact, we could consider the six notes forming the tuning as a dominant C7 chord, with a second and a fourth (respectively, notes D and F). The presence of these two unstable intervals, combined with the seventh, makes our sound palette quite interesting. I think this sound evokes feelings of melancholy, sweetness, tenderness, inquiry. So it is a perfect tuning for songs about love. Or even for darker tales.
CGDFCE - as in Coyote
The tuning Joni Mitchell uses in the uptempo ballad Coyote, clearly forms a C major chord, with an added second and an added fourth (D and F).
We cannot really say that this chord is suspended because there is a third, E, that identifies the chord as major. Nevertheless, the presence of the two unstable intervals we also found in the previous tuning we examined, makes it, once again, quite straightforward to add a lot of suspended chords to our song.
This means we can play around with the "ambiguity" of these chords to delay the resolution and really take the listener by surprise.
We can also use this tuning to build some interesting bass lines like Joni does in Coyote.
Since we can consider this a major tuning, its sound is quite uplifting. However, with the right set of chords, we can employ it to deliver different emotions too. As an example, consider that the same tuning pattern is used by Joni in the song Ladies Of The Canyon. The tuning is actually one whole step up, so D A E G D F#, but the relation between the intervals is the same. Ladies Of The Canyon is slightly more melancholic and a bit more mysterious than Coyote, yet the same kind of tuning still works perfectly with it.
DAEF#AD - as in Cherokee Louise
Cherokee Louise is a very sad, but beautiful song. Joni Mitchell delivers many different emotions and ideas within it. We go through the loneliness and the fear that Louise feels, but we also experience the playful moments that the two kids portrayed in the song spend together.
To deliver this emotional complexity, the DAEF#AD tuning is great. This time, we have a major D chord with an added second. The presence of two As, the fifth of the chord, gives the musical environment some stability, but we are still dealing with a very flexible tuning, that allows us to experiment not just with suspended chords, but with a whole range of chord variations and interesting voicings.
To have another example of the same tuning pattern, have a listen to Night Ride Home. In there, we have a CGDEGC tuning, one whole step down.
AbAbEbAbCEb - as in This Flight Tonight
This time, we have a sort of open Ab major chord, with no "weird" intervals. However, AbAbEbAbCEb is a bit different from other regular open tunings.
The presence of a very low Ab, and the fact that the tonic is repeated three times, makes the tuning very stable and offers a whole range of possible bass lines. It also allows the guitarist to easily come up with different voicings and interesting variations for the same chords.
Joni Mitchell used a wide variety of "regular" open tunings in her songwriting.
These tunings are also very common in American folk music and on instruments such as the banjo.
Among the others, Joni employed the open D and the open G tuning quite a lot, often with the use of a capo to change the starting key.
Some examples of her songs in open tunings include Big Yellow Taxi, Chelsea Morning, The Circle Game, Both Sides Now, and more.
These tunings are very flexible and approachable. With them, you can easily go beyond the basic major and minor chords and start experimenting with a whole new range of harmonic solutions.
You can write happy songs, sad songs, experimental songs, folk songs, rock songs, and more.
While the previous tunings examined in the article were a bit more specific and peculiar, open tunings can really be for everyone! They are also a great way to practice barre chords (in case you are a struggling beginner guitarist...)
Well people, I hope these five tunings gave you a lot of inspiration to start writing your next hit!
Let me know in the comments if you have a favorite alternate tuning and if you ever wrote a song using it.
Happy songwriting! Rock on!