Joni Mitchell Guitar Tunings Notation

by Howard Wright



Instead of writing out guitar tunings using the note names for each string, Joni herself uses a system of one letter and five numbers to describe each tuning. The letter is the note name of the bottom (lowest pitch) string, and the numbers represent the fret numbers at which you play one string to be able to tune the next open string.

This notation may look a little strange at first but is in fact very easy to use.

Tuning up

If you have the tunings spelled out with note names, e.g CGDEGC, you need a piano or standard pitch reference (or perfect pitch!) to give you the correct note for each string. Joni's tuning notation makes it simpler to tune up - the numbers tell you which frets to use to tune one string to another, so once you have the bottom string at the correct pitch, it is straight forward to tune the other strings.


Take the example of standard guitar tuning: EADGBE

Most people learn to tune a guitar by first tuning the bottom string to E (using a standard pitch reference such as a guitar tuner, tuning fork etc), then fretting this string at the 5th fret to tune the open A, then fretting the A string at the 5th fret to tune the open D and so on. The tuning notation used by Joni is a simple way of writing down this tuning process by noting the pitch for the lowest string, and the fret numbers needed to tune successive open strings.

Writing normal guitar tuning in "Joni tuning notation" gives : E 55545

Which means :

Note that you only need one note name and five numbers to specify each tuning.

If you tune up using this method, you will usually need to make small adjustments to get the tuning just right. Try strumming the open strings, or some simple chords to see if any strings need some fine tuning.

Exploring alternative tunings

It is surprisingly easy to get 'lost' when you start playing around with different tunings. Imagine you discover a fabulous tuning that you want to remember, but you don't have a standard pitch reference (e.g piano) available - you won't know the names of the notes of the open strings, so how do you write the tuning down?

Using Joni's tuning notation, all you need to do is find which fret on the bottom string gives you the note for the open 5th string, then which fret on the 5th string gives you the note for the open 4th string and so on. You'll be able to write down the tuning this way by describing the relationship between strings in terms of frets.

Comparing different tunings

As well as making it easier to tune up, Joni's system of tuning notation makes comparisons between different tunings much easier, and it can also help you to spot "families" of tunings. For example, the connection between the following two tunings isn't obvious at first glance.

Tuning 1 = C# F# B E G# C#
Tuning 2 = E A D G B E (standard tuning).

Writing the two in the 'Joni' system, the connection becomes immediately clear :

Tuning 1 = C# 55545
Tuning 2 = E 55545

In other words, the relative tuning of the strings is the same, it's just the reference pitch for the lowest string which differs.

Similarly, when tunings such as D A E F# A D and B F# C# D# F# B are written in Joni's tuning notation, their similarity is revealed: D 77235 and B 77235.

If the relative tuning of strings is the same, as in the two examples above, the same chord shapes that are used in one tuning can be used in the second tuning - the only difference is that the chords will be in a different key. This is useful, as it allows you to 'transfer your knowledge' from one tuning to another. Marian Russell has written a lot more about this and the concept of tuning patterns on this page.

Joni herself sometimes refers to tuning families:

(From My Secret Place, an article by Jeffrey Pepper Rogers from Acoustic Guitar, August 1996)

Mitchell has come up with a way to categorize her tunings into families, based on the number of half steps between the notes of adjacent strings. "Standard tuning's numerical system is 5 5 5 4 5, with the knowledge that your bass string is E, right?" she said. "Most of my tunings at this point are 7 5 or 7 7, where the 5 5 on the bottom is. The 7 7 and the 7 5 family tunings are where I started from."

Mitchell continued, "However, the dreaded 7 9 family - I have about seven songs in 7 9 tunings - are in total conflict with the 7 5 and the 7 7 families. They're just outlaws"

Octave and unison tunings

Joni's tuning notation also makes it easier to distinguish strings that are tuned in unison from those tuned in octaves. For example, if the tuning for Joni's song This Flight Tonight is written as Ab Ab Eb Ab C Eb, it's not clear whether the bottom two strings are tuned in unison or in octaves. Specifying the tuning in 'Joni notation' makes it clear. The tuning is Ab 12 7 5 4 3, so the bottom two strings are in fact tuned an octave (12 frets) apart.

Pitch intervals between strings

The numbers used in this tuning notation make it easy to see what the pitch intervals between adjacent strings are. In the example above (This Flight Tonight) the first number is 12, which means the bottom two strings are 12 frets or one octave apart. The table below shows the musical interval that corresponds to different numbers of frets.

Number of frets (semitones) Interval
0 Unison
1 Semitone, half step or flat 2nd
2 Tone, whole step or 2nd
3 Minor 3rd
4 Major 3rd
5 Perfect 4th
6 Augmented (sharp) 4th or diminished (flat) 5th
7 Perfect 5th
8 Minor 6th or augmented (sharp) 5th
9 Major 6th
10 Minor 7th or flat 7th
11 Major 7th
12 Octave

You can use this table to see what the musical intervals are between strings for different Joni tunings. For example, looking up the intervals that correspond to the fret numbers for the tuning C 77235, we find the tuning has the following intervals between strings: perfect 5th, perfect 5th, 2nd, minor 3rd, perfect 4th.

The most common intervals for Joni's tunings are perfect 5ths, perfect 4ths, major 3rds, minor 3rds and 2nds.

Last updated May 2011