Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Joni Mitchell's Guitars and Tunings

Joni Mitchell is coming to my home town next month. Out of the three great lady folk singers of the early 1960’s, Joan,Joni and Judy, Joni Mitchell was by far the most interesting guitarist. Plus, she used many very interesting guitars and many more interesting tunings.

The first professional instrument she owned was acquired back in 1966 when she received a 1956 Martin D-28 from a Marine captain. The captain was in Vietnam when his tent was hit with shrapnel, injuring him. 

The captain had two guitars inside his tent at the time. Joni claimed this Martin to be her best guitar ever. She wondered if the explosion did something to the modules in the wood, since the guitars sound was incredible. 

She used this guitar on all of her early albums. But by the time she recorded Court and Spark; the guitar had been damaged by an airline carrier and soon after was stolen from a luggage carousel.

It was in the latter 1970’s when she turned to electric guitars. She preferred George Benson model Ibanez guitars which she usually played through a Roland Jazz Chorus amplifier. To keep up with her unique tunings, Joni traveled with five similar Ibanez guitars

Each guitar was strung with differing sized strings which were matched to the tuning she used. She states that the guitar has to sound crystal clear when playing harmonics. Therefore the more slack the tuning was, the heavier the strings needed to be.

During that same decade Steve Klein built her a wonderful handmade guitar in Klein’s own interesting and decorative style. This instrument was visually and technically a masterpiece. The sound hole’s rosette ring could be removed to provide a larger bass voice that can be tuned by affecting the air resonance of the body. The inlays are I-Ching hexagram number 56. The Wanderer graces the face and upper bout of the instrument and Don Juan’s crow flies on the head stock.

The acoustics she now owns and uses include two Martin’s; a D-45 and a D-28 and a Collings D2H and a Collings ¾ size guitar. All guitars are equipped with Highlander pickups, although she makes use of an external microphone on stage.

In 1995 Fred Walecki, the owner of Westwood Music in Los Angeles, built a unique Stratocaster style guitar for her.  The body was made of lightweight German spruce and the neck was made of maple. This instrument contained a hex-pickup that could be used in conjunction with a Roland VG-8 synthesizer. 

This instrument opened new options for Mitchell. Though the guitars strings maintained original tuning, the synth could alter each strings timbre and pitch. Instead of carrying around five instruments, she could now pack one guitar for her concerts, programming the Roland guitar synthesizer to match her variety of tunings. 

Not only was it useful for her variety of tunings, but also for the unique sounds she could coax from the Roland synth.

More recently I have seen videos of Joni wielding a 2008 Parker Fly Mojo Flame guitar. She uses this guitar as a synth controller in combination with a Roland VG-8 guitar synthesizer.  

This guitar alos contains the built in Hex pickup and a piezo pickup that allows her Parker guitar unique sounds to match her music.

For the unfamiliar, it was during the early part of 1960’s that folk music briefly became the rage. This music grew out of the clubs around Washington Square Park and New York City’s Greenwich Village.  

Many famous players started due to their love of acoustic blues music. The clubs attracted a hotbed of musical talent. Name a well known folk artist and you can be sure he or she got their start by playing at one of these club.  

Joni states she purchased Pete Seeger’s How to Play Folk-Style Guitar. She was so proficient that she skipped ahead of the book’s lessons and learned to fingerpick the way Elizabeth Cotton picked on her famous song “Freight Train.” And though she may not have mastered that alternating 1 – 5 bass line, Mitchell did come up with her own style.

I recently learned part of Joni's reason to use alternate tunings was due to having polio as a child, which affected her left hand. The altered tunings allowed her to play chord shapes that she could not get her weakened hand to play.

Like many guitar greats, the way she strokes and picks the strings with her right hand is the heart of her guitar sound.  Her style went beyond finger picking as she concentrated more and more on song writing.

Early on she caught on the some of the open tunings of blues players. From there she built up a bevy of tunings for her songs.

For instance she says the simplest tuning in her opinion is D modal (DADGBD). She also utilizes other simple tuning in open G (DGDGBD) and open D (DADF#AD).

Both Sides Now
For her two most well known songs, Both Sides, Now and Big Yellow Taxi she uses a capo on the second fret and tunes to open E (EBEG#BE). She makes use of the capo along with the diverse tunings. For Marcie she tunes to CBDFCE.

Mitchell claims she experiments by attempting to play her songs with different tunings to get a larger sound. She visualizes sounds as colours and shapes. To date, Mitchell said that she has used 51 tunings. Some tunings recur at several pitches. Generally speaking, her tunings started at a base of open E and dropped to D and then to C, and these days some even plummet to B or A in the bass. This evolution reflects the steady lowering of her voice since the ’60s, which occurs in all of us as we get older.

Mitchell has come up with a way to categorize her tunings that reminds me of Nashville Notation.  Since the guitar is tuned in fourths which occur on the fifth fret, standard tuning is 5 5 5 4 5 with E as the bottom string. 

Her tunings include 7 5 or 7 7 for the bottom strings. As an example, Free Man in Paris utilizes D A D G B D (the 7 5 tuning).

For those who are interested, the only published documentation of her 30-year guitar odyssey is four single-album songbooks transcribed by Joel Bernstein, her longtime guitar tech and musical/photographic archivist, which show the real tunings and chord shapes.

Joni Mitchell frequently turns to the dulcimer in her on stage performance. During a back packing trip Mitchell did not take a guitar, but did bring the dulcimer and a flute, learning to play both instruments.

Joni and Jaco Pastorius

I may add that Mitchell is also an accomplished pianist. And I cannot leave out the fact that in the 1970’s Joni was very dissatisfied with the standard bass style of the era. 

She came across a bass player from Florida named Jaco Pastorius, who gave a very interesting flavor to her songs. 

And of course Pastorius became on of the most recognized and sought after bass players of his era.

Here it is 2013 and Joni Mitchell is still singing and playing her songs to the delight of her fans and admirers.

2015 Update: Joni has recently suffered an aneurysm which has affected her speech. Let's all wish her the best and a speedy recovery.

 Check out her fingerings in this 1970 video.
©UniqueGuitar Publications (text only)

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Acoustic Travel Guitars Part 2

(I apologize that this review took so long to publish. I had some issues come up in December that delayed  finishing the article. Thank you for understanding.)

Upon doing some further research I discovered there are many companies that offer acoustic travel guitars as part of their line up.

Part One of Acoustic Travel Guitars was based on instruments which I am familiar. Part Two is Acoustic Travel Guitars that I have run across on the web or in reading material.

Blackbird Nylon strung
The first highly unusual and highly expensive acoustic travel guitar is made by a company named Blackbird. The Blackbird Rider Nylon guitar is made of carbon fiber, in the manner of Rainsong Guitars. This is considered a green guitar, although the finish is actually black. No trees were harvested by its manufacturer. So it is CITES approved.

The Rider is indestructible according to the literature. It weighs in at right around 3 pounds. The body on this guitar is somewhat trapezoidal.

There is no sound hole. Instead it has been replaced by a “sound scoop” on the upper bout facing the player. The Rider also comes in a steel string version.

Perhaps the downside is the price. The nylon string version sells for $1900 USD and the steel string Rider sells for $1800.

The Composite Acoustics Cargo travel guitar is another instrument made of carbon fiber, which the manufacturer refers to as composite. As with all carbon guitars, including this one, you get durability and strength in a lightweight package. This guitar holds up well in extreme temperatures and if the airline handles this guitar in a rough manner, it is not going to break.

The instrument’s unique design might be mistaken for an Ovation guitar. It has a fairly deep cutaway which slants downward at the end of the guitars neck, making those high notes very accessible. The sound hole is traditional on this short scale guitar. The fingerboard is also made of composite material, as are the top, back, sides, bridge, saddle and nut.

This instrument comes with an active L.R, Baggs Element, under-saddle transducer with a volume control.

The scale is 22-3/4 inches. Like the Blackbird Rider, this guitar is much too expensive. Its suggested retail price is $1800, but you could probably get one for around $1478 if you are so inclined.

Composite Acoustics: (337) 233-4119; compositeacoustics.com.

The Hawaiian Backpacker Acoustic Travel Guitars, looks much like a Martin Backpacker. The Asian manufacturer refers to it as a Hawaiin/Dulcimer Acoustic Camping/ Backpack guitar.

The guitar is 35 inches from the top of the neck toward the distal end of the guitar. It is only a mere 7-3/4 inches at its widest point.

This is a steel string instrument. The bridge is a traditional style (probably movable) wooden bridge. A mandolin style tailpiece anchors the strings. The Hawaiian Backpacker Acoustic comes with its own gig bag and is a steal for under $40 USD. It comes in natural, black and burnt-red finishes.

The Enorez Travel Guitar is made by a Chinese manufacture and imported by an east coast USA company called Zero One. If you spell zero one backwards, it is loosely Enorez.

Their travel guitar is quite unique. The thin and small body is reminiscent of the shape of an old mandolin. The strings are anchored on the head of the neck and are strung to the tuners at the bottom of the instrument. It looks backwards. This guitar comes with a hardshell tweed case and will set you back $170 to $180 USD.

Yamaha comes in with a sort of acoustic travel instrument they call The Guitalele  GL-1. This is actually a small nylon strung acoustic guitar.

Back in the 1920’s stringed instrument manufacturers were coming out with variations on the banjo such as the banjo-uke, the banjo-mandolin and banjo-guitar. The Guitalele seems to be the current decades version.

Yamaha suggests you tune this instrument to ADGCEA, to compensate for the short scale. This allows you to play guitar chords on the instrument and stay in tune.

The price is around $100 USD. Yamaha considers it to be a fusion of the guitar and the ukulele.

The price is not much more than what mid-priced ukes are currently selling for. The benefit of the Guitalele for a guitarist is not having to learn ukulele chords.  I could be a great at instrument for a guitarist looking for a new way to play, or a ukulele player who wants to produce a fuller sound. The scale is 17", so tuning up a fourth is a must. This is another travel guitar that is sized small enough to fit in an airline overhead compartment.

Tanglewood TB Baby
The TB Baby and Baby Deluxe were offered by the Tanglewood Guitar Company of the U.K as part of their Evolution series. The TB Baby has a similar appearance to the Baby Taylor. The guitar was an all laminate model. The TB Baby Deluxe came with a solid top and sold for around $129 USD. They also made a TB Big Baby. You might check eBay for used models.

Wechter guitar offers a small travel guitar, model 1720 Elite. This comes with a solid mahogany top, sides and back. The neck is contructed of nato wood. The fingerboard is made of rosewood. All Wechter guitars use the Plek Pro Setup system which gives each instrument a personalized factory set up for accurate intonation and is guarenteed to prevent fret buzz. This is done through a computed aided machine with the ability to level frets within .001 mm of accuracy. This enables the 1720 Elite model to maintain a low action for enhanced playability.

The furniture grade mahogany gives this guitar added strength in the event it gets knocked around on a vacation or camping trip. The guitar has a satin finish and a 23.3" scale.

Ovation AA13
Ovation also offers some travel guitars under it's Applause line. These are the Mini-Applause AN13 nylon string guitar and the AA13 steel string acoustic guitar. Both come with spruce tops and Ovation's parabolic back and suggested selling price is $249. The AE13 is an acoustic electric model of the AA13 and sells for $50 more. Gig bags are extra for these instruments

I've mentioned Voyage Air guitars in the past. This company manufacturers full sized guitars with an unique hinged neck. This allows the player to fold the guitar in half an place in a backpacker style case that is included with the instrument. This design meets requirements for airline carry-on luggage.

To pack the guitar away, one simply unscrews a nut at the neck heel.

Surprisingly the hinged neck design is reported not to effect tonality.  Most models sell from $600 to $1000 USD.

This instrument features an East Indian rosewood fretboard and chrome plated tuning heads that top off the neck. The African mahogany bodies with solid spruce tops are manufactured offshore in Korea. The necks are manufactured in the USA and the instrument is assembled in the USA.

Some additional features of the Voyage Air VAOM-04 Songwriter include and hand inlaid 2-ring rosette and 6 ply binding. The saddle is compensated and Voyage Air comes with a proprietary nut design the manufacture refers to as the Captured Nut. The scale is 25.5".

The Amigo Travel guitar can be found on any number of musical instrument web sites including Amazon.com. 

This small guitar has an elongated mandolin shape. The top is solid spruce. The back and sides are mahogany. The Amigo AMT10 comes with a padded nylon carry bag. It is priced from $90 to $120 USD.

The Breedlove Guitar Company offers the C250/CM travel guitar. It is manufactured in Korea. The top is solid western red ceadar. The back and sides are laminated mahogany. It has a short scale of 19.1" and has a street price of aproximately $450 USD.

Breedlove suggests you tune this instrument up 5 frets to A on the first and sixth string to compensate for the short scale. 

The C250 comes with an undersaddle piezo pickup with a built in preamp powered by a nine volt battery. Included is a chromatic tuner that is built in the guitar as well as a tone control.

Emerald X5
The Emerald X5 Life Woody is/was made in Donegal, Ireland. This guitar is the creation of Alistair Hay or Emerald Guitars.It features a one piece carbon composite body and neck. The instrument is enhanced by a redwood burl veneer over the composite fiber. The fiber construction allows the neck heel to have an extreme tapered design allowing easy access to the higher frets. The instrument scale is 25.5" or full scale.

It comes with a B-Band pickup system with a built in tuner and is/was priced at 995 EURO's. It is a beautiful instrument.

Great Divide
For those of you that are short of funds, which would include many of us these days, you may want to look into The Great Divide Campfire SST-N Travel Guitar. $99 USD buys you a small guitar with a solid spruce top, a dove tailed, glued-in mahogany neck topped with a 19 fret rosewood finger board, a bone nut and saddle. The back and sides are laminated sapele wood. The scale is small at only 22.7" and it comes with a gig bag.

Sierra Compass

The Sierra Compass Series ST10 Travel Acoustic Guitar is an excellent travel instrument. It features a solid spruce top and laminated mahogany back and sides. Die-cast chrome tuners and a satin finish.

This instrument includes a high quality padded gig bag. Suggested price is $300 USD.

Alvarez RT16
The Alvarez RT16 Regent Series 7/8 Travel Size Acoustic Guitar is a perfectly formed travel sized dreadnought. Compact, yet plays just like a full size acoustic.

The RT16 comes with an Alvarez padded gig bag and has a spruce top and mahogany back and sides. As a 7/8th sized guitar, the neck profile is easier to play. The guitar is constructed using a dovetail neck joint. The bridge is the patented Alvarez bi-level model, designed to enhance vibration. The scale is short at 22.5". The neck radius is 10". The neck is mahogany topped with a rosewood fretboard.

Newporter Mini
Fender guitars offers the Newporter Traveler Mini Acoustic model. This is named after Fender's well known 1965 Newporter guitar.

The new model is a mini-dreadnought with a short scale at only 22.6 inches.

The guitars top is made of spruce with mahogany back and sides. Fender has used a satin finish for the Newporter. The neck is made of mahogany topped with a 20 fret rosewood board. The bridge is also made of rosewood. Like the '65 model, the mini Newporter comes with a Stratocaster style headstock.

Unfortunately one of the best travel acoustic guitars is no longer in production. You might find one on eBay or another auction site. The Tacoma Papoose, by the Tacoma Guitar Company, was made in Washington state.

This wonderful instrument came with a solid cedar top, solid mahogany back, sides and neck. The fretboard was rosewood, as was the bridge.

Since the scale is 19.1", it was suggested by the manufacturer to tune it to A. It was sold with its own gigbag. Uniquely, the "paisley" soundhole was on the upper top bout.

The bracing on these guitars was proprietary and know as the Voiced Bracing Support System.

Tacoma Guitars were designed by Terry Atkins and George Gruhn, the well known collector/appraiser.

Back when these were being marketed, the list price on the P1 model was around $800. Though most Papoose guitar manufactured were six string models, Tacoma also offered a 12 string model.

Breedlove Passport. This is an excellent arrangement - Chet meets Queen.