The Circle Game – Joni Mitchell
Talk about open G tuning for guitars and the conversation almost automatically turns to Keith Richards or the great old blues players and slide guitarists. But Joni Mitchell should be included in that conversation, too. She, and Ani DiFranco, are certainly masters of playing in different tunings.
When talk turns to open and alternate tunings it’s easy, especially for a beginning guitarist, to start thinking that any song is going to be harder, much harder to play. When you hear the intricate and beautiful guitar parts Joni created you usually are too busy admiring them to wonder just way she choose to play in those tunings in the first place. But the fact is that in Joni Mitchell’s case, different tunings made it easier for her to play guitar in terms of fretting chords because of the affects of polio.
In this song lesson, we’ll look at an easy single-guitar arrangement of Joni’s classic “The Circle Game,” played in a way that’s even easier than her original version, but one that also has a bit of flair of its own.
First you’ll want to tune your guitar to open G, which is a very simple thing to do:
Open G is one of the easiest alternate tunings to achieve. As you see in the chart, you want to lower both E strings and the A string down one full step, which turns the Es into Ds and the G into an A.
Structurally speaking, “The Circle Game” is a simple verse-chorus song, with four verses and four choruses. Both the verse and the chorus break down very nicely into four sections of four measures each, so we’ll take on each part of the song in these small and easy to learn segments.
A few things to note at this point: Joni’s recording on “The Circle Game,” from her 1970 album Ladies of the Canyon, is played in the key of B. So you’ll want to place a capo on the fourth fret if you want to match the pitch of the original recording. In all our examples, we’ll be playing it without a capo, in the key of G. Having said all that, it’s also good to realize that a lot of people sing this in the key of C (the key of the original sheet music publication), so you just put your capo on the fifth fret if that’s the case.
Intro and Verses
Also, as with all our Guitar Noise song lessons, this is not a note-by-note transcription of the song. There will certainly be a lot of the original in this arrangement, but we’ve also made it a little easier by using more of a straight arpeggio picking pattern (a little like that used in “The House of the Rising Sun“) instead of a complicated pattern more in Travis-style fingerpicking.
This doesn’t mean you will be lacking for challenges, though! First you’ll want to familiarize yourself with a chord you already know, but which has another name here in the world of Open G tuning:
In standard tuning, this chord is Am7. But here in Open G, it’s Cadd9/G, and makes a wonderful substitution for the regular C chord. And once you’re okay with this chord’s new name, you’re going to want to brush up on your hammer-on technique in order to play our version of the introduction:
This may look a little confusing at first because the hammer-on to the second fret of the D string seems to come from nowhere, unlike the hammer-on that happens at the first fret of the B string, which springs from the open B string. B’s a technical term for this, but basically you’re going to start out playing the open strings and then, after hitting the open B string in the second half of the second beat, you hammer onto both the B and D strings simultaneously (forming the Cadd9/G), using your index finger to hammer the first fret of the B string while using your middle finger to hammer the second fret of the string.
This “hammer from empty space,” if you will, may seem a little weird at first, but it’s something you can easily get better at with a little practice and repetition. It’s a key part of all the percussive guitar playing that seems to be all the rage (again) these days, but it’s also an important technique to have regardless of your style of playing.
And, in our arrangement of “The Circle Game,” you’re going to be using it quite a lot! These two measures of “Example 1” will serve as our introduction, and you should also feel free to use them as an interlude between verses. It’s a great way to take a little breather or if you need to stall while remembering how the next line starts!
Musically, the first four measures of the verse couldn’t start out any easier (especially if you’ve already done some practicing on “Example 1”):
As you can see and hear, the first measure is simply an open string arpeggio, while the second measure is an arpeggio of Cadd9/G. Measures three and four are just a repeat of “Example 1.” So far, so good!
We’ll be adding two new chords in the next section:
And this is what you’ll be doing with them:
Again, you’re starting with one full measure each of the open string (G chord) arpeggio and the Cadd9/G. Then you’ll be doing one measure each of these D and D7 chords. While there are all sorts of ways to play them, you may find it easiest by using your pinky (on the B string) and ring finger (on the G string) when playing the D. Doing so means you can keep your pinky in place for the D7 and place your index finger on the fifth fret of the G string.
In the next two sections, you’ll be using a Bm chord and a different version of Cadd9, so let’s take a look at these:
I highly recommend forming the Bm (which will be used in “Example 3”) using the finger position many people use to form the open position A chord in standard tuning: your ring finger will go on the fourth fret of the G string and your middle finger on the fourth fret of the A string (or what used to be the “A string” since it’s been retuned to G), allowing you to place your index finger between them on the fourth fret of the D string. This may seem strange, but it should help you to then slide each finger up to the fifth fret and then complete the Cadd9 (which starts “Example 4”) by adding your pinky to the fifth fret of the B string.
You’ve also got a cool pull-off to deal with in the next section of our song:
“Example 4” starts out exactly like “Example 2” and “Example 3” but after playing the open high string to start the third beat (while still fingering the Cadd9/G), you pinch both the B and D string and then pull off both fingers to sound the open strings. Then you play the open G string.
Believe it or not, the main reason for doing so is to get all your fingers off the strings, which allows you to be ready to play the Bm chord we discussed a moment ago. How’s that for a bit of smoke and mirrors?
The last section of the verse begins with the four-finger Cadd9 chord that we also discussed a moment ago. It will also introduce you to different Bm and Am chords:
The most logical fingering for these is to use your index finger on the B string, your ring finger on the G string, and your middle finger taking care of the bass notes on what used to be the A string. You’ll be using these two chords quite a bit in the chorus, so take some time to get familiar with playing them. And the last four measures of the verse will help you do just that:
Here, as mentioned, you start with the four-fingered Cadd9 chord for the first measure. It’s the second measure that’s the most complicated but it actually gives you a lot of help to make it work smoothly. First you play the open strings of the G chord arpeggio, but while you’re picking them make use of that time to reposition your fretting fingers for the Bm chord that starts the third beat. Pinch the strings, using your thumb to strike the bass note (on what used to be the A string) and either your middle or your index finger to pick the note on the B string and then use your index finger to pick the note on the G string. After doing so, slide your fretting hand two frets closer to the headstock and you’re good to go with the Am of the final beat of the second measure.
Fittingly, the last two measures are a repeat of “Example 1,” so you can breeze through those and get ready to play the chorus.
Before we get to the chorus, though, this would be a good place to point out that on the original recording of “The Circle Game,” Joni plays two beats of this Bm followed by two beats of this Am, played in her inimitable Travis picking style for a few measures before settling into what we’re using as the introduction. It’s easy enough to do if you want to give it a try.
Each of the four-measure sections of the chorus offers you a bit of a combination between the things you’ve learned from playing the verse and some new ideas. In the first four-measure section, you get to play around some more with the G, Bm, and Am chords:
Here you see and hear that the first and third measures are simple open string G chord arpeggios while the second and fourth measures go from Bm to Am (just as in the second measure of “Example 5”) before returning to G and (in the second measure) Am again.
I should point out here that in the original recording, the second measure of the chorus is exactly the same as the fourth measure, meaning that there is no return to Am on the fourth beat as we do in this arrangement. Why? I find that when singing and playing the song at the same time the use of the Am again on the fourth beat helps give the playing a little more momentum, pushing it a little into the next line. You can certainly decide, as always, to play it differently than either this arrangement or that of the original recording.
And speaking of playing things differently, let’s take a look at the next four-measure section:
Depending on how comfortable you are with full barre chords, you may decide that the two measures of “Example 7” may be too difficult to play. Don’t worry, you have other options. First, you can simply play the Cadd9/G chord you’ve been playing perfectly fine up to this point. Use it for two measures of Cadd9/G to substitute for the two measures of C here.
Likewise, if you’re willing to try the barre but unsure of adding the embellishing hammer-ons and pull-offs, just barre the fifth fret and play an arpeggio using the same picking pattern you use for the open G chord arpeggio. Start with what used to be the A string and pick four strings down and then start with the thinnest string and pick four strings up.
If you do decide to give this arrangement’s two measures of C a shot, you may find it easiest to use your pinky to perform the hammer-ons and pull-offs. These first two measures, by the way, are repeated in the first two measures of “Example 8,” so it’s worth practicing them to the point where you feel comfortable playing them smoothly and cleanly.
And to give you a nice reward for taking on the hardest two measures of the song so far (and to give you a rest before playing them again), you get to play the two measures of “Example 1” again. A quick note about this – in “Example 7” I found it a very nice compliment to the melody to pinch the thinnest string along with the bass note on the first beat of the third measure. I liked it so much, in fact, that I included it here in the arrangement. And then in the final MP3 audio file for this lesson I went and forgot it! Sorry about that!
Anyway, moving onward with the chorus:
As mentioned, the first two measures of “Example 8” are the same as the first two of “Example 7” so you also have the options as far as playing them.
In the third measure, you start out with the first four strings of the open G arpeggio and then barre the fourth fret with your index finger and use your pinky at the seventh fret. Finish this section by sliding your index finger up to barre at the fifth fret.
Again, if you’re uncomfortable with full barres (or simply working your way up to getting better at them), you can use the Bm chord form from the last two measures of “Example 4” in the verse and follow that with either the old reliable Cadd9/G or the Cadd9 from the first measure of “Example 5.”
Okay, four measures to go!
The first measure of “Example 9” gives you a break from all the eighth notes you’ve been playing up to this point. You could certainly use the open D (fourth) string as a constant pedal point, playing it on every second half of each beat (as it’s played in the first beat), but it’s good for any song arrangement to have a place or two where rhythms and picking patterns take a rest.
You’ll notice that, aside from the initial F# at the seventh fret of the B string, every other note is on an open string, giving you all the time in the world to set up for the Am and Bm chords in the second measure. Here again, this arrangement chooses to deliberately play these chords with a different picking pattern (making use of the open D (fourth) string) than those at the end of the verse or the beginning of the chorus simply to add something new for the listeners. You can, if you’d like, play these Am and Bm chords with the same patterns as before. It’s totally up to you.
And, of course, we’ll end the song just as we started it, with two measures from “Example 1.”
That’s pretty much it. Here’s your “chord sheet” and an MP3 audio of the intro, full verse, and chorus:
I hope that you’ve enjoyed this song lesson on “The Circle Game” and that you find it worthy of playing it for your own (and other folks’) entertainment as well as for your own further guitar education.
Feel free to post any and all questions, comments and suggestions either right here or on our Forum Pages (we’ve got one dedicated specifically to Guitar Noise Song Lessons, by the bye!) or email me directly at [email protected].
And, again as always, until our next lesson,