By Strings Direct – 29 August, 2023
- PLAYER SPOTLIGHT -
“Success I adore. It means I can buy 1959 Gibson Les Pauls and Triumph motorcycles. But I detest fame. It interferes with what you do and has no redeeming features at all.”
INTRODUCING MARK KNOPFLER
There are many Greats and many truly distinctive players but this editions player really has an unmistakable sound and instantly recognisable expression through the guitar.
His pure individuality and unique style has carved out a legacy in the world of classic rock 'n' roll. Regarded as one of the best guitar players to ever live only ever using just the right amount of notes, his name, legacy, and catalogue of work are always at the forefront of any guitar legend debate. Transcending historic cultural music boundaries his exquisite playing has gained him the highest accolades and recognition.
Iconic, regarded one of the British guitar playing masters, a discrete virtuoso who channels his subdued flamboyance into his playing and writing as a flawless musician. Let’s learn a bit more about Mark Knopfler.
THE MUSIC CRITIC, BECOMES MUSICIAN
Mark Knopfler is a working-class musician and very much a salt of the Earth person; in every respect he’s the every man's hero.
Born in Glasgow in August 1949 to an architect and a school teacher Mark’s passion and work ethic was something he developed quite early on; the fact that his parents' career path's reflect heavily on his ethics as a musician is quite interesting. The Knopfler family relocated to a town just outside Newcastle when Mark was around 7-years-old.
In the traditional manner back in those days Knopfler was inspired initially by his uncle who was an avid harmonica and boogie-woogie piano player. This is cited as the inception of the want to be involved in music in some form. It was here that he became accustomed to many different types of music and artists.
“I heard my Uncle Kingsley playing boogie-woogie on the piano when I was about eight or nine, and I thought that those three chords were the most magnificent things in the world - still do.”
This was the turning point, it had begun and he started to pester his father for his dream guitar - the poster guitar of the time - the classic fiesta red Fender Stratocaster championed by the great Hank Marvin of The Shadows. 🎸
Like many young people of the 50s & 60s the influences were similar and relative to what was commercially available; those who are still influencing players to this day, like Elvis Presley, and guitarists Chet Atkins, Scotty Moore, B.B. King, Django Reinhardt, Hank Marvin, and James Burton. These artists still to this day feature as a backbone for many guitarists and musicians. In his formative years he reflects fondly on becoming intrigued by and completely obsessed with guitar as an iconic instrument.
The following description of Mark’s love of the guitar can be fully related to by many of us I think. I myself fell into a similar pattern in my teen years and Saturday’s were the day to visit the guitar shops, not to buy anything but just look and absorb the entire culture and mystical nature of it all.
“I remember standing outside music stores with my nose pressed up against the glass, just staring at those electric guitars,” he told People magazine in 1985. “I used to smell Fender catalogs, I wanted one so bad.” Knopfler eventually talked his father into buying him a Höfner Super Solid V2 guitar for £50. The only problem was, it didn’t come with an amplifier. “I didn’t have the nerve to ask poor old dad for an amp,” Knopfler says in the documentary above. “I blew up the family radio in fairly short order.”
M.Knopfler - Guitar Stories - Sky Arts
The truly interesting thing about Knopfler’s journey as a developing guitar player is that it was something that developed alongside a somewhat stable education and strong work academic ethic. He almost never fully committed himself as a guitar player and musician like many do, he is a man of many talents. Often we'll find that the guitar greats, or masters in any profession for that matter, fully immersive themselves in it; it becomes their sole focus, and identity. Mark Knopfler was a little different...
He lived the classic student life and followed education and opportunity, and it was actually this commitment that was taking him to different places and meeting more people within the music industry that would eventually shape his future.
At the age of 16 he commenced his further studies at Harlow technical college where he pursued journalism. Two years in he landed a very good position at the Yorkshire Evening Post which allowed him to expressively write news stories and fulfil the role of 'Music Critic' within the publication which is of course quite ironic... Every musician's fear 😟... the dreaded music critic. 😱
Within the incredible program here by Sky Arts it's the chance introduction to the now historically associated National Resonator guitar that actually became a key point in Knopfler’s unique playing style.
MARK KNOFLER'S HANDCRAFTED PLAYING STYLE
Stated several times in many interviews and documentaries Mark is a self taught player through and through. While this fact is not particularly unique, it's the style he developed that is the real intriguing part. Knopfler's style is a hybrid of that country-style chicken pickin' and classic rock 'n' roll with an unforgivingly clean tone. This individual finger style of playing synonymous with him, was something subtly imprinted into him more than consciously pursued.
“Hired as a junior reporter on the Yorkshire Evening Post. On an early assignment, he accompanies journalist Stephen Phillips when he interviews a local musician making good in the Leeds area, coincidentally also called Stephen Phillips. The two guitar nuts become fast friends; some 22 years later, they are fellow members of the country rock spinoff group the Notting Hillbillies.”
Quote - https://www.markknopfler.com/about/timeline/
THE NATIONAL RESONATOR GUITAR
It was the introduction of this particular instrument that sent him on a different path in terms of technique, he learns a lot about the old Blues styles and organic techniques utilised when he started to play alongside Steve Phillips under the name “Duolian String Pickers”.
The instrument itself presented a different, and more expressive approach, and this is something Mark carries forward to this very day in his approach to music and different instruments. He also conveys how different string gauges can lead him down different paths of creativity and expression as an artist.
His style is something that is continually examined, talked about, and praised by players and fans alike: “Knopfler is left-handed, but plays the guitar right-handed."
In its review of Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms in 1985, Spin commented:
"Mark Knopfler may be the most lyrical of all rock guitarists.”
In the same year, Rolling Stone commended his "evocative" guitar style, and according to Classic Rock in 2018: "The bare-boned economy of Knopfler's songs and his dizzying guitar fills were a breath of clean air amid the lumbering rock dinosaurs and one-dimensional punk thrashers of the late 70s. He was peerless as craftsman and virtuoso, able to plug into rock's classic lineage and bend it to sometimes wild forms. He wrote terrific songs, too: taut mini-dramas of dark depths and dazzling melodic and lyrical flourishes.”.
His individuality as a guitar hero is encapsulated perfectly by our good friends at guitar.com:
This is the hard bit, as Knopfler is unique – to his numerous fans, he’s simply the ‘best’ guitarist in the world. He plays fingerstyle nearly all of the time, anchoring his right pinky and fourth finger to the guitar’s top and his thumb usually straight. So he fingerpicks with just three digits.
His stabbing fills were a signature of early records, alongside a peerless sense of melody. He can play very fast indeed, but he’s became increasingly well-known for his achingly lyrical bluesy licks as well: think of Brothers In Arms (the track) and Telegraph Road. Oh, and he’s actually left-handed as well! He’s a one-off.”
Michael Leonard - guitar.com
This unique approach engaged with the masses at the time and up to the present day, transcending borders boundaries and genres.
For us the following clip is simply one of the best guitar videos on the Internet 🤘. Mesmerising to watch how the fixed Wah accents his percussive thumb and the notched tone lets the higher registers of the riff soar through the gritty overdrive, one of the most iconic guitarists on the planet:
DIRE STRAIT TO MTV
Dire Straits are definitely a British National Treasure. The collaboration of these individuals was something not too heavily forced but more spontaneous coincidence. Dire Straits was formed by the crossing of paths within the bigger circle that was “the scene” at the time.
Knopfler had graduated and taken a job as a lecturer at a college in Loughton, Essex, and by this time he was already establishing himself as a great player on the local circuit. However, along with being identified as a musician he remained a hard-working journalistic professional, but then shortly after graduating in 1973 he pursued the music scene with a move towards London.
I find it amazing and very noble that Mark is a self-taught player and a self-educated man who continued to move up the educational system with a professional work ethic even though deep down he was consumed by Guitar. ✌️
“Dire Straits play their first show (as Café Racers), outdoors, as part of the Crossfields Festival. The set includes ‘Sultans Of Swing’, ‘Down To The Waterline’, and ‘Southbound Again’, as well covers of songs by Ry Cooder and Brenda Lee.”
The band started out after a mutual decision to play together formed from previous projects and being fellow acquaintances, there were two Knopflers in the band initially being Mark and his younger brother David. They were joined by friends and fellow musicians John Illsley and Pick Withers.
Dire Straits were such an individual sounding outfit that they've stood the test of time. Even to this day, the unique delivery and ahead-of-its-time songwriting really cements their place in the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame.
Multi award-winning in both Brits and Grammy's - to name but a few - this is a band that are integral in our musical history and culture. A pretty apt description: progressive rock, but not in its usual guise, revolutionary, and way ahead of their time!
“I want my MTV…”
A line that will resonate well with anybody who remembers that time that place and that trend. 😎
WHAT STRINGS DOES MARK KNOPFLER USE?
Mark Knopfler plays a mixture of D'Addario guitar strings for all of his instruments. For electric guitar his preferred strings are the XL-Series nickel wound 10-46 (EXL110) and 11-49 (EXL115).
What we have here is a very individual rock 'n' roll guitar player with influences and techniques being pulled from pretty much every genre be it Blues, Rock, Country, or Jazz. It’s a complete fusion in the unique playing style of Mark Knopfler.
“I was sleeping on the floor in somebody’s apartment. They had a cheap imitation of a Gibson Dove acoustic with unbelievably light strings. It was like playing an electric guitar, but there was a little bit of sound to it. You couldn’t really strum or bash it, so I had to fingerpick. As I was flying around this guitar, I realised I was doing things with my fingers that I could do with a pick and also some other things that I wouldn’t be able to do with a pick. Playing with your fingers has something to do with immediacy and soul…”
Mark Knopfler for Michael Leonard - guitar.com
So does that mean this very one-of-a-kind guitar hero needs a very one-of-a-kind string choice? Mark is a man of few words and expressions himself; almost exclusively through his creative craft he has very little to say about his string choice but what he does say really does cover a lot of ground. So what guitar strings does does Mark Knopfler use?
"I always use D'Addario strings on everything, acoustic and electric. In thirty years I've never had a bad string on a guitar."
We gain a bit more information on Mark’s recent set up and string choice across a range of guitars from Glen Saggers who's been Mark’s trusted guitar tech for many years and knows his playing style and demands inside out.
“For the recording of Down the Road Wherever, we used three signature Stratocasters, along with Mark’s vintage Strats,” Saggers reveals. “He also relied on his custom Pensa guitars, his signature Les Pauls, a Grosh Electrajet and a Danelectro 59 DC tuned to open C and set up for slide."
So the string choice and brand is very much 'off the shelf' and readily available… surprised? We tend to think that a player of such significance must be using something special in every department strings, guitar, amplifier, pedals everything. But sometimes the simplicity is what makes the player channel everything between fingers, strings, guitar and amplifier.
“Even a different string gauge can create something completely different,” he mused. “very often I’ve found that if I’m playing something with very heavy strings, I’m not bending them, and it leaves room for something else to happen.”
Knowing what strings Mark Knopfler uses is a good start but that's only part of the journey towards getting the same sound, feel, touch, and delivery. To imitate his unique style is going to take some hard work and long hours of practise... 🎸. One of the best guitar tones imaginable - Outstanding 🔊
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