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Guitar Legends: Mark Knopfler – the guitarist with inimitable touch
With his unmistakeable fingerstyle playing, Mark Knopfler is in the pantheon of British guitar greats. Here’s a guide to his gear and a playlist that goes beyond the huge hits.
Image: Ebet Roberts / Redferns
With one of the most recognisable sounds in the history of modern guitar, Mark Knopfler is the sort of player that it’s sometimes best to just sit back and enjoy. You won’t likely to be able to play exactly like him.
With a career now into its sixth decade, Knopfler has sold over 120 million albums and can still sell-out Madison Square Garden at the age of 70 (2019). Even if his core sound is unmistakeable, he’s played a vast array of top-class new and vintage guitars over the years, which often change from album to album. We’ll try and summarise here…
In his own words…
“I don’t care how many jazz lessons you’ve taken, I don’t care how many modal dingbats you know. This is all shit! You should have enough reverence for music to make your own education.”
“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…”
Knopfler’s early Gibsons and Fenders….
It may have seemed odd when Knopfler – for so long associated with Fenders – became a signature Gibson artist in 2016, but he bought his first Gibson circa 1971, when he was 22. He played a second-hand £80 double-cutaway Les Paul Special in early band Café Racers, and it’s also on the Dire Straits début album of 1978.
“We played in pubs in London,” Knopfler later remembered. “I just had this 30-watt amplifier; we used to stick it up on two wooden chairs. I used to play a Gibson Les Paul Special with a pick. [Knopfler later developed his fingers-only style – Ed.] My friend Steve Phillips and I painstakingly stripped it and got it back to its original cherry finish, and it was everything to me. I don’t know whether I slept with it, but it wasn’t far off! So that’s where Gibson started in my life, and that guitar will always have a special place in my heart.”
But by the time of Dire Straits debuting properly, Knopfler had a 1961/’62 Fender Stratocaster which would became his main guitar of the first four Dire Straits albums… and his early signature sound. He bought his second-hand 1961/’62 Strat around 1977, in a stripped-back condition (the alder body was bare timber). It came with its original Fender pickups, replaced by Knopfler with DiMarzio FS-1. Note that in the 1990s, Knopfler would go back to original Fender pickups.
You can see this bare wood rosewood board Strat in early DS footage and also a bright red Strat with a rosewood board. But they are the same guitar: Knopfler had his favourite Strat refinished in late ’78 in a colour a lot brighter than Fender’s stock Fiesta Red.
Knopfler also acquired a second red Strat with an all-maple neck. This is thought to be a 1962 (base model) though there are plenty of suggestions bits were added from a Japanese Fender Strat at various times. On occasion, the whole pickup/scratchplate was taken out of the ’61 and put in the ’62. Can’t do that with a vintage Gibson!
On the first Dire Straits record, Knopfler also played his National Style O, bought off his Newcastle buddy Steve Phillips way before Dire Straits. (Note that Phillips was in The Notting Hillbillies side-project with Knopfler and Brendan Croker from the mid 80s). MK also had an even earlier 1920s tricone National “bought from an old man in Wales”. Very nice vintage guitars but, frankly, they were out of vogue at the time and probably quite affordable.
It was these two Nationals on all early albums: from the eponymous début’s Water Of Love and Wild West End through the massive breakthrough Romeo And Juliet, from third album Making Movies (1980). And the late 30s National would later become iconic as the cover image of Brothers In Arms (1985).
The big time = ‘Super Strats’
Preparation for that third Dire Straits album Making Movies (1980) saw brother David Knopfler leave (he wasn’t happy with his brother’s ‘dictatorial’ style) but also brought a found wealth for the band. Knopfler started playing Schecter-made Fender-alikes, both in Strat and Tele formats. A sunburst Schecter ‘Strat’ is featured throughout and there was also a black Tele-style Schecter. The sunburst Schecter has become known as the ‘Dream Machine’ among Knopfler aficionados: it was bought and stolen in 1980, like it was barely there! Naturally, Knopfler replaced it… with Dream Machine II. This was almost identical specs-wise but was more visually unique: it had a birds eye maple neck with no dot markers, plus a ‘tarnished’ metal scratchplate and knobs. This was used live and for fourth album Love Over Gold and some of the epic soloing on the Alchemy live album.
It’s another guitar gone from Knopfler’s possession, though – he donated it to Eric Clapton’s second Crossroad’s guitar auction in 2004, where it fetched $50,190.
The main guitar used live in the early 80s though, was a Candy Apple Red Schecter (similar, but for the finish). Knopfler’s use of modern Strat-alikes was perhaps just practical: success had afforded him indulgences that he rarely took on the road, such as an all-original sunburst ’54 Fender he called the ‘Jurassic Strat.’
Also on Love Over Gold, Knopfler started playing a then-just-launched Gibson Chet Atkins CE nylon string. It’s to the fore on Private Investigations and Love Over Gold itself, and with Mark and Chet by now good friends, they swapped notes. Although highly-praised as electric-classicals, the guitars are no longer made by Gibson… expect to pay £2k upwards for a fine second-hand example.
Brothers in arms and Gibsons
Dire Straits’ fifth album, Brothers In Arms saw yet another overhaul in MK’s guitar armoury: looking both back and forward.
Knopfler got back into Gibson Les Pauls in the 80s. He was looking for new tones beyond his single-coil guitars, and bought a Les Paul reissue sunburst, from fabled NYC store owner/luthier/ friend Rudy Pensa. Note that, prior to 1983, Gibson didn’t actually call these Les Pauls ‘Reissues’. Observers claim the serial number – apparently 90006 – points to an ’83 or ’84, but Knopfler himself has referenced one his LPs of that time as a ‘70s’. The intricacies of late 70s-to-early-80s Les Paul “Preissues” is convoluted anyway, as are the serial numbers. Gibson in Kalamazoo made quite a few one-offs for either select dealers (such as Pensa) or intended for the Japanese market.
Knopfler also had Strat-alikes built by Rudy Pensa: and one, forward thinking for the time, was really a guitar controller. Knopfler’s black Pensa had a ton of knobs and was basically custom guitar made to control (when needed) a Synclavier II synth. You possibly wouldn’t associate a traditionalist such as Knopfler with ‘guitar synthesis’, but this gear came into its own on quite a few Dire Straits tracks (So Far Away being the main hit) and his burgeoning soundtrack career (Last Exit To Brooklyn, Local Hero…)
But back to the Les Paul. It was likely this 80s ‘preissue’ (though not the same one seen at Live Aid 1985 – see later) that brought a new Dire Straits sound to Money For Nothing and also the track Brothers In Arms.
The much-sought-after Money For Nothing tone can lead to a wormhole. The main route is: It came from Knopfler playing around with a Les Paul and a Dunlop Cry Baby wah pedal. When he found the exact ‘quack’ sound he wanted, he got legendary tech Pete Cornish to build the circuit’s sound into a rack, which was still controllable via a screwdriver-controlled pot.
The pickups were also rewired by Knopfler’s tech, Ron Eve. In the Haynes Gibson Les Paul Manual, Eve explains, “Mark’s Les Paul is a beauty, even though it’s a reissue. I rewired the pickups so that the central position selector combined them ‘out of phase’. This trick was shown to me by a luthier in London a long time ago, Sam Lee, who did it accidentally on Peter Green’s Les Paul. If you listen closely to the early Fleetwood Mac albums you can hear the type of sound made.”
But the other route? It’s less complex and gritty. Album engineer/co-producer Neil Dorfsman told Sound on Sound magazine of Money For Nothing, he recalled: “I remember Mark’s Les Paul Junior going through a Laney amp, and that was the sound of Money For Nothing.”
Standard? Junior? Rack? You’ll need Knopfler’s fingers to get it right anyway.
Knopfler’s trusty Schecters, new Pensa-Suhrs, a touch of National (on the The Man’s Too Strong) and old Strats did the heavy lifting on Brothers In Arms. But the Les Paul was clearly gaining favour. Knopfler toured extensively with his main Les Paul Standard, but also treated himself to a Gibson Custom Shop model. His second LP Standard ‘reissue’ was built by Gibson Custom circa ’84 with the one-off serial number 12849: Knopfler was born 12 August 1949. Mark used this guitar on stage during the Brothers In Arms tour and, notably, at Live Aid in July 1985. Knopfler later recalled: “That was a nice guitar, but it was all about fancy-looking tops, you know? I think a lot of English players actually prefer the plain top, which I do.”
The then-new Pensa-Suhr custom guitars of Knopfler (late 80s onwards) were a way of combining his love of both Fender and Gibson tones. Often luxuriantly topped with quilted maple as of the era, they sometimes had a bucker in the bridge: other times P-90s. The guitars made Rudy Pensa’s name famous worldwide: the Pensa MKI, MKII and MKD are still made and Knopfler still plays them. That said, they were only used in Dire Straits for the band’s final album, On Every Street (1991).
Knopfler’s genuine ‘burst beauties
If Knopfler said he could “never afford” a genuine ‘58 or ‘59 vintage sunburst Standard in the 80s, he certainly could by the 1990s. So, in 1995 and now as a solo artist, he bought one ’58 and one ’59. “Man, I didn’t realise what I’d been missing all these years!” he told Vintage Guitar.
The ’58 is his favourite, replicated as the Gibson Custom Mark Knopfler 1958 Les Paul. With reference to the “plain top” he previously remarked about preferring, he says, “My ’58’s kind of a yellowish top, and I really like that – a pale burst. I’m not a big fan of all this over-glossy tiger-stripe thing.” His original Gibson 1958 Les Paul was a go-to guitar for the Golden Heart tour in 1996 and has been played on numerous tracks and albums since – Sailing To Philadelphia, Shangri-La, Kill To Get Crimson, Get Lucky, Privateering et al.
- READ MORE: An oral history of the Gibson Les Paul
He also has quite a few Gibson ES-330s and ES-335s. He borrowed a 335 for his guesting on Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming and later acquired his own ES-330s (vintage ‘58 and ‘60) and ES-335s (‘58, ‘59 and ‘60). His blonde ‘59 ES-335 is another favourite: “On (Sailing to Philadelphia’s) Baloney, that’s a ’59 335 – again with a nice, fat neck – that I got through Rudy (Pensa).”
He also has some beautiful old big-bodied Gibsons: a 1960 L-5 CES (used on the Notting Hillbillies album), a 1960 ES-175D (Brothers In Arms) and a rare 1953 Super 400 CES (On Every Street, live, and at the Elvis Presley tribute shows with Scotty Moore).
Despite all that, he’s probably still best-known for his Strat tones, and it was inevitable he got his own Fender Mark Knopfler Stratocaster in the 2000s (now discontinued). It’s not particularly flashy, lovely though it is: it has a ‘57-style ash body and a vintage tinted ´62 C-shaped maple neck with rosewood fingerboard. The pickups were three Texas Special single-coil pickups with five-way switching and the colour was dubbed Hot Rod Red. You’ll pay upwards of £2k for a prime-condition used one.
The closest you’ll get new is perhaps the Fender American Professional Stratocaster in Fiesta Red. That itself is a limited edition.
Amps And effects
In contrast to his massive haul of vintage guitars, Knopfler’s amps have remained relatively simple. A Fender Vibrolux and a Fender Twin Reverb were the backbone of early albums. Then he had a Mesa/Boogie MkIIB (around 1982) and he later switched to Soldano SL0 100s. Perhaps surprisingly, he’s now started using Kemper Profilers as his stage amps.
Likewise with effects; from 1980, he had Pete Cornish build him a custom rack and we can’t vouch to know exactly what’s in there. But notable FX over the years are a Dan Armstrong Orange Squeezer compressor (early Dire Straits), and a Crowther Hotcake overdrive. Most important is his mastery of using a volume pedal for his inimitable dynamics. He’s tended towards Ernie Ball and Morley models.
With a huge back catalogue, it’s tough to recommend just a few albums. Dire Straits’ hit singles are really the tip of a mighty iceberg. The eponymous debut (1978) is still a great opening salvo, Making Movies (1980) saw Knopfler writing much more ambitious songs like some kind of Geordie Springsteen, and Love Over Gold (1982) is totally epic: it’s only five songs, with opener Telegraph Road hitting 14 minutes. And, of course, Brothers In Arms was simply ubiquitous – it became the best-selling CD in the UK ever.
With his more numerous solo albums, it’s just as hard. That said, Sailing To Philadelphia and Privateering are highly recommended. And for songcraft, All The Roadrunning, his duet album with Emmylou Harris, is very fine. In truth, he doesn’t ever make bad records.
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.