American guitar came of age in the fifties, with the blues, folk, country, and jazz playing of Mississippi John Hurt, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Merle Travis, Chet Atkins, Wes Montgomery, Les Paul, and so many other incredible players who perfected the sound of Americana before it became inseparable from nostalgia and revivalism. Though it has usually been Chuck Berry who gets—or who took—most of the credit for rock and roll, and who is often enough named as a favorite influence of so many UK guitar heroes, one star British player who made his name a few years later always stuck fast to rock and roll’s deepest roots. We can hear all of those golden age players—Hurt, Tharpe, Travis, Atkins, Montgomery, Paul—in Mark Knopfler’s fingers, in some of the unlikeliest hits of the 80s, songs long on style and flashy solos, but also unquestionably rooted in roots music.
We may not have realized until we heard Knopfler’s country records just how much his Dire Straits sound grew out of acoustic music. ("Sultans of Swing" was first written on a National guitar in open tuning.) But he is, and has always been, a brilliant country and country blues player—recording with George Jones, Emmylou Harris, and Mary Chapin Carpenter and collaborating with Chet Atkins on record and on stage.
For Knopfler fans, the joy of slowly discovering the many angles in his playing, the many layers of influence and blends of tradition, constitutes much of the fun in watching him over the decades. You get an accelerated sense of the experience in the short video above, in which he discusses his favorite guitars—including the famous red Stratocaster (“my lust object as a child”) that carried him, with matching headbands, through those MTV years.
Hearing any beloved player talk about his or her guitars can be a treat in itself, but with Knopfler, each instrument offers an occasion to reveal, and effortlessly demonstrate, all of the ways his playing style developed and incorporated new techniques. As much as he learned from endless practice and from emulating his favorite players, he learned from the guitars; the tonality of the Strat “made me want to write another way.” He learned from a 1958 Les Paul that one might “get to the end of a song and have nothing left to say… but the guitar has.” Knopfler never deploys his impeccable vibrato, unique fingerpicking style, or gorgeous single notes wails just to show off—they arrive in service to the emotions of the song, and come out of the distinctive properties of each guitar. He may be the most tasteful, even restrained, of superstar rock guitarists.
Not every guitarist is as thoughtful about their instruments as Knopfler, and few are simultaneously as eloquent and genially demonstrative of their mastery of form and function. The clip at the top comes from the PBS documentary series Soundbreaking. In the 45-minute documentary, Guitar Stories, above, which we’ve featured here before, Knopfler tells the story of the six guitars that shaped his career. The host and interviewer is none other than bassist and Dire Straits co-founder John Illsley, who is as awestruck by Knopfler as any other fan—meaning not that he thinks Knopfler is superhuman or godlike, but that the guitarist is simply, unpretentiously, and unquestionably, “one of the truly great players,” a designation that both Illsley and his former bandmate realize cannot be divorced from the truly great instruments Knopfler has played.