Guitar Stories: Mark Knopfler on the Six Guitars That Shaped His Career

When Dire Straits front­man Mark Knopfler was a kid grow­ing up in New­cas­tle-Upon-Tyne, Eng­land, he dreamed about get­ting his own gui­tar. “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.”

Knopfler tells the sto­ry of that first gui­tar and five oth­ers that shaped his career in this fas­ci­nat­ing 45-minute doc­u­men­tary that aired in Britain last Octo­ber on the Sky Arts tele­vi­sion chan­nel. Gui­tar Sto­ries: Mark Knopfler is host­ed by Knopfler’s friend and co-founder of Dire Straits, bassist John Ill­s­ley. The film offers a num­ber of insights into Knopfler’s music and the key instru­ments that influ­enced his evolv­ing style.

From the open­ing scenes at a music shop in New­castle’s Cen­tral Arcade, where the young Knopfler spent hours star­ing at gui­tars through win­dows, Ill­s­ley and Knopfler move on to the city of Leeds, where Knopfler once worked as a junior reporter for the York­shire Evening Post. There they meet up with his long­time friend and men­tor Steve Phillips, a mem­ber of Knopfler’s post-Dire Straits band The Not­ting Hill­bil­lies. An afi­ciona­do of the Delta Blues, Phillips intro­duced the young Knopfler to the dis­tinc­tive sound of  “res­onator” acoustic gui­tars.

Although it was­n’t the first res­onator gui­tar he ever owned, Knopfler choos­es as his sec­ond key gui­tar a 1937 Nation­al Style “O” gui­tar he bought from Phillips in 1978. The dis­tinc­tive nick­el-plat­ed brass gui­tar, with its palm tree etch­ings around the edges and on the back, was fea­tured on the cov­er of Dire Straits’ best­selling 1985 album Broth­ers in Armsand was used for some of the band’s best songs. At one point in the film, Knopfler picks up the Nation­al and demon­strates how he hit on the famous arpeg­gio lines in “Romeo and Juli­et,” from the Mak­ing Movies album, while exper­i­ment­ing with an open G tun­ing.

From Leeds, Ill­s­ley and Knopfler trav­el to the loca­tion of the orig­i­nal Path­way Stu­dios in Lon­don, where they record­ed their 1978 debut album, Dire Straits. Knopfler picks up his third key gui­tar, a 1961 Fend­er Stra­to­cast­er, and plays a few notes from the band’s break­through song, “Sul­tans of Swing.” The Stra­to­cast­er was the gui­tar Knopfler had always want­ed, but as his music pro­gressed he sought to diver­si­fy his sound. Knopfler’s fourth key gui­tar, which he played on Broth­ers in Arms, is a sun­burst 1958 Gib­son Les Paul. In one par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing moment in the film, Knopfler explains how he came up with the dis­tinc­tive gui­tar sound for the hit song “Mon­ey for Noth­ing” by play­ing the Les Paul through a sta­t­ic, part­ly depressed wah-wah ped­al.

While tour­ing with Dire Straits, Knopfler found it dif­fi­cult to con­stant­ly change back and forth between gui­tars, so he decid­ed to look for a sin­gle gui­tar that could pro­duce a vari­ety of sounds. To explain what hap­pened next, Knopfler and Ill­s­ley trav­el to the SoHo neigh­bor­hood of New York, where they pay a vis­it to Rudy’s Music on Broome Street and talk to the pro­pri­etor, Knopfler’s long­time friend Rudy Pen­sa, who has built cus­tom gui­tars since 1982. Knopfler and Pen­sa describe their col­lab­o­ra­tion on the design of Knopfler’s fifth key gui­tar, the Pen­sa MK‑1, which he played dur­ing his final years with Dire Straits.

The film ends with a vis­it to the Long Island work­shop of mas­ter luthi­er John Mon­teleone. In 2008 Mon­teleone built the sixth key gui­tar in Knopfler’s life, the acoustic “Isabel­la” arch­top, named after Knopfler’s eldest daugh­ter. Knopfler was so inspired by Mon­teleone’s crafts­man­ship that he wrote a song called “Mon­teleone” for his 2009 solo album, Get Lucky. The song speaks elo­quent­ly of Knopfler’s admi­ra­tion of Mon­teleone and, between the lines per­haps, of his life­long love affair with gui­tars:

via MetaFil­ter

Relat­ed con­tent:

Eric Clap­ton Tries Out Gui­tars at Home and Talks About the Bea­t­les, Cream, and His Musi­cal Roots

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Comments (17)
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  • Mark Knofler is by far one of the most amaz­ing gui­tarist in the world. Some­one that every­body should be amazed of.

  • Just watched the pro­gramme and his jour­ney on gui­tars is inspir­ing and his play­ing is flaw­less

  • Trevor Mac Mckelvey says:

    so inspir­ing one of my favorites so much to learn will keep on try­ing.

  • Doug Eyres says:

    What a fan­tas­tic hour real­ly enjoyed lis­ten­ing to the show and watch­ing pos­si­bly the Great­est Gui­tar play­ers of our time.

  • Jim Racz says:

    Enjoyed it very much, rec­om­mend­ed it to a cou­ple of friends as well. Been a fan since I first
    heard Sul­tans Of Swing. Also kind of neat that we share the same nation­al­i­ty

  • Hoyt Maulden says:

    80s Gui­tar hero, mak­er of melodies, writer of movie scores, friend of Chet Atkins, friend to all who love great music. Did I say Mak­er of Melodies? What a great priv­i­lege to accom­pa­ny Ill­s­ley and Knopfer while they rem­i­nisce with old friends and revis­it the ori­gins of Mark’s gui­tars. There may be gui­tarists who can occa­sion­al­ly equal Knopfler. IMHO, no liv­ing gui­tarist can sur­pass Knopfler’s body of work, his melodies fore­most, his play­ing, his per­son­al classi­ness. Thanks to all.

  • Lisa Hyyppa says:

    Most impres­sive

  • Jürgen H. says:

    Hel­lo from Ger­many,
    thanks for this won­der­ful MK-Gui­tarSto­ries :-)
    A great Artist.….….his Music inspired me lis­ten­ing Music real audio­phil!! in the 80s :-) .….….…
    and start­ing play­ing a gui­tar in an advanced age (now 49,started with 42!)


  • Vx says:

    its beautiful.….nothing bet­ter than watching/feeling two gui­tarists hookup… marc & steve Phillips…they start play­ing & theres a shot of marc look­ing at steve..both smiling..lovin the feel.…connecting
    How­ev­er I was dis­ap­point­ed.. there was a con­ver­sa­tion around musical/feel influ­ences with­in Dire S & why.
    They could­n’t iden­ti­fy the why.…
    ..after lis­ten­ing to the sto­ry of marcs expe­ri­ence with each gui­tar & how they height­ened his abil­i­ty to mas­ter his craft/his sound.…his lyrics .. loved the way he picked up lyrics…eg monte leone.
    …enjoyed it

  • Kevin benningfield says:

    Love this video, I,ll keep com­ing back. O yah

  • Davoroups says:

    Actu­al­ly the gui­tar built at Rudy’s gui­tar shop was made by John Suhr not Mr Pen­sa, his name is clear­ly seen on the head­stock of the MK1 but was nev­er men­tioned. John Suhr went on to build quite a few more for Mark before he left Rudy’s. His self named gui­tars have since become leg­endary, unlike Pen­sas. Sad that nether Mark nor Rudi give John the prop­er cred­it where it is due.…Well, it sucks actu­al­ly. I’m sure peo­ple will come to your own con­clu­sions.

  • Rob says:

    Agreed. An oth­er­wise inter­est­ing pro­gramme, this was spoiled for me by the revi­sion­ist his­to­ry involv­ing the Pen­sa-SUHR MK1.

  • Forby says:

    Appar­ent­ly John Suhr had a lot of the MK1 built, as it was orig­i­nal­ly for him­self, before Rudy Pen­sa thought it would be a gui­tar Knopfler could use at the Nel­son Man­dela gig. They went for cof­fee and Knopfler sug­gest­ed a tapered head­stock etc but the gui­tar was so far built it could­nt be done. He did get no pick­up ring on the EMG 85 hum­buck­er as request­ed though. Shame John Suhr did­nt get a men­tion. He was the luthi­er that built it

  • D.C. Welker says:

    You might want to research a bit more as Mark Knopfler uses Schecter Dream Machines

  • Ted Taylor says:

    I was dri­ving along in my car the first time I heard the gui­tar play­ing on “Sul­tans of Swing”. I thought who the “F” is that and I pulled over and stopped to make sure that I heard the artist’s name. It blew me the “F” away.

  • Morgan knox says:

    As much as I love MK dire straits and all things knopfler and gui­tar do we as fans have to spock, out on arti­cles authors and fel­low fans yo DC mel­low out

  • Brenda says:

    I have been lis­ten­ing to Dire Strait ( Mark Knopfler) for years. I love his gui­tar play­ing and their music. It’s awe­some. I do mean years. Since my Son was very lit­tle, he would have been 37, on My 7th, but a drunk dri­ver killed him in April of 2001.

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