Mark Knopfler Gives a Short Masterclass on His Favorite Guitars & Guitar Sounds

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

Ste­vie Ray Vaugh­an Plays the Acoustic Gui­tar in Rare Footage, Let­ting Us See His Gui­tar Vir­tu­os­i­ty in Its Purest Form

Hear Jimi Hendrix’s Vir­tu­oso Gui­tar Per­for­mances in Iso­lat­ed Tracks: “Fire,” “Pur­ple Haze,” “Third Stone from the Sun” & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (5)
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  • Mike Lenthall says:

    What an unas­sum­ing, amaz­ing­ly tal­ent­ed guy! One of the world’s all-time greats.…

  • prashanth says:

    what a leg­end. I loved how he kissed his legs paul as if it’s his child.…

  • L Vieweg says:

    A very enjoy­able clip. No dis­pute about the arti­cle’s con­clu­sions, but it also struck me how elo­quent­ly this piece was writ­ten. I would like to read more by Josh Jones…

  • says:

    I loved how he kissed his legs paul as if it’s his child…

  • says:

    A very enjoy­able clip. No dis­pute about the article’s con­clu­sions, but it also struck me how elo­quent­ly this piece was writ­ten.

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