Mark Knopfler Shows How to Play His Fingerpicking Guitar Style

So, you want to play gui­tar like Mark Knopfler? I mean, who wouldn’t, right? His style has been “leg­endary in the gui­tar com­mu­ni­ty for decades,” notes Ulti­mate Gui­tar. Seems every­one who’s picked up the instru­ment has har­bored a secret or not-so-secret desire to knock out “Sul­tans of Swing,” flaw­less­ly, no mat­ter what kind of music they play.

Accord­ing to the Inter­net, it’s easy. There are How-to guides, promis­ing 5 Ways to play like Knopfler. At least one les­son admits, “imi­tat­ing Mark Knopfler’s play­ing style is much eas­i­er said than done.” I’ve seen it done con­vinc­ing­ly once, by a gui­tar prodi­gy, raised by musi­cians, who toured with Bud­dy Guy. Oth­er­wise, I’m here to inform you that you can­not learn to play like Mark Knopfler in Five Min­utes.

For one thing, it took Knopfler him­self decades to hone his style, tone, and tech­nique — years and years of lis­ten­ing to old records, learn­ing Blind Willie John­son, Chet Atkins, and every­thing in-between. “Even when I would be about 20 or so,” he says, “I was already steeped in a lot of ear­ly coun­try blues and every­thing.” Then there were the “years of liv­ing hand to mouth as a gig­ging gui­tarist,” Jamie Dick­son writes at Music Radar.

Knopfler also admits, mod­est­ly, to being a bit of a prodi­gy. “I could do Elmore James-style steel from the very, very begin­ning when I was just a kid. After I heard it, I could just kind of do it.” When Dire Straits released their huge-sell­ing fifth album Broth­ers in Arms in 1985, it seemed like blues gui­tar was the last thing any­one want­ed. The era was all about show­ing off. Syn­th­pop, new wave, met­al, and rap ruled. Dire Straits played clean, laid-back tunes with tasty, taste­ful Amer­i­can licks.

Tak­ing show­man­ship cues from big sta­di­um acts (what he’s called “jack­boot” rock bands), Knopfler adapt­ed the folk blues styles he’d learned on acoustic and Nation­al res­onator gui­tars to the red sig­na­ture Stra­to­cast­ers he became famous for play­ing, pick­ing loud, elec­tri­fied roots rock with his fin­gers and thumb. “I real­ized the pick was becom­ing redun­dant,” he tells Gui­tar.

So, if you want to play like Knopfler, you’ll have to lose the pick. More­over, you might want to con­sid­er switch­ing to your non-dom­i­nant hand. “I’m left-hand­ed,” he says in his Gui­tar inter­view, “but I play right-hand­ed. They tried to teach me vio­lin at school for two or three years — right hand­ed– so by the time I was 15, I was into the habit of play­ing that way round.” It’s a lot to ask of any gui­tar stu­dent.

But there are plen­ty of ways to start pick­ing up Knopfler’s basics, then prac­tic­ing them year after year as he did, and lis­ten­ing to all of his influ­ences. Watch his whole appear­ance at the top, giv­ing brief fin­ger­pick­ing demon­stra­tions — from Singing Nun syn­co­pat­ed bass lines to his trade­mark singing dou­ble and triple stops. Learn more about his “fin­ger style finesse” at Pre­mier Gui­tar and see how his sound devel­oped around his favorite gui­tars in the short film above.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

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

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

Mark Knopfler Plays a Poignant, Over­driv­en Ver­sion of “The Last Post,” Remem­ber­ing the Many Lives Lost in World War I

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

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