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Interviews with Mark Knopfler from guitar magazines

Guitar Player, July '79

Guitar Player, Sept. '84

Guitar Player, June '92

 

 

Guitar Player, July '79

Mark Knopfler

Innovative Leader Of Dire Straits

by Joel A. Siegel

 

RIDING CONFIDENTLY on the crest of popular acclaim for their hit song ,,Sultans Of Swing," the British rock group Dire Straits has experienced almost overnight success-a contemporary rags-to-riches story whose title might read ,,From Poverty To Platinum." Guided by lead guitarist Mark Knopfler, the band has gone from getting together and recording a demo tape in the Summer of 1977 to cutting what has now become a certified platinum LP (selling in excess of 1,000,000 discs), Dire Straits [Warner Bros., BSK 3266], all in less than two years. And a second album, Communiqu? (also on Warner Bros.), is scheduled to be released early in June of 1979.

Exhibiting a diversity of playing styles including fingerpicking, clawhammering, and frailing, on electric and acoustic guitars - the 29-year-old Knopfler writes and performs songs that showcase both his enthusiastic approach to the instrument and a solid knowledge of folk, rock, and blues idioms. Mark wrote all the songs on the group’s first album, and with the steady backing of his brother David on rhythm guitar, bassist John Illsley, and drummer Pick Withers, Knopfler and Dire Straits have forged their own distinctive sound by combining some of the best aspects of traditional and contemporary musical styles.

As with so many other great British guitarists, Mark became enchanted at a very early age with the American black experience and its music-blues. He spent a great deal of time in his youth listening to recordings of great blues guitarists like Blind Willie McTell, Lonnie Johnson, Blind Blake, and B.B. King. ,,I've got R&B in me," he says, and I got into the Chicago blues and B.B. King when I was 16. 1 think I could call Lonnie Johnson an influence, in some ways. And the lirst time I neard B.B. King was on the record Live At The Regal [ABC, 724]. that struck me as being a really terrific thing, but I never sat down with a record player and tried to play things note-for-note. Instead, it was always more of absorbing something of the spirit of the music."

Knopfler got his first guitar, a red Hofner V-2, when he was 15. Never having taken music lessons, he relied on listening to various guitarists on records and on the radio to develop his chops. ,,Besides listening to the blues players," he recalls, ,,I picked up the basics from people like the Shadows, the Everly Brothers, Duane Eddy, Rick Nelson, and Elvis," he says. While in high school he played his Hofner in local bands. ,,I played with different groups in and around London," he says, ,,and we did some real diabolical stuff. I even played bass for a while. Besides playing electric guitar, I'd also get asked to play some acoustic stuff. But, since I didn't have an acoustic guitar at the time, I used to borrow one from a friend so I could play folk joints.

,,,I was into playing American music, especially the blues. First, I learned how to fingerpick - just the basic stuff - and then I began developing a clawhammer style. And all during this time I was playing my solidbody without an amp of my own. While I was into many different types of music, and played with many different local groups, I really didn't have a band to call my own until Dire Straits was formed in 1977."

After leaving high school, Mark pursued a career in journalism. ,,I went to work for a newspaper in Leeds," he says, ,,and I worked there for a couple of years. It was in Leeds that I first got into National metal guitars. I had a friend there who owned a few, and after experimenting with his guitars, I got my own: a 1928 triple resonator National steel-body guitar. Since then, I’ve acquired a ‘30s vintage National Duolian, which is the one you hear on the album. [wrong: it is a Style O (Ingo)]

,,While in Leeds, I also got my first Gibson. It was one of their comparatively inexpensive models - a double cutaway from the very late ‘5Os, maybe a Les Paul Special or a TV. Anyway, it was black, but I bad it restored to a cherry finish. I love Gibsons, and Nationals, too. There's something magical about them." After two years of working at the newspaper, Knopfler left to pursue studies at the State University of Leeds. ,,I went there to study English," he says, ,,and while there I continued to carry on, getting a lot of playing done. I wrote a couple of rags and waltzes, but I never took an academic approach to composing. For me, it was always just an ear thing; I’d listen to a song and then just figure it out in my mind and play lt. While listening ,to things like western swing, for instance, I'd work something out in my head, then play it on my National; not the same song, but one that captured the feeling of the original tune."

After leaving college, Mark first attempted to become a professional musician, but found it to be tough going. ,,I was wandering all through the country," he says, ,,taking all sorts of jobs - working in warehouses and offices - and my musical career was going nowhere. I finally got a job teaching English in a college, which I was delighted to have because it proved to be a real steadying influence. There happened to be guitar classes at the college, and there was a guitar teacher there with whom I used to play. In addition, I also would go out into country schools and teach little kids basic guitar and singing a few times a week."

Knopfler stayed in his teaching position for three years, during which time he formed a rockabilly-R&B group, the Cafe Racers. ,,It was great doing that," he recalls. ,,We just played pubs in London. I was using my Hofner and Gibson, and I bad a 30-watt Selmer Thunderbird amplifier. It had a little green light that stared out at you like an eye. And I didn't use any effects; it was just straight in, no messing about. The group was just guitar, bass, drums, and a singer.

,,We used little Orange [17 Upland Rd., Kent DA7 4NR England] PAs, WEM [Watkins Electric Music, 66 Offley Rd., London, SW9, England] columns, and we bought ourselves a Ford van. It was great We'd finish work, and just throw our amps and equipment in the back of the motor. The group could set up in 20 minutes, and all I bad to do was put my amp on a chair. We used to play in a theater club in London called The King's Head. When the theater let nut, around 10:00 P.M., we'd be ready to go and really get it on for about an hour or so.

,,After a while, though, the group just wasn't a good vehicle for the songs I’d written. We used to do things like ,Good Morning Little School Girl,' ,Red Cadillac And A Black Moustache,' ,Move it,' and a couple of obscure Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins numbers. But it was a nice, greasy little band, and we used to drum up a little thump."

An important event in Mark's evolution as a guitarist occurred while he was with the Cafe Racers. ,,I was playing a rhythm / lead thing with a plectrum, sort of like [British rock guitarist] Mick Green, he says. ,,I used to use a pick until a few years ago, when I started getting more and more involved with playing without one. Then, a sort of synthesis happened between fingerpicking and getting plectrum-type effects by just using my fingers. Eventually, I found myself doing things with just my thumb and two fingers that I couldn't do with a pick. But I still use a plectrum now and again for strumming or for playing on acoustic tracks."

In the summer of 1977, Dire Straits was formed. Mark's brother David came to London, took a job as a social worker. and shared a flat with John Illsley, the group's soon-to-be bassist. ,,I was still teaching," Knopfler recalls, ,,and David and I just started putting things together. I would be playing with him, and with John there, we all became friends right away. There was the vehicle I needed to get a group going. Everybody was ready. and the time was right. We added Pick Withers on drums, and over the course of a summer we put the group together and started playing around until we earned enough money to make a demo tape. We did the tape, and with a little luck we were on our way.

Currently, Mark uses a number of instruments when playing. ,,I carry two Fender Strats," he says. ,,Both of them are ‘60s vintage: One has a maple neck, and the other is rosewond. On one there's a DiMarzio pickup for the bass, and I like it because it just seems to give a fatter, louder sound, with more clout than the standard pickup Fender uses. That's the only thing that isn't stock on either guitar. I’ve also got a beautiful old sunburst Telecaster, which has the white binding and a rosewond neck [the original Telecaster Custom]. David plays that, as well as a black Strat, onstage. We also carry a 12-string Burns Baldwin electric guitar, which we use once in a while. It's a very heavy instrument to hold, and it's absolutely stock. And, of course, there are the two Nationals and, on rare occasions, a 1925 Gibson L-3 arch-top steel-string that we use.

,,At the present time, Ovation is making some guitars for me. They're building two custom acoustic Adamas guitars, a 12-string and a 6-string. They have quite an amazing sound, and have a graphite and birch veneer composition top, very thin and very strong, a feature quite different from the Ovations that I’ve come to know. I just asked Ovation to simplify them a bit here and there, because they struck me as being too fancy.

,,I'm also getting an Ovation Legend, because I like them so much. I just happen to love ebony fingerboards, and abalone, and yellow-topped instruments. I'm indulging myself since I've never really bad a flat-top of my own. My Gibson L-3 is an arch-top, but it bas a round sound hole, not an f-hole. I’m not a collector, however, and I have no desire to own 50 or 60 guitars. It would be nice to own a ‘30s vintage Martin, but I wouldn't want walls full of them. Every guitar I own gets used and has its purpose. I’m looking forward to using the Ovations onstage: We've had trouble amplifying the Nationals. Incidentally, I’d really like to know how you can amplify an acoustic guitar and still retain its special sound in large halls without experiencing feedback problems."

As with his guitars, the amplifiers and effects Knopfier uses reflect his practical and straight forward approach to music. ,,I try different amps here and there," he says, ,,but at the moment, I'm using a Music Man with two 12" speakers. Also, I use a Morley volume pedal, which I like because it's so dependable, and an MXR analog delay, the little green box: I used it on the beginning of ,Down To The Water Line' [Dire Straits]. And I never use a phaser, or wah-wah pedal, or things of that ilk. My playing is fairly straightforward, really, and everything's pretty much standard no frills or special effects."

During Dire Straits' recent U.S. tour, Knopfler was called to New York to do a session with Steely Dan. ,,I really enjoyed that," be says. ,,It was strange at first, however, because it seemed like such a rarefied atmosphere. I played a guitar part on one song. but all I did was overdub, not play with a group. I was very pleased with the results, but I don't really see that as being my scene. We don't make our records in the same way. It took us about three weeks to do each of our albums. But with this session, the process seemed so much more painstaking, which is just a different way of making a record.

,,As I was saying, since there were no charts, I just listened to tapes and then played over them. I could have been given the chords. but some of those fancier ones I don't know the names of and probably couldn't play. What I always try to do is to respond to the song; I’ve always rebelled against theory. Guitar playing for me is a compulsive activity. I'm not against learning technique. however, and I'm certainly not against acquiring new knowledge. I don't have any favorite keys that I play in. To me, different keys have different colors, different qualities, so I like playing in lots of them."

 

For Mark Knopfler and Dire Straits, their rapid rise to fame portends nothing but good things in the future. ,,I feel like I’m closer to freedom than I’ve ever been," Mark believes. ,,I have a lot of control over my personal playing, and as a group we are creating and communicating. I’m not taking orders, or giving them. I don't like definitions, but if there is a definition of freedom, it would be when you have control over your reality to transform it, to change it, rather than having it imposed upon you. You can't really ask for more than that."

Many professional players are asked what advice they'd give to aspiring musicians, and often their responses reflect the ethic of hard work and practice. But Knopfler approaches the question from a different, and some might say unique, angle: ,,Advice for young players? Well, I think they should learn boogie woogie piano. It's very rudimentary, and no matter how you do it, you should just get familiar with it. I bad a piano long before I bad a guitar, and the practice I got just playing those three chords in a basic 12-bar blues song was very important. And another thing: Stay responsive to any environment that comes along, and try to reflect what you feel in a wide variety of styles and songs. I just want to be able to play and make people feel good with what I do. When you're thinking that way, anything can happen. And, usually, what happens is good."

 

 

Guitar Player, Sept. '84

MARK KNOPFLER of DIRE STRAITS

Solid Rock

By Dan Forte

 

 

THE HARDEST WORKING Man In Show Business? In the ‘60s, that nickname was given to Soul Brother # 1, James Brown. In the ‘70s, the Boss, Bruce Springsteen, gave the Godfather Of Soul a run for his title. In the ‘80s, the unlikely heir to the throne may well turn out to he Mark Knopfler of the group Dire Straits.

The singer / songwriter / guitarist / bandleader may not do the splits or leap from the drum riser to the PA stacks, but he definitely has a full workload. The soft-spoken Scotsman is certainly one of the busiest men in show biz. Example: At the time of the following interview, Knopfler (pronounced Noff-ler) was in the studio producing Aztec Camera's first LP; had just finished some sessions with Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry; was about to remix his original soundtrack for the film Cal; and was working on another film score for Comfort And Joy having composed the critically acclaimed score for Local Hero. Then it was back to Dire Straits for rehearsals in preparation for their next studio album and American tour. In 1983, the band toured extensively, yielding this year's live double-album, Alchemy, along with a concert video by the same name, and Mark co-produced and appeared on Bob Dylan's rock and roll comeback, Infidels. When Knopfler says, ,,I'd love to have 60-hour days," he's not kidding.

Knopfler was last featured in Guitar Player in July 1979, just after the release of Dire Straits' second album, Communiqu?. The band's self-titled debut LP, which included the hit "Sultans Of Swing," was voted Best Guitar Album in GP’s Readers Poll that year, and Knopfler won top honors in the New Talent category for his sinuous, melodic Stratocaster style. That year, he and Pick Withers (then drummer with Dire Straits) also appeared on Dylan's gospel milestone, Slow Train Coming, revealing a strong blues base reminiscent of Albert King.

Although Dire Straits has since achieved gold or platinum status in virtually every country in which it was released, it was anything but an immediate success. In fact, the group was already recording its follow-up before the debut LP began climbing the American charts. While Communiqu? didn't fare as well in the States, it helped establish Dire Straits' reputation as a top international draw, becoming the first album ever to enter the charts at # 1 in Germany in its first week of release (the previous LP was still at #3 at the time). The band has gone on to break attendance records at concerts all over the world, including the largest public gathering in the history of New Zealand: 62,000.

Like Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull or John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater, Mark Knopfler is more than just a frontman or a figure-head; in a very real sense, he is Dire Straits - virtually every song, melodic motif, bass line, and drum beat are a product of Knopfler's creative genius. (In conversation, he often lapses into first person when talking about the group, saying, ,,I hired so-and-so," or, ,,I decided this or that.") It would indeed be hard to imagine a Mark Knopfler project sounding much different than a Dire Straits album. Mark and bassist John Illsley are the only original members on board today; brother David Knopfler (rhythm guitar) left the group just before Making Movies, their third LP, was recorded, and Pick Withers departed after recording the group's fourth album, Love Over Gold. (As of this writing, Dire Straits' personnel consists of Knopfler, Illsley, drummer Terry Williams, rhythm guitarist Hal Lindes, and pianist Alan Clarke, although the guitarist indicated that more changes were in the works.)

Though Knopfler does not view Dire Straits as a sound, per se, his distinctive guitar style has had a substantial impact on the guitar community, affecting otherwise identifiable stylists such as Eric Clapton and Carlos Santana, and the influence of his linear, Dylan-esque songwriting has shown up in such unlikely places as Rod Stewart's ,,Young Turks." The 3~year-old's style relies on finesse and economy, rather than brute force. His out-of-phase tone, eccentric melodicism, and extensive use of hammer-ons and pull-offs bear an uncanny resemblance to the earlier work of ex-Fairport Convention founder Richard Thompson, yet Knopfler claims only a passing familiarity with the fellow ex-folkie's work. And while he readily acknowledges the enormous influence that Bob Dylan has exerted on his singing and songwriting, he shrugs at the suggestion that the guitar playing of Dylan's longtime sideman Robbie Robertson was a byproduct of that tutelage.

But Knopfler's plectrumless guitar style is as varied as it is distinctive - from the National steel-body sounds of ,,Romeo And Juliet" [Making Movies] to the acoustic work on ,,Private Investigations" [Love Over Gold] to the Celtic melodies of Local Hero. Following Dire Straits' fourth album, the somewhat overblown Love Over Gold, Knopfler returned to the basics and produced a four-song EP, with the old-fashioned rock and roll of ,,Twisting By The Pool" (which received substantial airplay on oldies stations) sitting alongside the beatnik jazz of ,,Badges, Posters, Stickers, T-Shirts." The totally live Alchemy double-set is a Knopfler showcase in every respect, featuring extended versions of ten of his compositions with an extra helping of guitar solos. Not disproportionately, the album cover photos of the guitarist are several times the size of those of his bandmates.

Though breaks in his touring and composing schedules are few and far between, Mark has managed to fit in an occasional sideman session, including dates with Steely Dan, Van Morrison, Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott, and Phil Everly, as well as with Bob Dylan. He also helped out on one cut of brother David's new Release LP and appears on bassist Illsley's Never Told A Soul. He recently had the pleasure of performing onstage with a group of his early idols, the Shadows, who recorded a cover version of Mark's theme from Local Hero.

In the following interview, Knopfler details his roots, his association with Dylan, his equipment, and the creative process.

 

* * *

 

DO YOU THINK THERE'S an identifiable British sound to Dire Straits?

I don't really think of Dire Straits as a sound, you know. It. just depends on the song, and the stuff we're doing is so varied. I don't think of sounds as being American or English or Japanese or German. That doesn't mean anything; it's all just music. It's either good music or bad music, and good music, to me, is the stuff that's got a bit of soul. The other stuff I'm not really interested in.

For Local Hero, did you reach back for some Celtic influences you heard when you were growing up?

Well, I was born in Scotland and spent the first six years of my life there. Then I went to Newcastle-On-Tyne in northeast England, close to Scotland. So I heard a lot of that music, and of course it's still very strong. In fact, what are the Everly Brothers but that Celtic thing? You can hear the Celtic influence in a lot of country music as well as in people like Gerry Rafferty [of "Baker Street" fame] - that Celtic drone. I had to get even closer still with Cal, which is set in Ireland. For that, I used a fair amount of uillean pipes played by Sean O'Flynn, who's maybe the best exponent of that. Lately, I've become friendly with an Irish singer called Paul Brady, who plays whistle on Cal.

Was rock and roll the first music you ever played?

Yes. I heard my uncle Kingsley playing boogie woogie on the piano when I was about eight or nine, and I thought that those three chords were the most magnificent things in the world - still do. The first records I made my mom buy were Lonnie Donegan skiffle records. That was before I was 10 years old. I had to wait until I was 15 before I got a guitar, because my old man wanted me to appreciate it when I got it. It was a red Hofner V-2, I think they called it. Cost 50 quid. It was Strat-shaped, and it had to be red.

American-made guitars were pretty scarce in England in the early ‘60s.

Yeah. A Strat was a thing of wonder. When I was 14or 15, the Shadows were a big influence, and they had the first Strats that came to England. Cliff Richard brought them back for them. Hank Marvin played lead on a Strat, and Bruce Welch played Tele rhythm.

Were you also influenced by American instrumental bands from the late ‘5Os and early ‘6Os?

Oh, yes. I went up the street to a little pal of mine and made him play me ,,Because They're Young" [by Duane Eddy] 49 times. I could spend the whole day listening to that: the twang. Do you remember the Fireballs? I have one Fireballs single with ,,Quite A Party" on one side and ,,Gunshot" on the other. I played that 4,900 times. Completely and utterly in love with it. Then you'd grow up into Radio Luxembourg, and you'd sit up talking to your older sister. She talks about her boyfriends, and you listen to Ben E. King's ,,Spanish Harlem" or ,,Hey, Baby" by Bruce Channel - stuff like that.

Were you also into rockabilly?

Early Elvis, of course, and one of the biggest of all was the Everly Brothers - with Chet Atkins on guitar; but of course, I didn't know that, and they didn't put their names on records then. But he's probably the greatest of all. Then there was Ricky Nelson - a record called ,,Just A Little Too Much," which doesn't get a lot of exposure-and I didn't know then that that was James Burton on guitar. The sound on those records-just listen to the backing on ,,Hello, Mary Lou" - is astonishingly great. Jerry Lee Lewis was another complete genius.

A lot of English rock guitarists got their start playing ,,trad" razz, Dixieland. Were you involved in that at all?

No, the only thing young kids were really exposed to were the occasional novelty pop singles like ,,Midnight In Moscow" by [trumpeter] Kenny Ball or ,,Stranger On The Shore" by [clarinetist] Acker Bilk. Later on, I got into it some. Everything went in stages. After I'd gotten the solidbody Hofner, I didn't have the nerve to ask my dad for an amplifier - it cost so much - so I had to borrow a friend's acoustic guitar. All the time I wanted to play rock and roll, I got forced into playing sort of folk joints. Of course, that was very good, because I learned how to fingerpick. The first time I heard a 4/4 claw-hammer picking pattern, I fell totally in love with that. So things were progressing on a number of fronts. Later, I got into National steel-body guitars from a guy in Leeds called Steve Phillips, who also builds beautiful guitars. I got involved in all kinds of slide playing and ragtime, country blues, jugband, and even western swing.

When you got into different styles, how studied was your approach?

Not studied at all. I was just trying to absorb the spirit of the thing, rather than take an academic approach. I've never had a guitar lesson. I'm not proud of it particularly, but it's just the way I seem to do it. It's not the best way. I don't recommend it to all your readers.

Considering the enormous impact the Beatles had on American groups, they must have been an even bigger influence on a young musician like yourself growing up in England

Oh, huge! ,,Please, Please Me" was one of the first records that I bought. It's funny now, because while I've been working with Aztec Camera at Ayre Studio [in London], I've been playing Asteroids about every other day with Paul McCartney. It's slightly strange to think, ,,Oh, that's him"[laughs]. But I also liked the Rolling Stones, and I absolutely loved the Kinks. I got into trouble for writing Le Kinks on notebooks and desks in school. I loved songs like ,,Where Have All the Good Times Gone," ,,Waterloo Sunset, and ,,You Really Got Me." I enjoyed that period, and then a few years later, when I was 18or 19, I got into a lot of the American bands, like the Doors, and some of the English bands that didn't necessarily make it as big, such as Head, Hands & Feet [with Albert Lee]. I never really got into deep record collecting, because I was always moving around and was too impoverished.

When did you get into R&B guitar players?

When I was listening to Elvis and the Everlys, I suppose. Then shortly before Dire Straits, I was playing a Gibson Les Paul Special in a rockabilly / R&B band in London. When I heard B.B. King, at age 16, that was another big turning point, because I was really struck with the relationship between the guitar and the voice and the whole bending thing, the way it sounded. Later, when I was 20 or 21, I remember hearing Lonnie Johnson with Eddie Lang - the Blue Guitars album [EMI, PCM 7019]. Then I realized that there was a connection, and I read an interview with B.B. King saying that Lonnie Johnson had been a big influence on him. It's great to make these little connections and see how they do line up.

Bob Dylan is probably the most obvious influence on your singing and writing.

I was hugely influenced by him about the age of 14 or 15, going ‘round to girls' houses, drinking 75 cups of coffee, smoking 90 cigarettes, and listening to Blonde On Blonde [Columbia, CS2-841] 120 times. I heard Bob Dylan from the very beginning, the ,,Hard Rain" days, and went with him all the way up, and I'm still with him. I still think he's great. Blood On The Tracks [Columbia, HC-43235] is one of my favorite records, with ,,Tangled Up In Blue." On the last record [Infidels], to hear the first lines of "I And I," that's enough to make anybody who writes songs want to retire. It's stunning. Bob's musical ability is limited, in terms of being able to play a guitar or a piano. It's rudimentary, but it doesn't affect his variety, his sense of melody, his singing. It's all there. In fact, some of the things he plays on piano while he's singing are lovely, even though they're rudimentary. That all demonstrates the fact that you don't have to be a great technician. It's the same old story: If something is played with soul, that's what's important. My favorite records, by and large, aren't wonderful technical achievements, with the exception perhaps of people like Chet Atkins. But generally speaking, all you've got to do is listen to a Howlin' Wolf album - that's just soul.

Along with the impact Dylan had on you, were you also influenced much by the Band, in particular Robbie Robertson's guitar playing?

No, I don't think so. Not really.

Were there any specific guitar influences that made your style take the form it did?

I don't know.

Some of your playing is reminiscent of J.J. Cale's.

Oh, of course, yeah. I listened to a lot of J.J. Cale around the time my style was developing. He's great. I'd love to meet him. He's very, very special to me.

Another guitarist to whom you bear a remarkable similarity is Richard Thompson.

Well, I haven't really heard much of Richard Thompson's stuff. I saw him play live years ago with his then-wife [Linda Thompson] and enjoyed it very much. But I've only listened to one of his records.Around the time Dire Straits was starting, we were all in this house, and John [Illsley] hadone of his records. I haven't really kept up with him, but I mean to do something about that. We've both done folk music and things, so there's probably quite a lot of common ground. I think I was probably more into the blues, while he was doing Fairport Convention.

But like Thompson, you don’t at all resemble the stereotypical blues-based lead guitarist rattling off pentatonic licks.

You mean down-da-da-da, down-da-da-da, down-da-da-da? Have you heard that Pretenders single [,,Middle Of The Road," Learning To Crawl, Sire, 1-23980]? Right, I don't do that [laughs].

On Slow Train Coming, on the other hand, you didn‘t play the sorts of things you‘re known for with Dire Straits. It’s very bluesy, a la Albert King.

I was asked to do that. [Producer] Jerry Wexler said, ,,Try for a gut-bucket style of thing." So I borrowed a Gibson ES-335 that somebody down there had, and off we went.

On Infidels, whose idea was it to have Mick Taylor on guitar?

Bob decided on the whole band, although I did suggest that Alan [Clarke] be there, because we'd been in the room doing Local Hero and had sort of a working thing going on there. And I suggested the engineer, Neill Dorfsman, who did Love Over Gold and Local Hero. We were like a three-man team at that point. Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare [reggae's top studio drummer and bassist, respectively] were Bob's ideas, as well as Mick Taylor. I suggested Billy Gibbons, but I don't think Bob had heard of ZZ Top. It would have been great to have done that with Billy. My roughs are different from the final record. Bob mixed it, because I had to go on tour in Germany with Dire Straits. I think he changed some things. I've only heard the album once.

Was it difficult producing Dylan?

Yeah. You see people working in different ways, and it's good for you. You have to learn to adapt to the way different people work. Yes, it was strange at times with Bob. One of the great parts about production is that it demonstrates to you that you have to be flexible. Each song has its own secret that's different from another song, and each has its own life. Sometimes it has to be teased out, whereas other times it might come fast. There are no laws about songwriting or producing. It depends on what you're doing, not just who you're doing. You have to be sensitive and flexible, and it's fun. I'd say I was more disciplined. But I think Bob is much more disciplined as a writer of lyrics, as a poet. He's an absolute genius. As a singer - absolute genius. But musically, I think it’s a lot more basic. The music just tends to be a vehicle for that poetry.

When you're playing on someone else's record, what sort of directions do you usually get from the artist or the producer?

In 99% of the cases, almost none. It’s always very nice.

What do you want to know about the song you’re playing on?

I want to know what the lyric is, what the song is about. I like to talk to the lyric to a certain extent. That's important to me. What was funny and kind of nice about doing Bryan Ferry's stuff is that Bryan works backwards from the way I work. He creates these very nice sounding, very simple grooves, and they seem to instigate the lyric. The lyrics come last which is great, just fine. But, you know, I would say to Bryan, ,,What do you think this is going to be about? A dragonfly. Oh." And that can create tension or whatever, too.

Do you usually get called to do a session because someone is after your specific sound?

It varies. It's usually all-around guitar playing. A lot of the things that I do on session don't relate to the Dire Straits sound, if there is such a thing. I might be just playing my Gibson Chet Atkins solidbody classical or a National, maybe just doing a part or something.

You don’t feel as though you’ve been stereotyped for your identifiable sound and lead approach?

To me, that's never seemed to be limiting in terms of sessions. I like to play a lot of different styles of things on sessions. On Tina Turner's new album, she recorded a song I wrote called ,,Private Dancer," and she got the whole Dire Straits band to play on it, but I was busy doing the Bryan Ferry sessions. So she got Jeff Beck to play the second ugliest guitar solo you've ever heard on it.

What are the advantages and disadvantages to doing sessions or working on film scores as opposed to playing in a band?

Oh, it's all just advantages. It all makes you bigger. It's a challenge. I look at something like Cal where I did all the music cues, and I didn't think I could do it at first. But I just started at the beginning and staggered through it from one piece to the next until it was finished. It's a finely-tuned film, and the slightest thing you add or subtract really affects what's going on. It's very exacting. There are a lot of decisions to be made. It's part of a picture, but at the same time you want the music to stand up on its own. I don't like soundtrack albums that have one song and the rest is all filler.

On a film score, do you work along with the director?

Yes. For instance, with Cal, I made sure that Pat O'Connor, the director, was in the studio almost every day. I'd just drag him in there. That's another reason I like film work: You're trying to do something for somebody else, and you're cooperating. It's less selfish in a way than this egomaniac thing of Singer/ Songwriter Does Own Record. It's nice to be a part of a bigger thing.

Do you think you’d ever put out a solo album not connected with a film or with Dire Straits?

I feel that with the band there's enough for all that expression. But I would like to make some little records for different kinds of things - maybe built around the guitar or whatever. And I love to do sessions. I get enough to do without feeling frustrated about not doing solo records. The film stuff gives me an Opportunity to do all that. To have musicians like [saxophonist] Mike Brecker and [vibist] Mike Mainieri or [bassist] Tony Levin play on your music is wonderful. Words can't express it.

Apart from sessions and Dire Straits, do you get a chance to sit in with other musicians on a regular basis?

A little bit, but not as much as I'd like to. But that's just because of the demands of the cycle of events of the group, the production stuff, and the films. I love to play with other people. I think musicians should and, generally speaking, do intermingle a lot. I'm totally in favor of that. I've got a little project in the back of me mind that Mike Mainieri has been asking me about. We sort of talked about putting some people together and making music. It's all just a question of time. I'd love to have 60-hour days.

Has your composing for Dire Straits been influenced much by movie soundtracks? A lot of your songs have a feel somewhat like The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly.

Yes, that's Ennio Morricone. He's done The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, Fistful Of Dollars things like 1900. Yes, he's a big influence.

Do you have any particularly strong literary influences in your songwriting?

Lots and lots. That was my subject at university, and I taught English for a while. There's too many to name: Shakespeare, a lot of American writers, such as Raymond Chandler, metaphysical poets.

Do you find that certain keys or chord progressions give pieces a more majestic quality?

Yeah, I like certain keys more and more. I've been doing a lot of stuff in F and D minor. ,,Down To The Waterline" [Dire Straits] is B minor, which is a nice key as well.

Is that the Ennio Morricone influence coming through?

Probably, yes. That slightly comic, melodramatic thing. I call it ,,spaghetti music. ,, Things like ,,Private Investigations" [Love Over Gold] are almost tongue-in-cheek deliberately exaggerated.

Your guitar playing seems fairly delicate, yet there are a lot of dynamics, a lot of driving rhythms in your music.

Thank you. I like arranging other people's instruments, and working with the way verses go into choruses. I like dynamics and things to be a little bit dramatic. I work with every aspect of the whole thing: the bass, the piano, when a bass drum is hit, every highhat beat. Certain pieces just go, but with other pieces I like to get into everything that goes on.

On a studio album, how much overdubbing do you do?

We end up keeping quite a lot of the live takes, actually. Love Over Gold was a heavily worked on record. Too much attention was paid to that, I think, in a lot of respects. But it was interesting to have done it that way. I don't think I'd like to do another record that was so heavily produced, though.

Do you eve play rhythm guitar yourself?

Oh, I love to. I like to have two rhythm guitars on most pieces anyway.

Do you also instruct or direct the other rhythm guitarist’s part?

Pretty much, usually. The bass and drums as well.

So you write the arrangement as well as the song itself?

Pretty much, but people always bring their own little bits and pieces to it. Sometimes they bring the entire thing, and that's even greater. Every musician will come up with things that only he could come up with, and I like to use those things. Hal [Lindes] often comes up with different voicings than I would have had in mind.

Does that change the mood of the song?

It can, yes.

You have a very vocal-like guitar style, but it’s not at all like the B. B. King style you mentioned earlier.

Part of the difference, I suppose, would be chucking away the pick when I was evolving my own style. Style, I find, is always impossible to define, but it's easy to recognize.

What made you start playing lead with your bare fingers?

It just started to happen. I remember sitting in a house in London - starving to death at the time - playing a cheap Japanese acoustic with really light electric guitar strings on it. I knew then that it was on a turn, it was developing. I was doing things with my fingers that I couldn't do with a pick-really fast things and what have you. I still love to play with a pick, and sometimes you have to record certain parts or songs with a pick - for instance, ,,Expresso Love" [Making Movies]. But it's interesting that now I'm not nearly as comfortable with a pick as I am with my fingers.

Did you go through different stages of developing techniques and experimenting with fingerpicks?

Yes. I went through thumbpicks and even steel fingerpicks with the Nationals, and I dispensed with them. It's a bit of a disadvantage without them sometimes, because a thumbpick is just great for that chunk thing that Chet Atkins can do so brilliantly.

What does your picking technique consist of now?

It's the thumb and first two fingers, and I tend to anchor with the back or my hand and my other two fingers, so it's a solid base.

Do you pick with your fingernails or with the meat of your fingertips?

It's really from skin, but sometimes the nail will catch. You can use the nail to snap it. A lot of times, I’ll hit a note with the thumb and second finger together, so it might seem as though I'm pinching the string, squeezing it. The second finger hits it first I think, behind the thumb, so you can get a real physicality with a note.

Is your tone a product of the type of guitar you play, or is it a result of your picking technique?

I think it's a combination. I like to play all kinds of guitars, not just Strats, but I wasn't getting the sound I really wanted until I got a Stratocaster. It was about a 61 with a rosewood neck. I like rosewood necks a lot, even though I end up playing a lot of maple necks. I very rarely use a Fender Strat these days; it's usually a Schecter instead, which is a more powerful guitar.

Your old Fender Strat used to have the 3-way toggle switch taped so that it would stop in the position between the middle and rear pickups. why didn't you just get a 5-position switch to achieve the same pickup combination?

I liked the 3-way switch better than the 5-position; it had a better sound. But I kept knocking it out. I have a 5-position switch on the Strat now. The roadies are always pulling bits out and sticking things in.

Why did you switch from your Fender to a Strat-style Schecter?

I didn't want to keep flogging a Strat around the world, getting it smashed

pieces. Same thing with my beautiful Telecaster that David [Knopfler] used to play rhythm on in the band. It's a double-bound sunburst Custom Tele, about a ’67 or ‘68, and I'm not inclined to have it smashed to bits. The Schecter is beautifully made and very strong.

Does it weigh a lot more than the Fender?

Yeah, the Schecters do tend to weigh a lot more. Probably the best electric I ever had was a Schecter that I used on Making Movies, but it was stolen. John Suhr, at Rudy's Music Stop in New York City, has worked on all my guitars, and so does Jack Sonni from the same shop. I got John to come to the studio all the way through the Dylan sessions [for Infidels], just to work on all the guitars. He screens different pickups and installs them. John does the best work I've ever seen - brilliant fretjobs and what have you.

Are your guitars heavily modified?

Not really. One Schecter has Seymour Duncan Vintage pickups, and another red one has heavier Seymour Strat pickups in it.

Have you amassed a very sizable instrument collection?

No, I haven't. For instance, I still haven't got a flat-top wooden acoustic, because I've never found one that was as good as the two best flat tops I ever played. One was a David Russell Young guitar that Steve Khan lent me, which was absolutely stunning. The other was a hand-built Greco that Rudy [Pensa, of Rudy's Music Stop] lent me. I used the David Russell Young on Love Over Gold, and the Greco on Infidels. When I got my Ovation Adamases, I started using them straight away on Slow Train Coming and Local Hero. For the Aztec Camera thing, I borrowed a couple of old Martins from Eric Clapton, because they'd been using Ovations, and you just can't get the personality out of them. They've also been using my new red Schecter Tele [see cover], which is one of the best sounding electric guitars I've ever had.

So on Dire Straits albums you play borrowed acoustics?

I have some Ovations, but no wooden flat-tops. Hal has a Martin, and my Adamas guitars-a 6- and a 12-string have seen quite a bit of recording. One of my favorite guitars is the Gibson Chet Atkins solidbody classical, which has been on a lot of sessions since I got it. It's a beautifully made thing. I use it onstage, too, because you can get really loud with the thing. The action is low, so it tries to get the best of both worlds. By and large, I think it succeeds. It's a lot of fun to play. I used it on the Bryan Ferry sessions [as yet unreleased], some sessions with Phil Everly, and on the film scores I just did.

When you record with an Ovation, do you play it through an amp?

It sounds great direct. I might have an amp out in the studio with a microphone on it, too. On Local Hero, we sent the Adamas direct quite a lot.

Do you ever work out solos ahead of time on a session?

No, not really. Sometimes it might break down in the middle, and then you figure out which way it should go, and punch it in. Hut generally speaking, it's pretty rough-and-ready. I'll often play three passes, record them all, and then make something by stitching them together.

You usually stay pretty close to the song's melody or play a countermelody, instead of working off licks and patterns.

Well, it doesn't go down-da-da-da, down-da-da-da [laughs].

Judging by the live album, you’ve recently begun taking more extended solos.

I started writing other sections for songs like ,,In The West," instead of that sort of skeletal Communiqu? approach. With the keyboards coming into the band, I started writing new sections and was inspired to build things up a bit, trying to get the full possibilities of the song out, instead of the more linear approach that marked the earlier sound of Dire Straits.

Why did you decide to come out with live a LP at this point?

Several reasons. I wanted to have a record of the band at that certain stage. Second, we played to about three-quarters of a million people on the last tour, and a lot of them found their way into our dressing room. One of the major things the fans would ask for was a live record. Also, I wanted to see if we could do a genuine live album without tampering with the multitrack in any way - which we managed to do.

On most supposedly live albums, they’ve overdubbed.

Everything. I got to play an awful lot of pool during that record, because the engineer was doing a lot of the mixing, so I was just upstairs playing pool. It wasn't very taxing.

Why did Dire Straits put out a four-song EP after Love Over Gold, rather than a complete album?

Well, the EP was actually a reaction against the album. After doing something where you spend a lot of care-and doing ,,Private Investigations" about 20,000 times - then all you want to do, basically, is play ,,Bebop-A-Lula."

Do you vary your amps and settings much in the studio?

We just take potluck and go. For stage, I have two amps set up for different things. They're Boogies with Marshall cabinets. One's set lower, and I put the National through that, and you have to graphic [EQ] pretty heavily for that onstage. It's a metal-body with palm trees and canoes on it [a l4 fret Style 0 from the 1930s].

What about effects? There's an interesting fast echo on ,,Waterline" [Dire Straits].

I have no idea what that was. Rhett Davies was the engineer on that record, and he's in love with Roland Chorus Ensembles, so it might well have been that. I actually use a Roland onstage. Most of my effects are echoes. I have a Delta Lab that I like very much, too.

Do you prefer a certain brand and gauge of strings?

They're called Dean Markley Custom Lights. I'd have to check the gauges [high to low, .009, 011, 015, 026, 036, 046]

Is there a pattern to your creative process when you write a song?

No, there's no formula, no law. I'm lazy [laughs]. One song might come quickly, and another might take hundreds of hours over a long period of time with varying amounts of inebriation.

What's the most inebriated song you ever wrote?

,,Once Upon A Time In The West" [Communiqu?] was one of them. I was watching the film on TV in a slightly altered state.

Do you use a multitrack cassette recorder to keep track of ideas and come up with arrangements?

No, I should. I don't even use a tape recorder. I just write things down in a book. A lot of ideas come around, and I've forgotten them in the morning. Sometimes I figure, ,,Well, if I wake up and can still remember it, then it's worth remembering."

Do you just jam on guitar to come up with melodies and changes?

Yes, for hours and hours. And then for more hours. I can play by myself quite happily for days. Sometimes I sit down at the piano and hit the keys, make shapes, but I’m not what you'd call a player. I'm not what I'd call a proper musician on the guitar. I feel as though I'm a student who's not going to school. I've been working from the Mickey Baker book [Jazz And Hot Guitar, Book I] to get some extra chords. I love to learn a new chord and find out what it means, and use it in what I write. I'm developing slowly that way.

Have the outside projects made it difficult to keep to a schedule with Dire Straits?

Dire Straits' schedule is dictated partly by whether or not I've written any songs, and also by how many other things I want to do. If I did all the things I get asked to do, then there would be no time for Dire Straits at all. So to a certain extent, it does affect the band. The band would probably be working much more if I weren't doing anything else. But then life would be extremely dull and tedious, wouldn't it?

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Just this [picking up his red Schecter]: down-da-da-da, down-da-da-da, down-da-da-da...

 

 

Guitar Player, June '92

Mark Knopfler

Make It Cry, Make It Sing

by Andy Widders-Ellis

 

"You should never think it’s easy. It doesn’t matter how good you are." Mark Knopfler’s pale blue eyes burn with zealous intensity as he leans close, jabbing me in the shoulder to emphasize his point. It’s early Sunday morning; we’re sequestered in a quiet corner of the Kansas Ritz-Carlton. Rock and roll is on Knopfler’s mind, energizing his wiry frame as he talks and gestures through a blue haze of cigarette smoke. (heavy, heavy fuel.) Never mind that 90 minutes ago he was playing his heart out to a stadium full of Dire Straits fans: For the moment, sleep can wait.

 

,,I’ve had loads of experience," he continues, with very, very highly trained virtuoso musicians who can play in any bebop setup, and I’ve seen them mess up in a major way on something they thought was easy. I’ve had the best drummers play things on TV shows where it's been a miserable bloody failure because they didn't understand enough of New Orleans music to grasp what the fuck we were actually on about. They missed the point entirely I’m disgusted with them. People in show bands and all the rest think they can nod ,oh yeah' and understand what I’m talking about. But I tell you, my friend - and everyone who reads this magazine - they don't! There's an awful lot more to it than that. It's a disservice to people with real soul and it's a disservice to the heritage of American music."

As I listen bug-eyed, I'm gripped by a realization: In concert, some guitarists make a huge spectacle of emotion, posturing and prancing as if possessed. Backstage, however, you discover it's an act, part of the show. Mere choreography. Knopfler, on the other hand, plays it cool onstage. Guitar against cocked hip, he lets his nimble fingers express the passion that smolders deep within.

When the crowds are gone, the commitment remains. He's the genuine article, a player consumed by a love for music.

My thoughts are interrupted by another jab: ,,It's a tremendous mistake to get involved in music theory and so on, and then discount things about playing because you just don't hear it, you don’t see it, and it doesn't fit your formulas. 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."

Over glasses of cabernet, he talks into the wee hours, discussing his recording secrets, unique fingerstyle technique, and the latest Straits record On Every Street.

 

Country and rockabilly have always played key roles in your sound, but the country vibe has never been so pronounced as on the new album.

I’ve been going to Nashville for years. They've recorded a lot of my songs. I like the endlessly fascinating two-way process that goes on between rock and roll or R&B and country. Clearly, many younger Nashville players are very much into the same kind of music I’m into - cool stuff from a long time ago [laughs]. They're doing it within the restrictions of conservative radio, and sometimes they might have to sacrifice some attitude. To a certain extent, it's a disappointment. But there are so many delights in Nashville apart from that: People who play beautiful music and have lots and lots of soul. So in spite of everything, Nashville remains tremendously attractive. There's a rockabilly attitude coming in that I like very much. It's always been there with people like Waylon, but I can hear it in some of the younger players too. Slowly, people in the mainstream will change country around, which will be a good thing.

The spooky interplay between your guitar and the pedal steel is really dramatic on the new album.

You need to have a player like Paul Franklin to do lt. He’s the greatest pedal steel player in the world. But he's much more than that. His father invented the Pedabro, which Paul plays on ,,Iron Hand." It's a rectangular box with a resonator and pedals; It has the cubic capacity of a Dobro. He also plays an acoustic lap steel so beautifully on ,,You And Your Friend." In many ways, it sounds better than anything else. His father is developing a lap box with pedals. I imagine some great things coming from that.

On earlier records you played slide on your National. Did you use an open tuning on, say ,,Water Of Love"?

Yeah. G tuning-D, G, D, G, B, D - capoed somewhere. I could always do a lot more with it than with the E tuning.

On which finger do you wear your slide?

A hundred years ago, I started with the third - doing Elmore James, straight off, no problem. It just felt more comfortable. When I realized I needed more fingers to do other things, the slide went on the little finger.

Have you always had an affinity for country blues?

Yeah. I didn't actually study it the way I studied literature at the university. I was never a Stefan Grossman aficionado or anything, because I always rejected the academic approach to country blues. I’d listen, not necessarily to imitate the music, but to get off on lt. If you stay too stuck in something old, you just end up being a guy with leather elbow pads on his sport jacket who turns up with a National guitar and plays these academically correct country blues tunes, imitations of Gary Davis or something. So what? Enjoy the music, get the attitude and spirit out of it, and move on. It's not about making a religion of these people. Don't build a shrine.

Do you remember a particular moment when you discovered what the world would later call the ,,Knopfler sound"?

Yeah, I suppose so. 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 realized 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. You are absolutely in touch with what is going on. And that can lead to other things too. On the electric, I developed the sound a bit further with a volume pedal.

Really? Most would assume you were manipulating your Strat’s volume knob to get that crying sound.

Just a simple Ernie Ball pedal. It gives you more of a speaking voice, something that approximates a steel guitar. I always wanted that. I can’t sing, so the guitar becomes a voice in many ways. You are not looking at Bonnie Raitt here.

Are you trying to minimize attack?

That’s more like a voice coming in, isn’t it? But sometimes I’ll make a meal of the attack: With my thumb and fingers I’ll do a little flurry – pa-ta-dam. I’m just interested in attack as lack of attack.

How exactly do you create that flurry? Do you snag the strings with your index finger and then follow through with your thumb?

Well, yes, it’s the same as the boogie rhythm. In other words, the fingers do a pickup before the downbeat. The downbeat is with the thumb. This applies to rhythm playing – which is my greates joy – as well as solo playing. You anticipate the downbeat with a pickup, a brush from either on or two fingers. A flamenco guitarist will swirl the fingers an then – wham – hit the downbeat. It’s a cheapened, mediocre version of that.

How does one develop a signature voice?

It’s not going to happen by buying a videocassette tape that shows you how to play like some guy in a heavy metal band. You'd be much better off listening to Howlin' Wolf and then taking it nice and slow from there.

You're exploring new sounds. For example, "On Euery Street" has a twangy line that

sounds flatpicked.

Yeah, I used a pick for that. I played an old [Gibson] Super 400 with Alnico pickups through a [Fender] Vibrolux with the tremolo on. That's genre. You've got to love all that crap, haven't you? [Laughs]

In a big way. How do you get that warm, throaty lead tone in "You And Your Friend"?

My Les Paul has a little alteration [see Love Over Gear]. You can pull a pot up and get a slightly out-of-phase sound. Then you just back one of the levels down a little bit to where it becomes this voice. I tried to get that on ,,Brothers In Arms" but it didn't please [engineer] Neil Dorfsman at the time we were doing it. I always liked that sound; with a Les Paul it's a beautiful thing.

What acoustic did you use on ,Iron Hand"?

That was an old [Gibson] J-45. I just sang and played. I wasn't feeling too well.

How about that low-key, smoky tone in "Fade To Black"?

The Super 400 again. Those Alnicos are great. If Gibson could find a way to make those pickups once more, they should.

It's a real jazz/blues mood - shades of Django or Kenny Burrell.

Originally it was a Rolling Stones kind of thing. That wasn't making me happy, so I changed the chords right around and put the Super 400 on. Everybody just played, and I sang and played. We never changed the vocal, the guitar, anything. That's an untouched recording.

Wow. These days, that's pretty radical.

You're not going to get recordings that capture the spirit of the moment [snaps fingers] unless you've got confidence, knowledge, and belief. It's important to have people on your side, a band who can follow what's going on. They don't have to be the world's greatest players, but if you're going to embark on a recording like that, I would heartily suggest that you get a great drummer. One of the reasons why I loved making this album so much was because of [drummer] Jeff Porcaro. He's an artist.

Did you cut many tracks live?

,,Iron Hand," ,,Fade To Black," ,,Calling Elvis" - there's a bunch of stuff on this record that just happened. Everybody is just playing. Who's recording like that now? It's not an engineer's dream, but more people should record live if they can.

You're not afraid to mix styles.

Even on the straight things - a song like ,,How Long," for instance - I like to put something in that they wouldn't allow on country radio. A heavy distorted, very, very loud guitar on a country song: Rock and roll won't play it, country won't play it, but that's the music I really like. That's where I'm at. I like working around that delicious place where country meets blues, playing with the third or the absence of the third. It's a highly stimulating pre-orgasmic area [grins].

Do you have a home studio?

Yeah, in London. I don't know if it passes for a real studio. I did a Notting Hillbillies record [Missing. .. Presumed Having A Good Time and most of the Chet record [Neck And Neck] there. You've got to be quite careful - the door doesn't close. You can hear motorcycles and builders and stuff.

When you're off the road and not working on an album or a film score, do you ever practice?

Well, songwriting becomes practicing becomes songwriting becomes practicing.

But I hear an evolution in your playing. More chromatic notes. Diminished runs.

You pick up licks here and there to increase your vocabulary.

So you advocate a less structured, more oblique approach to learning?

I say strange things that most teachers would never say. Watch television with the sound off and play something. Fall asleep while playing.

Do you do that much?

Oh yeah, ever since the beginning. I'll fall asleep playing and my fingers will just be flying about.

Describe your songwriting process.

I write everything on an acoustic. I usually don't have an electric at home. I'm dead lazy and I'm no good with tape recorders or anything, so I just stick some words down in a notebook and try to remember the music.

Got any writing tips?

On this last little break during the tour, I had a capo on the 3rd fret of my acoustic; it changed everything completely I was writing different stuff and an awful lot of stuff because of this change. So if you're in a rut, you might want to change your format. For instance, I originally wrote ,,Sultans Of Swing" on my National steel guitar, open tuned. Same lyrics, but a different tune. Since I can't remember it, it was completely unremarkable [laughs]. When I got the Strat and plugged into an old Vibrolux, it became something else.

So new tools can breed new ideas.

Yeah. Sometimes a change is as good as a rest Tune your guitar to a chord and you'll write something different. Stick a capo on it, you might write something else.

Ever try fingerpicks?

I dispensed with thumbpicks and fingerpicks a long time ago. A fingerpick doesn't give you a down blast if you want one. And the thumbpick separates your thumb from your fingers. Chet uses a thumbpick, so his bass is always clearer and much louder than mine. And he cultivates his nails, so he gets more level all round. You learn these things: Falling asleep on holiday on this last break, I discovered that the [third and fourth finger] anchor I use actually mutes the acoustic.

Are you practicing now without it?

Yeah, I'm playing more fingers off. Anchors aweigh! With an acoustic it sounds so much better This is elementary stuff, but it took me 20 years to find out.

Do you see any drawbacks to playing fingerstyle?

Because I'm playing with my fingers, I need good amplification. The best amplifiers are picks. As soon as you lose the pick, you lose a lot of level. It changes the tone and, in terms of genre, it changes the legitimacy of what you do. So if I'm playing a straight blues or something with my fingers on an electric guitar, I have to think slightly differently. On something like ,,Love You Too Much," I might have to work a little bit harder to be legit, whereas if I used a pick it would be fine. But I could never keep picks anyway, so I just play the way I do and dial up the right sound on the Soldano amp.

What other acoustics do you own?

I recently bought a Taylor that I like a lot. My favorite acoustics are made by [Notting Hillbillies member] Steve Phillips. I have two. They're the best I've ever played. He only made a few; unfortunately, one was destroyed. He tried to approximate a ‘30s Martin, basically

Where do you find inspiration?

Listening to old music is great. You have to know old stuff - get right back into it, know it, feel it. It's no good these heavy metal bands putting slides on their fingers and picking up Nationals and pretending they know how to do that stuff as part of their shtick. It's just woeful. Having said that, I'm very critical of myself because I don't practice electric, which I should really do. I still get myself in knots with the band, and I'll stand there and think, ,,What the hell am I going to do now?" But that's part of the fun of playing live. And I do intend to practice; I should and I will.

What constitutes "old music"?

If you think going back means Led Zeppelin, have another think! You have to start with American music in the ,20s. It would help if you knew about Irish and Celtic music as well. American music is essentially a nuclear fusion of blues and country. That's what the whole thing's about. Nothing else matters. You have to know the history of it, which doesn't involve listening to Otis Rush just once. It doesn't involve listening to Speckled Red once. It doesn't involve listening to Gid Tanner And The Skillet Lickers once. It doesn't involve listening to Bob Wills once. It's extremely foolish to have all these music schools create opportunities for talented kids to learn how to do technical things unbelievably well, when they don't understand where the hell it's coming from. Lots of people play music and don’t really hear it, which brings us to the subject of musical musicians and unmusical musicians. There are many impressive players who are far more technically adept than I am, for instance, but they're not hearing it, they're just doing it. Sticking stuff in the right boxes, depending on what the progression is.

So what's the antidote?

Be concerned with the soul quotient of your music, the sheer joy of being in the heart of something. And don't be concerned about the marketplace. The music business is something that's completely and utterly separate from music. Don't think about singles. Just do what the hell you really want to do. Learn to hear music, so whatever is going on, you find a way to help it. Finding Parts is a musical musician's speciality: Parts are what make great records - not producers. It's not a question of what you know. It all comes down to this: What are you prepared to give of yourself?

 

 

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