Interviews with Mark Knopfler from guitar
Go to the new Mark
Knopfler Guitar Website
Guitar Player, July '79
Guitar Player, Sept. '84
Guitar Player, June '92
Guitar Player, July '79
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
groups 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
,,,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, Ive
acquired a 30s vintage National Duolian, which is the one
you hear on the album. [wrong: it is a Style O (Ingo)]
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; Id 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
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
,,After a while, though,
the group just wasn't a good vehicle for the songs Id 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
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. Ive also got a beautiful old sunburst Telecaster, which has the white binding and a rosewond neck
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 Ive 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. Im 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. Im looking forward to using the Ovations
We've had trouble amplifying the Nationals. Incidentally,
Id 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;
Ive 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
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 Im closer to freedom
than Ive ever been," Mark believes. ,,I have a lot of
control over my personal playing, and as a group we are creating
and communicating. Im 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
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
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 Musics 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
GPs 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 dont at all resemble the
stereotypical blues-based lead guitarist rattling off pentatonic
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 didnt
play the sorts of things youre known for with Dire Straits.
Its 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
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 its 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. Its always very nice.
What do you want to know about the song youre playing
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 dont feel as though youve 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 youd 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
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
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
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
Do you also instruct or direct the other rhythm
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 its 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
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
Do you pick with your fingernails or with the meat of your
It's really from skin, but
sometimes the nail will catch. You can use the nail to snap it. A
lot of times, Ill 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
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
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
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, youve 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
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
On most supposedly live albums, theyve 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
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
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 Im 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
Make It Cry, Make
"You should never
think its easy. It doesnt matter how good you
are." Mark Knopflers pale blue eyes burn with zealous
intensity as he leans close, jabbing me in the shoulder to
emphasize his point. Its early Sunday morning; were
sequestered in a quiet corner of the Kansas Ritz-Carlton. Rock
and roll is on Knopflers 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.
,,Ive had loads of
experience," he continues, with very, very highly trained
virtuoso musicians who can play in any bebop setup, and Ive
seen them mess up in a major way on something they thought
was easy. Ive 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 Im
disgusted with them. People in show bands and all the rest think
they can nod ,oh yeah' and understand what Im 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 dont see
it, and it doesn't fit your formulas. I dont 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
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.
Ive 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
Im 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
You need to have a player
like Paul Franklin to do lt. Hes 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
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
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. Id 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
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 wouldnt 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 Strats 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 cant
sing, so the guitar becomes a voice in many ways. You are not
looking at Bonnie Raitt here.
Are you trying to
Thats more like a
voice coming in, isnt it? But sometimes Ill make a
meal of the attack: With my thumb and fingers Ill do a
little flurry pa-ta-dam. Im 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, its 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. Its a cheapened, mediocre version
How does one develop a
Its 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
You're exploring new
sounds. For example, "On Euery Street" has a twangy
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
Are you practicing now
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
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
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
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.
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 dont 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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