A Conversation for Dire Straits - the Band

Mark Knopfler's playing

Post 1


The point about the way in which MK plays guitar hasn't much to do with banjos or being 'crisper'. The vast majority of electric guitar players use a flat plectrum to play. MK mostly plays with his naked fingers and I imagine (though I don't know for sure) that this might be because he started out as a finger picking acoustic guitarist.
The finger picking style (also sometimes known as 'clawhammer') typically involves playing a bass line with the thumb and a melody line with two or more of the other fingers. The melody line is typically offset by half a beat from the bass line to give a very full, rolling, contrapuntal style to the playing. (Paul Simon's playing on The Boxer and nearly all of his early songs is an excellent example of this style).

Because you are using your fingers rather than a plectrum the playing tone is typically slightly softer and less crisp, in fact. Just to make things complicated, many acoustic fingerpickers will wear clip-on plectra on their fingers so that they can combine the contrapuntal style of playing with the ringing brightness of plectrum playing. This is very difficult (at least, I find it extremely difficult) and more or less impossible on most electric guitars because typically their strings are closer together than the strings of acoustic guitars.

And some players will play the melody line with their fingers and the bassline with a flat pick held between the thumb and forefinger. And so on. If you watch Eric Clapton's Unplugged video, you'll see him use a mixture of these techniques. He knows what he's doing.

Some guitar players transfer what is essentially an acoustic style of playing to the electric guitar and usually develop a very individual and idiosyncratic style as result. MK is a very good example of this. What he loses in terms of sharp bite of tone, he makes up for in flexibility. If you listen to the last verse of Tunnel of Love, for instance, MK moves from slow, plucked chords (you can't pluck a chord with a flat plectrum) to melody work supported by a bass part, to very rapid passagework in the most fluid possible way. It's pretty impressive, very individual, and you couldn't do it with a plectrum (unless you were Jimi Hendrix in which case you would have been able to do it with a pound of sausages and a hair drier)

In the end, everybody's style is a mixture of techniques and influences, but MK's shows very clear signs of having evolved from acoustic to electric.

Another interesting fact about MK as a guitar player is that he is a left-hander who has learnt to play right-handed. There are many different flavours of left-handedness and some people can cross over and some can't. Paul McCartney is a good example of someone who came close to deciding that he couldn't play the guitar at all until someone suggested he should try playing the other way round, whereupon he suddenly discovered he was rather good at it. Jimi Hendrix is, as usual, the exception to any rule you care to make because he was left handed, but seemed to be able to play any guitar any way round. He just didn't care.

I believe Jeff Beck also plays electric primarily with bare fingers, but I'm not an expert on Jeff Beck.

Mark Knopfler's playing

Post 2

Insane Endeavour

If I am right, I think Mark Knopfler also taught Hank Marvin's left-handed son to play the guitar with his right hand. I don't know if there are advantages of playing this way around, but MK seems to have done well enough!


Mark Knopfler's playing

Post 3

Demon Drawer

Paul MCCartney didn't know about left handed guitars when he started out so he had to play a right handed one upside down. IU've tried to play the most common chord upside down to see what it feels like G is tough as are D and A7. And these are just the bog standard learners chords. smiley - sadface

Thankfully he found a left handed version before too long.

Mark Knopfler's playing

Post 4


Interesting article on dIRE sTRAITS (heh) ... I have to agree with DNA that MK's style seems to be more lacking in the brightness of a sharp attack you get from playing with a pick (as we Americans call the plectrum - always have to have our own words for things, sorry), but it still does have some kind of attack - I believe MK uses a style that has him pushing or holding the strings very near his pickups at times, giving him a nice, almost dirty kind of attack to his notes - he sometimes completely eliminates this by quickly fading in his solos, either by using a volume pedal or the volume knob itself - it's really neat, and I wish I could do it (specifically, I'm thinking of the solo(s) on the beautiful song "Brothers In Arms"). Personally, I find MK's playing to be exceptionally beautiful and rare for that very lack of a sharply picked tone - his notes and chords seem to flow into and around you rather than bump up against you, preferring a sublte approach to boldy demanding your immediate attention. For the record, I am in no way trying to put down other guitarists' picking styles (I happen to be one of them myself), but am merely expressing my extreme admiration and (I must confess) envy at MK's abilities.

On some side notes, Jeff Beck does indeed play with his fingers ... mostly. Well, as far as I know - I've only seen him play once, and am by no means an expert either. I knew that Jimi Hendrix was left handed, but I thought he actually re-strung his right-handed guitar when he turned it upside down, as I've seen a few other leftys do. That is, re-string such that the sixth string remains "on top" or closest to one's face as opposed to merely flipping the thing upside down. I do know of one phenomenal guitarist who is left handed and continues (after some 40+ years now) to play a right handed guitar actually upside down left-handedly, and who also was one of the first to competely abuse one of Leo Fender's Stratocastere ... of course, I'm speaking of Dick Dale. I'm tempted to write up an article on Dick Dale, but a far more detailed biography and interesting facts about surf guitar in general can be found on his website at [URL removed by moderator]... if anyone isn't sure if they've heard them, I need only refer to the film "Pulp Fiction" - Dick Dale's timeless "Miserlou" is the opening track when the title appears on the screen. I've managed to modestly imitate his tremendous skill at rapidly picking the strings. I only bring him up since the thread turned to notable left-handed guitarists (thanks to a notable left-handed guitarist himself who happened to start this thread smiley - winkeye) and didn't want to forget Dick Dale. Interestingly enough, Dick Dale's style is pretty much the exact polar opposite of Mark Knopfler's, which is probably why I'm feeling kind of silly for going on about it in this particular thread, so I'm shutting up now. smiley - smiley

Mark Knopfler's playing

Post 5

Mrgrunt (With the Beard of Power!)

No, please carry on... If there are any errors to my entry, i'd like them to be pointed out... smiley - smiley
As for Mark's playing, I just think it's the most beautiful style of playing. Speaking of which... DNA, what Dire Straits track were you thinking of when you wrote the chapter in Fenchurch's house in 'So Long...'?
Just out of interest... smiley - winkeye

Mark Knopfler's playing

Post 6

Insane Endeavour

You know, you got there before me! I was coming here to ask exactly the same question! smiley - smiley I second that question DNA!


Mark Knopfler's playing

Post 7


I'm sure DNA was describing "Sultans of Swing."

Mark Knopfler's playing

Post 8


Re: which Dire Straits song it was that Arthur played to Fenchurch; it was "Tunnel of Love" from their Making Movies album. At least, that's what the FAQ says at the moment. smiley - winkeye

Mark Knopfler's playing

Post 9

Rojo Habe (48-1+2-7)

We call it pick here too - unless there are non-musicians in the converstaion.

Also, AFIK, Jimi Hendrix did indeed play his guitar upside down, strung right-handed.

Mark Knopfler's playing

Post 10


It's a long time ago now that "Sultans of Swing" hit the charts in the UK. As of 2003 I reckon that was some 26yrs ago back in 1977.
Knopfler came from Newcastle upon Tyne in NE England which is my nearest city and that first album revoloved about places and times that I knew well.

That first hit was an outstanding record on the pop scene of the day.
The problem was it did not score well on the charts. I can remember screaming at my truck radio why the hell this record was stuck at no. 16 or 17. The DJs knew it was special but would it hell move!

That first LP has never been bettered. Songs like "So Far", "Telegraph Road" and the rest are worth searching for in the original recording.

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