A Conversation for Mark Knopfler - the Singer/Guitarist

Errors... Sorry...

Post 1

Mrgrunt (With the Beard of Power!)

The following was actually posted to me from Douglas Adams on my guide entry on Dire Straits...

"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."

Errors... Sorry...

Post 2


A much worse error is to say that the Notting Hillbillies "flopped"! I went to see them at Ronnie Scotts last year, and they were an absolute sell-out, and it was *the best* concert I have ever seen - or make that heard, since I spent a lot of time with my eyes closed just relishing every sound. The musicianship is fantastic and I can't wait to hear more. Sadly, it seems that I must wait a long time and just play the CD to myself.

So, however he makes that sound, I just hope he keeps on doing it at least sometimes in public

Errors... Sorry...

Post 3

Dr. Funk

Actually, not to be heretical, but Douglas Adams appears to have confused his fingerpicking styles here. 'Clawhammer' refers to a rather specific style of playing the banjo, an older style that's quite different from the bluegrass style that most people are familiar with. Clawhammer banjo players--generally--use only the nail of one finger (usually the the middle one) and the flesh of the thumb to play. This is hard to describe, but at its simplest, the middle finger and thumb alternate. First, the middle finger strikes straight down on the strings (and usually hits the head of the banjo); then the thumb pulls up on another--sometimes the drone string (that's the highest string on the banjo)--and sometimes other strings--to create something like a melodic line that has a sort of poppin' and lockin' rhythm to it, not the rolling sound usually associated with the banjo. You don't hear clawhammer banjo on any popular recordings at all--it is, to everyone's detriment, relegated to what folks who play it call old-time--that is, primitive fiddle/banjo music from the Appalachian mountains, dating back to the 1800s but still alive and well in its own way. The bluegrass banjo style, invented as far as I know by Earl Scruggs, who played with Bill Monroe for a number of years, is the rolling sound familiar to many people. That sound is produced--again, at its simplest--by two fingers and the thumb, each of which have picks attached to them, these days usually a combination of metal and plastic.

The fingerpicking guitar style Adams describes isn't called 'clawhammer'; if it has a name, it seems to be referred to as 'Travis-style' picking, though I'm not comfortable enough with that to stand behind it. At any rate, it has something in common with the bluegrass style of banjo playing but differs in one key aspect: for the guitar, the thumb is used to create a bass line, while in the banjo, the thumb is incorporated into the melodic line (in bluegrass playing, the banjo, when playing melodic lines, is pretty much absolved of all rhythmic duties). Also, bluegrass banjo playing and folk/blues guitar fingerpicking arose from fairly distinct traditions. Bluegrass arose from the old-time stringband music based around the fiddle and banjo, a predominantly white music, while the travis-style fingerpicking arose from the folk/blues tradition--grossly simplified, a black tradition--exemplified by folks like Robert Johnson and Mississippi John Hurt.

This really deserves an entry, I guess, but just to set the record straight for now...

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