Mark Knopfler

Looking Ahead
Looking Ahead

Few guitarists have such a distinctive playing style that they are recognized after just a few measures, regardless of what guitar or amplifier they’re using

Most guitar/guitar music aficionados would agree that Mark Knopfler is a long-time member of such a distinguished club, not only because of his emotional and melodic lead guitar style, but also because he never seems to play the same riff twice. Knopfler’s ability to compose guitar lines with instant hooks is legendary; his songwriting, playing, and singing have been respected by listeners worldwide since the late ’70s, when a catchy, riff-laden song titled “Sultans of Swing” catapulted Knopfler and his band, Dire Straits, into international acclaim.

Since that time, there’ve been numerous hit singles and platinum albums, collaborations with other notable artists, and a plethora of soundtracks that have kept him perpetually in demand.

These days, Knopfler still looks ahead to future endeavors. When he sat down with < I>VG, he was anxious to discuss his new solo album, Sailing to Philadelphia, as well as some of the guitars he has used throughout his career. And although when it comes to music he prefers to stay in the present and future tenses, he even fielded questions about Dire Straits.

Another recent distinction for Knopfler (likely a first for a rock guitarist) was having a newly-discovered species of dinosaur named after him.

Vintage Guitar: What can you tell me about Mas-iakasaurus Knopfleri?
Mark Knopfler: Well, I suppose it’s better than having a street named after you (laughs)! It’s a real honor; it’s fantastic. The guys who did the digging must have thought the music brought them luck. The letter I got from an American scientist from Utah said they had listened to both my band stuff and my solo stuff.

Did your early childhood in Scotland have anything to do with you acquiring a taste for fingerpicking?
I was born in Scotland, but brought up in Newcastle-On-Tyne, which is in northeast England. I moved there when I was eight. There are a lot of ties between northeast England and Scotland, and I did hear a lot of music in Scotland – probably Scottish country dance music. In northeast England there were Northumbrian folk tunes, and I think they’ve influenced me quite a lot.

I got into folk clubs because I couldn’t afford an amplifier. I’d use friends’ acoustic guitars and play them in folks joints, and that’s how I got into fingerpicking. After I’d gotten an electric guitar, I didn’t have the heart to ask my dad for an amplifier, so that’s sort of how I got into the folk thing, since it was acoustic, but I’d been interested in American folk music anyway – I’d heard my first Bob Dylan record when I was 11 years old. I wanted to play American music – black and white – and I discovered that a lot of American music had come from Europe, anyway.

What instruments did you have back then – acoustic and electric?
I used to play cheap guitars like Kays and Harmonys, like a Sovereign. A friend had a Levin, which was European-built. It looked like a Martin, but it didn’t sound like one. It was still nicely made, though, and at the time it actually cost more than a Harmony Sovereign.

Did Hank Marvin make you want to play lectric guitar.
Yeah. I was eight or nine when I got my first Shadows EP, and that’s why my first electric guitar had to be red! I desperately wanted a Fender, but my dad couldn’t afford one, so I ended up getting a Höfner with a couple of pickups – at least it had a basic Strat shape. And I was in love with that guitar. Like I said, I didn’t have an amplifier, so I blew up the radio with it (chuckles).

But I think in a lot of ways, playing inferior instruments helps you improve as a guitarist. You have to accomplish things on guitars that have pretty bad action.
A medicine ball effect?
Yeah, but I’m really glad I always played acoustic and electric guitar. I think learning to play an acoustic guitar with accuracy and clarity means that when you go to an electric guitar, you have a better focus on it.

One of the first bands you were in took its name from a resonator guitar.
Me and Steve Phillips called ourselves the Duolian String Pickers. I got into Nationals when I moved to Leeds. I’d bought an old tricone, and Steve had a Duolian. When Steve upgraded, I bought his Duolian – the one with palm trees on it; it’s on songs like “Romeo and Juliet” and a lot of other records. It has a piano-like tone that’s unique, and its texture fits into a lot of songs.

We were playing mostly country blues, but we were also doing a fair bit of hillbilly music. I played bottleneck a lot, and we also did western swing songs and ragtime stuff, which was really good for me because I was filling in a lot of the gaps between what I already knew about things like Chicago blues – stuff I’d wanted to play as a young teenager. Plus I’d grown up listening to the Everly Brothers and Ricky Nelson – one of the first records that really knocked me out was “Just A Little Too Much,” which had some tremendous stuff by James Burton on it.

When “Sultans of Swing” broke Dire Straits internationally, did anybody tell you they thought it was Bob Dylan backed up with a good lead guitar player?
(chuckles) Yeah, one or two…

Around that time, you were using a Strat copy instead of a real Strat.
I had a copy, but I also got an original ’61 in Fiesta Red, and I still play it.

Let me name some other guitars you’ve used, and I’ll let you comment on them. First, a sunburst Les Paul you played at Live Aid.
I could never afford to buy one from the “classic years,” so I got a reissue in the ’70s, and I recorded things like “Brothers In Arms” and “Money for Nothing” with that one, and I toured with it. Then the Gibson Custom Shop built one for me in the ’80s, with my birthdate as the serial number. But a few years ago, I got my first real late-’50s model. Man, I didn’t realize what I’d been missing all these years! Now I have two – a ’58 and a ’59. They’re great guitars, with big necks.

That’s funny – I’ve just come back from holiday, and I took it with me and played it every day just so I could stay on top of things. It’s great to put it on your back or throw it into the luggage compartment of a plane. I used to use ’em onstage; it’s a great guitar for touring. It’s strong as a truck.

I’ve been friends with Rudy [Pensa] for a long time, and now I can’t play my old Pensas because the necks are too small for me – I’m used to playing with bigger necks now, but the latest one he made for me is fantastic. It’s got a bigger neck, and I put some serious pickups in it that are kind of a Stevie Ray Vaughan-style. A lot depends on what kind of pickups you’re using, for the personality of a guitar to come through, and these sound great. They’re Fender Texas Specials.

The picture inside Sailing to Philadelphia shows you in a gymnasium with a Gibson ES-335TDN and a tweed Fender amp.
It’s a pretty good combination; I played it on “Baloney Again.” That’s a ’59 335 – again with a nice, fat neck – that I got through Rudy, and the amp is a ’59 Bassman.

Did you ever play through the short-lived Jim Kelly amplifiers?
I used them for a little bit, and I think I used them much more on tour than on albums. I kept moving up until I ended up with Soldano, and now I use a combination of those and vintage stuff…although Soldano is more or less “vintage” by now (laughs). I still use the old Fender Vibrolux I’ve always used from the very beginning. I’ll be taking it and the Bassman on tour and mixing it up with the Soldano, and sometimes an old Marshall, as well.

I dare say the opportunity to record a duet with Chet Atkins was probably a high point of your career.
Obviously. It was a wonderful moment. He called me up and I flew to Nashville, where he was making an album with guitar players from all over the world, and that’s how we started.

I got off the plane, and the next thing I knew he was showing me around the Gibson guitar factory. Chet introduced me to some great people in Nashville, and I’ve still got a lot of good friends there.

One of the best Elvis tribute songs ever recorded was “King’s Call” by Phil Lynott. You were in the video.
I think Phil was trying to make a record with a lot of different styles on it – the album itself didn’t have one particular style. I really enjoyed hanging out with Phil. [His death] was such a shame; he was a sweet guy.

You’ve done quite a number of soundtracks, and among the earlier ones were Local Hero, which takes place in Scotland, and Cal, about the troubles in Northern Ireland. Sounds like you might have drawn on your earliest musical experiences with folk music for inspiration.
If you’re thinking along Celtic lines, it hasn’t been impossible for me to come up with those kind of melodies. I suppose it’s never too far from the surface for me. I just did another one for a movie starring Robert Duvall, which is coming out quite soon. It’s set in Scotland, so in some ways it was like a big circle back to /I>Local Hero, but I really enjoyed doing it.

Whenever you’ve made any sociopolitical commentary in your songwriting – recent examples would include “Imelda” on your first solo album, and “Baloney Again” – it’s seemed to come off as kind of wry or oblique.
I got the idea for “Baloney Again” from the liner notes to a Fairfield Four album. I was trying to imagine what it was like to tour the deep South at that time. It’s set in 1953, and it was an interesting time musically, because bass, drums, and the electric guitar were just coming onto the market, and the gospel scene was about to be challenged, big-time, by rock and roll.

Can you cite some of the instruments you played on the new album? We’ve already discussed the 335.
There was also a ’64 Stratocaster, a beautiful-sounding guitar that’s on the title track and “The Last Laugh” – I actually played on that one when we were cutting the track; it’s not overdubbed.

A ’54 Telecaster is on “Prairie Wedding.” A ’38 Gibson Advanced Jumbo is on things like “Speedway at Nazareth” and “Wanderlust.” A very nice early-’50s Southern Jumbo is on a couple of things, including the title track. On “El Macho” and some others, that’s a ’58 Gibson Les Paul.

You co-produced this album with Chuck Ainlay, who had one of the first Dolby Surround 5.1 studios in Nashville. Have you ever thought about recording or mixing in that format?
On February 29 I started work with Chuck on doing Sailing to Philadelphia in [5.1] Surround. I’m doing it in England; Chuck’s been wanting me to do it for a long time, and this last movie I did with Guy Fletcher – the Robert Duvall film I was telling you about – had to be done 5.1, obviously, for the cinema. That was my first experience, and I really loved it. This is not a gimmick; it’s what Chuck would call “the real deal.” In the right hands, it’s fantastic; you can do amazing things with it. Even though I have to listen to the album all over again, I’m looking forward to it.

The title track of Sailing to Philadelphia is about the demarcation of the Mason-Dixon line; you sing part of the song as Jeremiah Dixon, and James Taylor portrays Charles Mason. I thought it was comparable to the title track of Paul Simon’s Graceland album, in that both songs allude to journeys and American landmarks.
I hadn’t thought of it that way, but that’s flattering.

What inspired you to write a song about that particular episode of American history?
A combination of things – a book I was reading, and the times I was making my way through Philadelphia. The book was Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon; it’s a large book, and it was taking me some time to read it, while I was going backward and forward to the States, changing planes in Philadelphia. There’s a bit in the book about when Mason and Dixon first see Philadelphia; they got there by wooden ship, from England, and it took them weeks to get there.

As I was “sailing” into Philadelphia through the clouds, looking down at enormous oil tankers and a vast airport, with thousands of people changing aircraft every day, I was thinking about all of the things the book made me think about – the history of the country, and the fact that the Mason-Dixon line had first been drawn to settle a border dispute between Pennsylvania and Maryland, and how the first mutterings of independence happened back around the time the line was surveyed, before the War of Independence. Then it was extended and became a factor in the abolition movement, and the North-South conflict. In fact, the word “Dixie” may have come from “Dixon.”

The book makes you think a lot about comparative cultures, including the Native Americans – the original inhabitants – and what the white man was doing, cutting an enormous vista across the countryside, cutting trees down. There are passages in it about how European science met the wilderness and North American Indian mysticism. It’s a fascinating book, for all sorts of reasons.

And that made me think about the journey of the music – the music that I listened to as a kid came mostly from America, but very often, that music went to America from here, would be processed through a mincing machine, and come out as an American record. And I think there’s always been a constant to that kind of traffic, musically. Whereas America used to be a colony, it turned out that America colonized the consciousness of the entire world with music and movies.

There are quite a few notable guests on “The Last Laugh.”
Yeah, Van Morrison, Jim Horn, plus Wayne Jackson from the Memphis Horns. I love the sort of “new old sound” that song has.

Are there any other songs on the album that you’re particularly proud of?
(pauses) I’m pleased the way the whole thing turned out. I’m just starting to begin to learn how to make a record that I can listen to (chuckles).

Your tour starts in South America.
I’ve never played there. All through the years, I always meant to go, and now it’ll happen. After that, I’ll be heading to the States – I haven’t played there for so long, I can’t wait to get out there.

Mark Knopfler obviously puts a lot of thought into the music and lyrics he creates, and he’s every bit as conscientious about his guitar playing. And it has paid off for him over the decades with the respect of music fans and guitarists around the globe. He continues to forge ahead with commendable and ambitious musical projects. Sailing to Philadelphia concurs with the prevailing opinion in contemporary music that Mark Knopfler is that good. Anybody wanna debate that?

Masiakasaurus Knopfler
Definitive “Retro-Rock”

Obviously, “retro rock” is an alusion to the fossilized remains of the only dinosaur ever to be named after a rock

Masiakasaurus knopfleri’s remains were found on the island of Madagascar, off the east coast of Africa, by a group of researchers that included paleontologists from the University of Utah and the State University of New York/Stony Brook.

The creature was a carnivore about the size of a German Shepard, and Mark Knopfler concurred when asked if the dinosaur could have used a good orthodontist – its front teeth extended outward and were tubular-shaped. Most likely, this evolutionary incongruity meant the reptile would have used such dental anomalies to grasp its prey.

For details concerning how Knopfler’s music and moniker figured into the naming of the beast, Vintage Guitar contacted Dr. Scott Sampson of the Utah Museum of Natural History in Salt Lake City. Sampson was on the expeditions to Madagascar that discovered Masiakasaurus knopfleri, and was the individual who notified Knopfler of the official and unique name of the prehistoric animal.

“I am one of several big fans of Knopfler’s music on the Madagascar expeditions,” Sampson said. “Yet I would have to say that the biggest fan would be David Krause (SUNY/Stony Brook), the man who started the Madagascar project.”

Knopfler’s music on those expeditions included Dire Straits albums such as Brothers In Arms and Making Movies, according to Sampson, as well as Knopfler’s first solo album, 1996’s Golden Heart.

“We did indeed bring a variety of other music with us as well, covering a broad range of styles – everything from Elvis to INXS,” Sampson added.

One might have expected a certain song to be cited as the one that was playing when the discovery of Masiakasaurus knopfleri was made, but Sampson advised, “The discoveries of fossils of this new dinosaur were made over several seasons.”

Sampson has discovered other species in his career (and has named others, as well). Examples include two horned dinosaurs, Einiosaurus procurvicornis and Achelousaurus horneri, as well as a primitive bird called Rahonavis ostromi (the latter’s moniker had several co-authors, according to Sampson).

“This is the first time that a dinosaur has been named for a rock star,” said Sampson. “Someone told me there is a species of fly named after the Grateful Dead, but that’s as close as it gets.

“Our decision about the name came about after about six weeks of living in extreme conditions in a remote area. After Knopfler’s music became established as our ‘talisman’ of the season, someone suggested we honor him by giving the new dinosaur his name. I guess it made sense to a bunch of half-crazed paleontologists who had spent too much time under the hot sun.”

Sampson summed up the experience and its uniqueness by averring that it was probably a one-of-a-kind event: “I sincerely doubt I will ever name another dinosaur for a rock musician, or any other kind of musician. It was kind of a one-off experience that certainly attracted far more attention than we predicted. I did not expect to receive queries from rock stations and magazine, though perhaps I should have!”

Photo: Andrew Williams
This article originally appeared in VG‘s May. ’01 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.