Loving guitars means you’ve got to love the cheap ones as well,” Mark Knopfler reflects as he leans back in his chair in the control room of his studio in West London. “A really powerful part of my childhood was gazing longingly at those things. I didn’t know whether it was going to be a Futurama or a Hofner or a Burns Sonic that I was going to get first. But I was desperate for something. Boy, I loved them and I still do. You never escape that.”
He should know. Four decades on from Dire Straits’ 1978 debut hit, “Sultans of Swing,” he’s still making records that are, among other things, love letters to the sound of the guitar in all its many guises. His latest album, Down the Road Wherever, is also his most autobiographical record in a while, and its 14 songs include many unsentimental portraits of the life he led as a gigging guitarist in Newcastle and Deptford, England, before big-time fame hit.
As usual, there are also plenty of those unhurried, emotive guitar lines that linger in the memory, including some offbeat but moving moments that only Knopfler could pull off. Halfway through the slide solo in “Just a Boy Away From Home,” for example, you realize that the melody he’s coaxing from the guitar is “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” a song originally composed for the 1945 musical Carousel that became a hymn for the Liverpool Football Club. Knopfler phrases the line beautifully, investing it with fresh emotional power.
“The idea of it actually came from when my dad was in hospital in Newcastle,” he explains. “He’d had his first heart attack after he retired, and he’s lying in there in the middle of the night feeling maybe just a little bit sorry for himself, when he hears someone singing as they’re walking past. It’s right near St. James’ Park, and it was in the middle of the night. So it was obviously a Liverpool lad who had missed his train or his bus home, you know? And he’s on his own and he’s singing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’ And I think my dad found it sort of like a little sign to keep his chin up.”
The solo is just one of the guitar highlights of the record, but it stands out both for the quote and for Knopfler’s deft slide work. The guitarist is well known for his fretted playing, but the roots of his slide playing, something less frequently talked about, are actually even older, he explains.
“I could do Elmore James–style steel from the very, very beginning, when I was just a kid,” he says. “After I heard it, I could just kind of do it. I don’t know whether I could do it very well, but I was doing it straight away. I probably wouldn’t like to hear it now. It was just a pure, Jeremy Spencer kind of thing.”
The remark opens up a bit of discussion about his unmistakable playing style, which borrows freely from blues, country and folk without hanging its hat on any one of those classic genres in particular. Like many guitarists, early exposure to a really good record collection — belonging to his friend and musical sparring partner, Steve Phillips — laid the blueprint for Knopfler’s approach to the guitar.
“Even when I was about 20 or so, I was already steeped in a lot of early country blues and everything,” he recalls. “We were listening to all of that stuff because Steve had a record collection, and so I’d be around there most nights just drinking his coffee and listening to Blind Willie [Johnson] and all of these people. It’s stuff like that, listening to everything going back to the ’20s, maybe even before. Early jug-band, string-band stuff.
“Steve’s house became like a university of the blues for me…as well as the National guitars and all of that. Everything. I think that’s the background of my acoustic fumblings. That started to develop to the point that I’d take liberties, and the thumb would start to play the top strings, with the fingers on the bottom. And I was always losing the pick anyway,” he says, explaining how his distinctive style of playing the electric guitar with fingers evolved from those early acoustic days.
“Then, when I could afford an amplifier and started playing Gibsons and Fenders and all the rest of it, I could already find my way around, and I’d done a lot of listening,” he explains. “I think if you’ve done a lot of listening, if you’ve gone back to both black roots and white roots in music — folk and blues, all of those styles — it might just give you a bit of depth as a writer.”
Coming back to the present, he adds that the slide work on “Just a Boy Away From Home” was done using the Fender single-coil sounds most people associate him with. “That would be one of my Strats. Just a regular Strat or one of my signatures,” he says. “Though I also sometimes use a really early ‘Coke bottle’ Danelectro, with one pickup, for slide.”
Elsewhere on the album, there are more portraits of life from Knopfler’s earliest days as a pro guitarist, including what is arguably the best song on the album, “Matchstick Man,” which tells the story of a musician hitchhiking north on a snowbound Christmas Day after playing a dead-end gig in the southern English county of Cornwall. The lyrics describe how a truck driver drops the young man off at a high crossroads overlooking a bleak plain of snow. It’s a song that’s somehow larger than its subject, speaking of what it means to choose your own path through life, without signs, maps or encouragement to guide the way.
“And who would you be, vagabond?” the lyrics ask. “No one invited you, you know.”
Was this a chapter from Knopfler’s own experience?
“Yes. I was standing there with the realization of what I’d chosen to do in life,” he recalls. “It didn’t bother me. You’re young and you’re just full of it, and I didn’t even look to see how far it was from Penzance to Newcastle. I don’t think I even knew it was 500 miles back then, you know? I would climb up into trucks with a guitar all the time, because since college I used to hitch with a guitar.
“It’s unthinkable now. I wouldn’t do that. With a guitar? You’re kidding, aren’t you? But there you are. That’s just the way I was.
“Actually, it did take a while to get a break in music after that,” he continues. “I got a job that saved my life for a while, and I earned some money that actually enabled me to swap my motorcycle for a car and to buy a Fender and stuff like that. It just got me back operating again and eventually to be able to get Dire Straits together.”
The new album isn’t all grizzled autobiography, however. There are moments of offbeat humor to be found in tracks such as “My Bacon Roll,” which gives voice to the frustrations of middle-aged men on corporate teambuilding days. “Drovers’ Road,” by contrast, is the kind of rugged ballad with a stirring Celtic inflection that Knopfler made his own from the Local Hero soundtrack onward.
“I don’t think it’s ever very far from the surface,” he says of the Celtic influence, while adding that he’s far from a pious disciple of folk music tradition. “I’ve got to the stage where, if there was a Celtic band playing, I would spoil it with my Les Paul or something, you know? If I write something like that and if it’s got an instrumental coda that goes between the verses — something like ‘Laughs and Jokes and Drinks and Smokes’ [from 2015’s Tracker] — I’m quite happy to put some guitar in there. I don’t mind sort of crashing in through the French windows of a folk tune that’s being played. I’m not much of a purist, you know. I don’t really think there has to be a classical form for anything. I would put a concrete mixer on a record if I thought that it was going to help it. I don’t want to be orthodox necessarily.
“It’s like bluegrass. There are people who think, It’s not bluegrass unless it’s got a Dobro and a fiddle and banjo and a flat-top guitar, and you can only play with a pick, and whatever else. Well, who cares? I love all that music, but a lot of the new stuff, it’s far too fast. I call it ‘turbo grass’. If you listen to the really great people — you know, Bill Monroe and the people who started it — it’s not played that fast. The originals were never really played that fast.”
Knopfler adds, as an aside, that his intense focus on songwriting in recent years has left him wanting to brush up on his own playing technique a bit, to the extent that he’s even toying with the idea of taking guitar lessons. “You do get one thing at the expense of the other, to an extent,” he says. “I certainly think that my playing has suffered from just being so preoccupied with writing songs over the years. I’m not bitching about it. I love songwriting more than anything, and that is why I’ve ended up where I am with it, with the guitar.
“I tell you the truth, though: I’d like to have a guitar teacher come ’round on a Tuesday morning or something and ring the bell, and not give me a load of theory but just talk about a little passage or a little sequence and leave it with me, and then go through it with me the next week. That’s exciting to me, because I’ve never had a teacher like that.”
On the evidence of tracks such as “Drovers’ Road” and “Nobody’s Child,” it’s clear Knopfler hasn’t got too much to worry about. He sounds great on the album. In addition to the languid, lyrical phrasing he does so well, the guitar sounds are top-notch throughout. But anyone hoping to crib detailed notes from the Knopfler school of guitar tone is in for a disappointment, he reveals.
“People say, ‘How do you get that sound?’ Well, I plugged it in and then I started fiddling with the knobs until I got something that I quite liked.” He laughs. “That’s how I did it. But I can tell you some things that I do,” he admits. “I’ve just found on my old Tone King amp, for instance, that I like the Rhythm channel better than the Lead channel for a lot of things that I do.”
When it comes to the guitars used on the album, he says it’s a mixture of his go-to vintage instruments and lesser-used guitars that had a more specific role in tracking certain songs.
“There’s a slew of Les Pauls on the album. Gibson copied my ’58 [pictured page 52], and they did it so well that I used a few of those. Just out of interest, I would try one or two, and one of them would just maybe slot into a song better than another. And it’s so amazing why the hell that happens, but they’ve all been just a joy to use. I’ve got a very nice ’59 Les Paul, too, which gets used from time to time, which is lovely. There would definitely be P-90s, too. I think P-90s are just great pickups. I find that there’s often more tone in them than others, don’t you? There’s a reason why I keep going back to them. My [Gibson] ES-330 gets used a little bit, and I use a Gretsch every now and again. I use a Rickenbacker for some ‘chings’ or some ‘drings’ occasionally.
“Acoustically, it’d be the Martin, the 1935 D-18,” he says. “If I’m strumming straight chords I like to use an old Gibson Southerner from about ’53, because it just shivers straight across. It’s nice and even. If I was doing rhythm, maybe on ‘One Song at a Time,’ it would probably be that guitar, if I was just hitting it with a pick and playing straight rhythm chords. If I was using a cello [archtop], it would most likely be the D’Angelico Excel, from ’37, which was an amazing time for D’Angelicos.
“The thing about the great old jazz guitars, the great old cello guitars, is that, as time goes on, you can do anything with them,” he adds. “What I’m trying to say is I could play a song that’s ostensibly out of character for it and it will handle it, you know? You can play straight cowboy chords or just pick on them. They’re just uncanny the way that they are.”
Knopfler ascribes some of the incredible musicality of these guitars to the exacting tradition of archtop building that’s been passed down from master to apprentice and links the D’Angelico Excel to the younger but equally refined Monteleone that also forms part of his collection.
“It’s an apprentice system,” Knopfler explains. “Just like D’Aquisto was apprenticed to D’Angelico, then John [Monteleone] started doing stuff for D’Aquisto as an apprentice. I asked John Monteleone who his apprentice is and he said, ‘I haven’t got one. Never found anybody.’ There must be fewer kids now that can subject themselves to that kind of discipline. It’s a nutty discipline, though — the standards are so high, you know? But when the Monteleone has been around as long as the D’Angelico, it will also sound like that, which is scary to think about. But,” he concludes, with a smile, “I’ll be long gone.”
1937 NATIONAL STYLE O RESONATOR
The guitar that graced the cover of Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms is still used extensively today for studio and live work. It dates to around 1936 or ’37 and has a few details that might not be obvious at first glance, such as the right-hand f-hole, which hides a jack socket for an instrument cable so the guitar’s internal pickup can be used. Due to its position, only right-angle jacks can be used, for obvious reasons. National’s Style 0 resonator debuted in 1930 and continued in production until 1942, when demand for resonators was waning during the war years. The Style O came in several cosmetically different variations. Knopfler’s is a Variation 7 model, most of which were issued with a tortoiseshell-style Lucite pickguard, which, as here, was often removed.
2008 MONTELEONE ISABELLA
This stunning example of the luthier’s art was custom-built for Knopfler by John Monteleone in 2008 and was subsequently used on a song in tribute to the maker’s skills titled “Monteleone,” from Knopfler’s 2009 album, Get Lucky. The body is built from dramatically quilted, big-leaf Oregon maple, while the top is Adirondack red spruce.
1937 D’ANGELICO EXCEL
John D’Angelico, one of history’s most influential archtop guitar makers, built only 1,164 guitars in his lifetime, starting out in a Kenmare Street, New York City, workshop. Earlier pre-war examples of the Excel tend to have less ornamentation than the ones that followed later, so this example does not feature the stair-step tailpiece that became a D’Angelico hallmark from around 1940, nor other art deco–style appointments. The body measures 17 inches across the lower bout. The headstock is topped by classic “pineapple and pediment” D’Angelico ornamentation and sits atop a seriously chunky neck.
1958 GIBSON LES PAUL STANDARD
Knopfler has two ’Bursts that get used frequently on recordings and live dates: a 1959 example and this beautiful ’58 that he says is remarkable not only for its tone but also for its rock-solid tuning stability. This ’58 formed the basis for a Gibson Custom replica model that was issued with a long neck tenon, PAF-style custom humbuckers and hide-glue neck construction. On his new album, Knopfler used examples from the original run of 100 hand-aged and 150 VOS (Vintage Original Spec) replicas along with the original ’58.
2011 “BLUE” PENSA CUSTOM
Rudy Pensa has been building custom electrics for Knopfler for many years, and this P-90-equipped model with a carved double-cut body is the latest in an evolving series. Knopfler says a thinline double-cut electric by Pensa is on its way to him next.
1935 MARTIN D-18
This vintage Martin is one of Knopfler’s most often used acoustics and was built just three years after the company began making the D-18. An earlier version of this classic mahogany-bodied model had been built as the D-1 beginning in 1931.