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Credit: Victor Sherfili

Music

How Mark Knopfler created his signature sound

In terms of guitarists, you don’t get much more coveted than Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits. A virtuoso, who is the master of numerous styles of fingerpicking, Knopfler has long been one of those guitarists who exist in a realm of their own, an unobtainable one for aspiring musicians.

Fusing rock with forms of blues and folk, Knopfler’s style is unmistakable. Be it ‘Sultans Of Swing’, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ or ‘Love over Gold’, he’s given us many iconic moments of the years. 

Interestingly, Knopfler has always been regarded as a lyrical guitarist. His guitar beautifully dovetails with his words, and they complement each other as if in conversation. The room he leaves for his guitar is one of the most vital elements of his and Dire Straits’ sound. With each set of lyrics, it’s as though he is reading an introduction, like a news anchor, setting the scene for his six-string to enter the fold and do the real talking.  

The interesting aspect about Knopfler is that he managed to establish himself as a guitar hero when the age of classic rock had been brought to an abrupt end by the advent of punk. The band released their eponymous debut in 1978, and its lead single, ‘Sultans Of Swing’, stood out like a sore thumb amongst the smouldering ashes of classic rock that had been left in the wake of punk burning its ivory tower to the ground. 

In 1978, punk was running riot, and the likes of The Rolling Stones were struggling with a dip in relevance. The younger generation had become sick and tired of the excess and arrogance that came with all the rockstars of old. Knopfler, it has to be said, was critical to the band being able to navigate the music scene in the late ’70s successfully. They weren’t punk, and they weren’t classic rock, they were something completely different, a total outlier, but this would work in their favour. 

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From then, the band would swiftly rise to become one of the biggest bands on the planet, and the ’80s would see them hit new heights, not thought possible when the band performed ‘Sultans Of Swing’ on The Old Grey Whistle Test back in 1978. 

First and foremost, Knopfler is an incredible songwriter, and secondly, he’s an incredible guitarist, and both of these endeared him and the band to fans. Of his iconic guitar tone, Knopfler revealed how he created it to Music Radar in 2018. Typically humble, he explained: “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 [laughs]. That’s how I did it. But I can tell you some things that I do”. 

He continued: “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.”

It’s a tale as old as time. All the most influential musicians find their sound through experimentation. There’s a vital nugget of wisdom in that. For anyone wanting to make it as a musician, leave wanting to be your idol at the door of your practice room and just see what happens.

Watch Dire Straits live on The Old Grey Whistle Test below.