On ’58 Les Paul and hearing ‘voicings’

By Tony Bacon – Gibson, 2002.

The article was removed from the Gibson website.

Mark Knopfler’s playing first reached our ears during his time with the extraordinarily successful Dire Straits, from their first hit 45 ‘Sultans Of Swing’ to the huge impact of albums like 1985’s Brothers In Arms and its supporting tour that saw the band playing 234 shows in 12 months to two-and-a-half-million people. Since then Mark has widened his musical focus, working with everyone from Chet Atkins to Bob Dylan, Tina Turner to The Notting Hillbillies, Eric Clapton to Sting. He has a parallel career as a film-music composer, having soundtracked movies such as Local Hero, The Princess Bride, and Wag The Dog. He’s also made two fine solo albums and is currently working on a third. During a break in recording he talked to Tony Bacon about guitars, guitar playing and atomic chords.

Tony Bacon: What was your first Gibson?

Mark Knopfler: It was a double-cutaway Les Paul Special that had been refinished black, probably a 1960. I bought it for 80; this would have been around 1971. My friend Steve Phillips and I painstakingly stripped it and got it back to its original cherry finish, and it was everything to me. I don’t know whether I slept with it, but it wasn’t far off. I absolutely adored it, and still do. I used it in the Straits when we started. I was actually just looking at a picture of us when we played on [London’s] Clapham Common for [radio presenter] Charlie Gillett, and there I am playing the Special. So that’s where Gibson started in my life, and that guitar will always have a special place in my heart.

TB: Many people probably still have an image of you in the classic Dire Straits period with a Strat or a Pensa Suhr electric. But what are your favourite guitars today?

MK: My favourite electric guitars to play right now are my ’58 Les Paul, ’59 ES-335, ’54 Telecaster, and ’54 Strat. For a quicker Strat, there would be my 61; the 54 is for slower stuff, but has real tremendous tone. Favourite acoustics are my Gibson Advanced Jumbo, and an early-1950s Southerner Jumbo – you can’t really fingerpick that one, but it’s a great strummer. I have my signature Martin HD-40MK that they’ve made for me and I’ve been doing all the writing on that lately and working with it a lot. I really love that guitar. And there’s the National Style O that I bought from Steve Phillips, it’s the one on the cover of Brothers In Arms and gets used on a lot of records.

TB: So that National’s still a good friend?
MK: Yes. Actually, “friend” is a good word for a guitar, isn’t it? It can be a dear friend to you all your life. The funny thing is talking about Gibsons and Fenders and Martins, I really love cheap guitars too. I grew up with all of them around – Hofner, Futurama, Burns, Rosetti, Watkins, Harmony, Levin – so I have great affection for extremely tacky and cheap guitars as well as the beautiful ones.

TB: What turned you on to Les Pauls?

MK: I’d wanted a Les Paul really badly since I was a kid, but I’m afraid it was always out of the price range. I knew about Strats since I was very small, but I got more aware of the Les Paul through becoming a blues fan in my early teens. I do remember the John Mayall album cover with Eric on it [Blues Breakers LP], we were listening to that a lot. It’s a very, very evocative thing. And then Hubert Sumlin playing a gold-top, do you remember that, with Howlin Wolf? Again, that was important. Then I heard Live At The Regal, B.B. King. I was 15 and that was a really big record for me. The 335 had entered my life with a bang! The magnificent 335. I never thought when I was that age that one day I would own the nicest 335 in the world and the nicest Les Paul in the world, I couldn’t conceive of that.

My blonde ’59 ES-335 is just unreal to play, a fantastic instrument, a dream of a guitar – just like my ’58 Les Paul. They’re both really something other.
I would hear a lot of stuff on the radio back in my teens, a lot on Radio Luxembourg. Radio’s always been important to me. The ironic thing about ‘Sultans Of Swing’, actually, was that it was a hit in Britain after it was a hit everywhere else, and only because it got into the American charts and so was played on an American chart show in the UK – about a year after everywhere else. BBC Radio One had a committee then that decided what was played. A peroxide woman called Doris, I think, was the chairman, and they said ‘Sultans’ had too many words. Quite right, actually. Absolutely correct.

TB: And presumably you know that more than most, having had to remember them all through the years. There’s a line in that song about “guitar George” who “knows all the chords”. So do you know all the chords now, Mark?

MK: I got a very nice, very fast ES-175 from Rudy Pensa a lot of years ago, and that’s what I used to advance a lot of my chordal knowledge during the 1980s. I decided to sit at home and work my way through a few books, to stir up my game a little bit. Which I did.

I still find now that if I’m sitting around with Richard Bennett chatting about the guitar or playing anything, it goes back to learning how to do things, to basic stuff. And Richard turned me on to a Mel Bay thing, “atomic power in every chord”. It’s a great idea. Yes, it’s funny, isn’t it? But it’s kind of true. It’s all about voicings. So that was another one I found myself going through. It’s something I would recommend to players, to get a book out occasionally, even if you’re the kind of player who feels you don’t really need to. And also, if I ever do that, I’ll find something that will kick me off into writing something. Music’s just a very humbling experience all round. It’s always serving to remind you how little you know. But that’s how it is. What can I do about it?

Take ‘Sultans Of Swing’. I wrote that on an open tuning on my National, and it had a different tune at first. Then when I first got a Strat the other tune came “through” the instrument, in a way. So an instrument can lead you in a different direction. The Strat had a different sound, different strings, feel, tuning, everything. I often say when I do classes for songwriters, you should just do something different, say putting a capo on a guitar. Just go somewhere else. Try another tuning, and it will send you somewhere else.

‘Romeo And Juliet’ is another one where I was playing my National Style O and I think I had the capo on somewhere, and instead of starting in the open tuning I started on the V chord rather than on the I chord, so I sort of turned it backwards, if you like. And the open-tuning chord became the IV chord. The song came about that way, or at least the tuning and the instrument helped bring the song about.
TB: Going back again, did you try other Gibsons after you got your first Special?
MK: That Special probably was recorded on the first Straits album, but I can’t remember which things. I was using the Strat too, then. But before that I had a mate who had an SG, and I remember that with a certain amount of reverence I was able to borrow it. It was a beautiful 1960 Standard. It was actually quite similar to the Special in that the neck was quite precariously placed on the end of the body. Both the SG and the Special had that wide fingerboard but a thin neck, and I used to think that was the most fantastic configuration … until a lot later in life I discovered the joys of a fat neck.

It wasn’t really until comparatively late that I got hold of the ’58 Les Paul and then the ’59 335, and it was then that I realised what I’d been missing all those years. The slim necks are beautiful in their way, perhaps better for a jazz player or an orchestral kind of player who puts the ball of his thumb in the back of the middle of the neck. But if you hold it like a plumber, which I do, then the fat neck seems to suit my big mitts. It feels more comfortable and faster to me. I can get up a fair old lick on any Gibson neck, and the slim ones have their own charm, definitely, but my own personal preference is for a fat neck.

Actually, what I did do on my ’58 Les Paul was to put ’59-style bigger frets on it. I’m not a fan of skinny little frets. So that combination – fat neck, big frets – to me is killer. I have a very nice ’59 Les Paul too, which is very similar to the ’58, and a couple of other 335s, but there’s just something about my ’58 Les Paul and ’59 335. It’s like my ’53 Super 400 – there are certain things that just do it. A guitar will just suit you. I can’t really explain it better than that.

TB: You used a Les Paul Standard for some of the tracks on the 1985 Dire Straits LP Brothers In Arms. Were you after a new sound?

MK: I was looking for more power, and so I became interested in using a Les Paul for a number of things. It was a harder rocking sound I wanted, but also I always loved the sound of Gibsons with strings. Remember ‘Need Your Love So Bad’ [Peter Green with Fleetwood Mac], that sort of stuff? It always stuck with me so much, that combination of sounds: a Les Paul and orchestral strings. So Brothers In Arms was one of those things. To tell you the truth, I was getting fed up with snare drums at that time, and I was trying to do the whole album without using a snare. Ironically enough the two songs that had snares on them, ‘Money For Nothing’ and ‘Walk Of Life’, became very big hits! More or less everything else, I think, was kind of different. I was just making another record, you know? The Les Paul I used then was a 70s reissue that I got from my pal Rudy Pensa, and it was a good one.

I was trying to recreate the sound of ‘Money For Nothing’ for [king of parody] Weird Al Yankowic when he did his version of it. I had to do the music for him, to recreate the whole thing somehow. We got so far, and I knew there was something missing. I had the Marshall all cranked up, I had the Les Paul, but I thought to myself: there’s something not quite right. Then Guy Fletcher said didn’t you have a wah-wah pedal? And I said that’s it! It was a wah just set in a particular position, and it added that certain thing to it. Maybe it was also going through a little box of something or other too, but that was it. Soon as the wah was plugged in it was right there.

TB: You’re not a person who takes notes of your set-ups, then?

MK: No, and I notice now that assistants do that – which is great. I’ve just been recording with my recording band and I was watching the assistant taking pictures of the board and the outboard, he has it all on file. Very sensible. I’m in the middle of my third solo album now, and I’m loving it. But how could it be otherwise with these guys? The band’s just magnificent. We usually track in the States and then do some work back over here in the UK. I hope to try to get the record out in the autumn, but that might be a bit of a rush. I have a few charity dates in the UK in the summertime, which I’m doing with some

English mates. The main tour with the American contingent as well will be in the summer, because I always try to do some gigs when a record comes out. I still enjoy getting out with people, playing for people, it’s a great thing to do if you’re lucky enough to be able to do it … and if your ears can still hold out. It’s good fun.

Anyway, back to my Gibson story. I carried on with that ’70s Les Paul for quite some time, and then Gibson’s Custom Shop made me another one a couple of years later, and I remember it had my birthdate as the serial number. That was a nice guitar, but it was all about fancy-looking tops, you know? I think a lot of English players actually prefer the plain top, which I do. My ’58s kind of a yellowish top, and I really like that, a pale burst. I’m not a big fan of all this over-glossy tiger-stripe thing.

TB: Have you heard the expression “furniture guitar”?

MK: Yes, there is a bit of that. And I’m off all that. I’m really into a lot of the older instruments anyway, and always have been. I’m very much devoted now to my old Gibsons. I play an Advanced Jumbo from 1938 which I’ve had for a long time, and I know I’m very lucky to play these guitars. Back when I was in America going around on a Greyhound bus pass in 1976 I got an old Gibson L-3. That was a beautiful instrument to look at, a really early archtop with round soundhole, and that was an important guitar for me too, in a way. So Gibson has always been there in my life, big time. Gibson is one of the most beautiful words in the English language as far as I’m concerned.