How to play guitar like... Mark Knopfler

The tricks and licks of the Sultan Of Swing

How to play guitar like Mark Knopfler
(Image: © Jerome Brunet/ZUMA Press/Corbis)

Get some of the Sultan's secrets under your fingers with this four-lick lesson on the stellar guitar style of Mark Knopfler

Not many guitarists are instantly recognisable from just a few notes; we usually need to hear the context of a song or signature riff. But along with such luminaries as Brian May and Hank Marvin, even non-guitarists can instantly identify Mark Knopfler's playing from just one bubbling filigree from Sultans Of Swing.

"Mark uses his thumb and first two fingers, unusually anchoring his other two fingers below the strings"

A major part of this is his determination to forge his own musical style. Most of the Dire Straits albums, for example, come from an era of flash rock solos, whammy bars and meaty distortion, so Knopfler's fingerpicked clean tones and modest approach to solos stood in stark contrast to the norm.

These examples cover a few elements of Knopfler's playing. For a start, put down your pick and get used to the feel of those strings under your fingers. Mark uses his thumb and first two fingers, unusually anchoring his other two fingers below the strings. He's used loads of guitar tones over the years, but here we've used the classic old 'in-between' pickup settings on a Strat.

Example 1

We'll start slowly. Knopfler's crisp 'in-between' Strat tones lend themselves to spacious soundscapes, and you can find plenty of those in the Dire Straits back catalogue. You may find it easier to count in half-beats here, as the tempo is pretty slow.

Example 1 tab (right-click to download)
Example 1 audio (right-click to download)

Example 2

Here's another take. Although Mark has a strong connection with country music, there's lot of blues in his playing. These first two examples are primarily built from D minor pentatonic (D F G A C) with the addition of the 2nd E and the bluesy flat 5th (Ab). And hey, put down that plectrum and stop cheating!

Example 2 tab (right-click to download)
Example 2 audio (right-click to download)

Example 3

Beginners often have trouble playing fills over the verse part (Dm-C-Bb-A) of Sultans Of Swing. It's mostly D Aeolian (D E F G A Bb C) or minor pentatonic, but the C note clashes with the C# in the A chord. The solution: a temporary swap, resulting in D harmonic minor (D E F G A Bb C#).

Example 3 tab (right-click to download)
Example 3 audio (right-click to download)

Example 4

It's not all about clean tones, though. Knopfler used a Les Paul Junior with overdrive and lots of midrange to create an iconic guitar sound on Money For Nothing. Like a cross between Billy Gibbons and Ry Cooder, it's all about using partial chords (especially root-5th diads) and notes from the minor pentatonic (G minor, in this case: G Bb C D F).

Example 4 tab (right-click to download)
Example 4 audio (right-click to download)

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