5 guitar tricks you can learn from Mark Knopfler

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Now 23 years into a solo career, Mark Knopfler’s solo material outweighs the music he penned for Dire Straits by some margin. 

Sure, Sultans Of Swing and Money For Nothing established Mark’s revered place in rock history, and progressive epics like Telegraph Road, Private Investigations and Tunnel Of Love prove he has some serious songwriting chops. But his side projects and solo material have seen Mark branch out even further.

Country, folk, blues, Celtic music and even jazz  are standard Knopfler fare these days, with the inevitable rootsy blues-rock core, of course.

What remains unchanged throughout is Mark’s trademark technique and tone. Playing fingerstyle and using a Fender Strat into an almost clean Fender Vibrolux amp, Mark created a sound and style that was uniquely his, and that would become the bedrock of the first four Dire Straits albums. Even a change to a driven tone with a Gibson Les Paul (and later his active EMG-loaded Pensa-Suhr MK1) on 1985’s Brothers In Arms didn’t obscure this voice - those drive tones are as much a Knopfler trademark today as the early Fender cleans.

Read on as we look at some of Mark’s lead guitar approaches. Such is his magic that he’ll often be outlining chords with his melodic work, so there’s food for thought for rhythm players too!

Ex1 Sultan of twang

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The opening notes in bar 1 (forming a Dm chord) are played either by raking a pick across the strings in a short strumming-type action, or, for true Knopfler authenticity, by using your thumb and first and second fingers to pluck the notes in quick succession. Use the same approach in bar 3.

Ex2 Strait feel

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Continuing directly from our first example, this idea echoes the same rhythmic and melodic pattern, but with a few key variations. In bar 3, really dig into the picked note before the pull-off. This kind of dynamic is a real Knopfler trademark and you could easily build on our simple idea - a pentatonic lick would work well here.

Ex3 Pentatonics and triplets

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This phrase explores how Mark uses pentatonic scales and creates fluid, legato patterns, especially in early Dire Straits songs like Sultans Of Swing, Lady Writer and Down To The Waterline. The crotchet triplets in bars 2 and 3 are typical of Mark’s rhythmic phrasing - the idea is to play three notes in the space where two would usually fit.

Ex4 Overdrive tone

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Switching our clean Strat for the driven humbucker tones Mark began to use on the Brothers In Arms and On Every Street albums, this example retains many signature Knopfler moves such as playing through chords and arpeggios, crotchet triplets and legato phrasing. Watch out for quick up-down-up string bends too!

Ex5 Minor trick

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Moving into a higher register, we make full use of the humbucker’s sensitivity and sustain, hammering on to a string bend at the end of bar 1. And, in bar 2, we’ve aped one of Mark’s scalic tricks, targeting the 12th fret E note - a 2nd interval found in the natural minor scale. Simply add it to the D minor pentatonic scale for a smarter sound.