Learn the rhythm and lead secrets of Mark Knopfler with this in-depth guitar lesson

Mark Knopfler
(Image credit: Rob Verhorst/Redfern)

Known for his superb guitar playing, unique sound and deep ‘rough cut’ vocal tones, Mark Knopfler is nothing short of a modern musical genius. One of the truly all-time great guitar players, he is much more even than that, being a singer, songwriter, film soundtrack composer, and producer.

His playing style and songs mix influences from many musical genres such as folk, country, rock and jazz, with his signature fingerstyle technique encompassing acoustic and electric guitar in both lead and rhythm approaches. He
is always supremely tasteful, instantly recognisable, yet almost inimitable. 

Born in Scotland, and growing up in the north-east of England, Knopfler started his musical journey with the guitar listening to heroes like Hank Marvin, Chet Atkins, Django Reinhardt and James Burton. After discovering early blues artists and learning their various playing styles, he began to perform in folk and blues clubs, eventually moving to London in the early 1970s.

Throughout these periods, Knopfler would have been honing and developing his songwriting and playing skills, because in 1978 his band, Dire Straits, released their eponymously titled first album.

The band was phenomenally successful throughout its tenure (1977-1988, then 1990-1995), releasing several studio albums with massive hits including Sultans Of Swing, featuring one of the most classic clean guitar solos ever played, Romeo And Juliet showcasing his tasteful fingerstyle open G tuned Dobro playing, and 1985’s Money For Nothing, which has arguably one of the most iconic guitar riffs ever committed to tape.

During Dire Straits’ existence, Knopfler not only toured extensively, but also wrote soundtracks for various movies including Local Hero, Cal, and Princess Bride.

A highly successful solo career has followed, with many great studio albums, from 1996’s Golden Heart through to 2018’s Down The Road Wherever, and he has collaborated with many notable artists including country legends Emmylou Harris on their 2006 album All The Road Running, and Chet Atkins on their 1990 release Neck And Neck

His solo albums have also featured performances from other legendary artists like James Taylor’s vocal on the highly moving folk song, Sailing To Philadelphia, and actor-singer Jimmy Nail providing backing vocals on Knopfler’s folk-rock ballad, Wye Aye Man, used in series three of the classic British comedy drama TV show Auf Wiedersehen Pet.  

Mark Knopfler’s music isn’t all about the guitar playing; his playing has flashy elements but is always tasteful and distinctive. Apart from his natural light touch, great feel and lovely vibrato, the thing that makes his playing so distinctive is his individual fingerstyle approach which must have developed naturally to him, yet is so difficult to copy or imitate. 

He is a truly wonderful musician and songwriter, and while the guitar playing is always great, it’s only a part of the broader vehicle of the song. 

In this lesson, we’re going to be looking at Mark Knopfler’s playing styles within the framework of five individual mini pieces inspired by some of the songs and guitar work that can be heard on various recordings.  

They encompass five different aspects of his playing that we feel represent a good cross-section of his approaches. 

The first is his rock riffing style; second, his clean electric guitar chord approach; third, his clean lead playing; fourth, ‘atmospheric and emotive’ lead playing; and finally, his acoustic picking.

All the pieces should be played fingerstyle, using the thumb, first and second fingers. If you’re used to playing fingerstyle already, this should hopefully come quite naturally, but bear in mind that as the pieces incorporate lead and rhythm approaches, the heel of the picking hand should be placed on the bridge and/or lower strings for support and for the muting of unwanted strings; think of it as how your hand position would be if you were playing with a pick, but using your fingers instead.

Although the fingerstyle approach is intrinsic to Mark Knopfler’s style, you can try the examples other ways if you wish (certainly they would work fine using pick and fingers, or thumbpick and fingers), and simply use the picking-hand fingering suggestions as a guide.

Get the tone

Amp settings: Gain 3, Bass 3, Middle 5, Treble 5, Reverb 3

Knopfler is best known for playing Strat-style guitars although in truth he has used many different guitar and guitar amp combinations. A good single-coil clean tone and not overly saturated humbucker derived overdrive or distortion sound will cover most Knopfler-esque needs, with some reverb and maybe a touch of low level delay for ambience.

Piece 1. Rock Riffing 

This piece uses a thick overdriven tone with a Gibson Les Paul on the bridge pickup into a ‘half cocked’ wah-wah pedal providing that distinctive ‘nasal’ quality. It’s in the key of A and is in a kind of 12-bar blues style. Following the fingering directions is vital here. 

The occasional muted strings that appear in bars 2 & 9 are achieved by touching the underside of the string with the first finger of the picking hand while plucking with the thumb. This creates a percussive sounding ‘click’ or ‘thud’ which is actually a country guitar technique called ‘chicken picking’. This funky edge to the sound helps make the riff groove.

Piece 2. Clean Chord Riffing 

This piece in D, involves clean power chords and triads, as heard in So Far Away and Sultans Of Swing. I used a Stratocaster in the bridge/middle pickup position with a clean tone. 

[Bars 1-4] This is a clean powerchord intro. I played these palm muted using the back of my picking-hand’s first fingernail, as if I were holding a pick. 

[Bars 5-12] These triads are picked with thumb, first and second fingers. The A and G triads in bars 6-9 and 10 -11 should be held down, with the fretting-hand’s fourth finger executing the second-string pull-off. 

[Bars 13 -16] The dead note on beat 2 of bar 13 heralds the slide into the triad on beat 3. The triads are played with thumb, first and second fingers. The A triad in bar 14 is held down, with the fretting-hand fourth finger pulling-off from the sus4 (D note) to the Major 3rd (C# note) on the first string. Follow the picking-hand guide for the G Major triad in bar 15, as this will help you to play it convincingly. 

Piece 3. Clean Lead Playing

This piece is in the key of C# Minor and has key elements of Knopfler’s approach, such as country style bends and rapid arpeggios. The main difficulty for pick-only players is that it’s all played in Knopfler’s trademark fingers-only style. 

However, this could be played with a pick, but it would just have a different sound or feel.The tonal approach is mainly C# Minor Pentatonic (C#-E-F#-G#-B) with occasional notes borrowed from C# Aeolian (C#-D#-E-F#-G#-A-B).

[Bars 1-2] The cross-string A Major arpeggio (A-C#-E) at the end of bar 1 into bar 2 should be played with the picking-hand’s thumb, first and second fingers. Use this approach for any cross-string phrase like this.

[Bars 4-5] Hold the bend (make sure it’s to pitch) and let it ring through as your fretting-hand fourth finger frets the high B note (7th fret, first string).

[Bar 6] This is a tricky double bend where the third-string, 9th-fret E note is bent up a tone, while the second-string 9th fret G# note is simultaneously bent up a semitone (I usually fret the third string with my third finger and second string with my fourth). The double bend is executed with the fretting hand, but with only the third string being struck. 

Letting that string ring, the pre-bent second string is then struck, followed by the fretting fingers letting both of those strings down to their original 9th-fret pitches. An E Major scale (C# Aeolian mode) 3rds line follows, resolving on the root and 3rd of a B Major chord (B and D# notes).

[Bar 10] This relatively fast paced C# Minor Pentatonic line is tricky due to the fingerstyle approach. Use thumb, first and second fingers of the picking hand at the very start of the phrase, but then alternate between thumb on the lower string and first finger on the upper string as you make your way through the lick.

[Bars 13-14] These 32nd-note arpeggios are best played with the thumb of the picking hand playing the first and second strings and the first finger playing the first string (see the tab). The C#m arpeggio (C#-E-G#) played over the Amaj7 chord in bar 13 implies an Amaj7 tonality, and the B Major arpeggio (B-D#-F#) played over the G#m chord in bar 14 implies a G#m7 tonality.

Piece 4. Atmospheric soloing

This piece is in B Minor and demonstrates Knopfler’s emotive soloing, as heard on tracks like Brothers In Arms and various live performances. Phrasing and feel are what it’s all about here. I used an overdriven Les Paul with both pickups on. 

[Pickup bar] The phrase leading into the tune again uses the thumb, first, and second finger approach with the picking hand to cross the strings.

[Bar 3] Although not a fast lick, the Bm descending arpeggio (B-D-F#) on beat 2 of bar 3 should be played with second, first and thumb of the picking hand.

[Bar 7] Again, tricky picking-hand stuff on this B Minor Pentatonic lick. As a suggestion, try using thumb on the second string and first finger on the first string on the first four 16th notes on beat 2. 

On beats 2 and 3, use thumb on the third string, and first and second fingers on ssecond and first strings respectively, but drop the thumb onto the fourth string on the third 16th note of beat 4, with the first finger playing the last 16th note of that bar.

[Bar 11] This lick incorporates country style ‘6th’ shapes, so make sure you hold down each pair of notes on the third and first string as little two-finger chord shapes rather than fretting each note separately.

Piece 5. Acoustic Picking

This piece is in A Minor and represents Knopfler’s alternating bass fingerstyle approach, similar to one of his influences, the great Chet Atkins. 

All of the picking hand directions are in the music, but suffice to say that this style is not easy if you’ve never played fingerstyle before, and I advise you to supplement this study piece by investigating the alternating bass style (‘Travis picking’ or ‘clawhammer’). 

The concept is that you maintain a consistent bass pattern on each beat of the bar with the picking hand thumb on the lower strings, while using your fingers of that hand to pick the upper strings. 

This usually involves holding down chord shapes with your fretting hand and often necessitates using free fingers to fret other notes within a chord shape to help make the melody. This can be tricky rhythmically, as the notes can sometimes be on or in between bass notes. 

An added complication here is that in bars 7 and 15 the Am chord is strummed down and up once with the first and second fingers which is tricky to insert and then revert back to the fingerpicking pattern. 

Take your time with this one and ensure you fully understand the concept of the technique and can play that style rather than just trying to learn the piece parrot fashion. A good practice tip to help learn this style is to take the G chord in bar 13 and just repeat that until the concept of the alternating bass feels natural. 

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