Learn Mark Knopfler’s game-changing rhythm and lead styles

Mark Knopfler
(Image credit: Solomon N’Jie/Getty Images)

Dire Straits were formed in 1977 by brothers Mark and David Knopfler, with both brothers playing guitar and Mark also singing lead vocals. They were joined in the early years by bass player John Illsley and drummer Pick Withers, and it is this line-up that recorded its debut album in 1978. 

The band’s sound was markedly different to their contemporaries and shared more in common with generic pub rock than it did with punk, disco or rock of the late 1970s. 

Following a gig at London’s Rock Garden in 1977 the band were turned down in their initial attempts to sign a record deal, but after the demo version of Sultans Of Swing gained some radio play, they were immediately signed by Vertigo Records. 

The debut album led to a huge amount of success including a top 10 UK and US single with Sultans Of Swing, the album also going into the top 10 in every country in Europe; a sold-out tour and Mark Knopfler and Pick Withers being chosen by Bob Dylan to play on his next album - not too bad a success rate for an album that only cost the band a paltry £12,500 to record.

More and more success followed, culminating in one of the standout performances at Live Aid in 1985 and the mega success of the classic album Brothers In Arms. Mark Knopfler has gone on to achieve a great deal of success as a solo artist, as part of a duo with Chet Atkins, working with artists such as James Taylor, and as a producer, including producing an album for Tina Turner.

Knopfler’s guitar phrasing and tone are unique and beautifully musical. He is truly one of the few guitarists who can say more with one note than most can say with 100. His technique is equally unique, and he plays entirely with his fingers, without a pick. This has led to some of the most instantly recognisable riffs, fills and solos in the history of rock music. 

Knopfler was initially influenced by artists such as Elvis Presley, James Burton and BB King and his playing has always featured a blend of rock and roll, country and blues, as well as classic rock influences. An additional foray into country in the form of a collaboration with Emmylou Harris also led to success for the Dire Straits front man. 

Our track is in the key of A Minor A-B-C-D-E-F-G, but a D Major chord is implied by the lead guitar line. This makes the melody more in tune with A Dorian A-B-C-D-E-F#-G. You will also notice an E Major chord at the end of the progression, which implies E Phrygian Dominant - E-F-G#-A-B-C-D. 

Play with a relaxed feel and use fingers only if possible, as this will sound most authentic to Mark’s sound and style. 

Amp settings: Gain 4, Bass 5, Middle 5, Treble 6, Reverb 4

Knopfler mainly plays Fender Strats and Gibson Les Pauls, plus a Pensa Suhr custom built by John Suhr so that the HSS configuration and mahogany body could be used for Strat and Les Paul tones. 

He’s used Fender, Marshall and Soldano guitar amps. For our piece, aim for a very clean single-coil sound, with some compression, if you have it, and reverb.

Example 1. Rhythm

Backing track

The track should be played entirely with fingers and thumb. When playing the rhythm parts, use natural dynamics of loud and quieter chords and notes as you see fit. Playing fingerstyle is a great way to approach working controlled dynamics into your guitar style. 

Example 2. Solo

Again, like the rhythm parts all the lead should be played fingerstyle. In general, the low notes should be played with the thumb and the rest of the notes in the part chords and melody should be played with first, second and third fingers.

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