The founder and leader of the Dire Straits and an all-out guitar legend, Mark Knopfler, reflected on why you shouldn’t bother too much about having too many guitars.
And yes, we do know that Mark did use a variety of instruments. Despite being known for his extensive use of Fender Stratocasters, or guitars inspired by it, you could also see and hear him playing a Gibson Les Paul on some of his greatest songs.
But speaking during a recent Q&A session celebrating the massive sale of his old guitars at the Christie’s auction company, Knopfler did address using multiple different guitars at his shows but also explained how he simply opted for a more versatile alternative with some of his collaborations with Rudy Pensa and John Suhr.
The topic was brought up after he was asked whether some guitars are better for stadium settings as opposed to smaller venues. He replied (transcribed by Killer Guitar Rigs):
“I think it would be the same — just the right thing for the song. It’s the right thing for the song all the time. Whatever it is, you don’t need too many.”
“You certainly don’t need as many as I’ve been using. On a gig, I might get through six or seven guitars.”
But eventually, Knopfler would get into some custom-made options that would blend both his love for twangy Fender Stratocasters and darker-sounding Gibson Les Pauls. And that’s where his collaboration with Rudy Pensa and John Suhr came into the picture, with his famed late 1980s Pensa-Suhr S-style guitars. Knopfler added:
“The reason why the Pensa — the Rudy — came along was because I was looking to find a way of using less guitars on the set so I could get a powerful sound. That thick pickup you see by the bridge, that’s a humbucking, a really powerful pickup.”
Obviously, we, as a guitar publication, are aware of this. But Knopfler was doing a general Q&A for the public so there needed to be a bit of a clarification. He also added:
“And the single-coil pickups in the front [are] more like Fender pickups. And I was just trying to get more sounds out of one instrument, so I didn’t have to keep jumping around.”
“Some of the nicer sounds you get are the blends between the pickups at the back of where the bridge is — the harder sounds — and the ones at the front end, which are softer and more pillowy. And you can get tones between them.”
But despite all the perks of having a guitar like his Suhr-Pensa stuff, which could classify as a “Super Strat” in a way, Knopfler also pointed out how a Gibson Les Paul with the usual four-knob layout and a three-way pickup selector switch can do a lot of things. He continued:
“But then I found out that you can get a lot of different sounds from a Les Paul too if you can be bothered — which I couldn’t for a long time.”
“But if you can be bothered to learn how the volume controls work together and the tone controls work, then you can get some proper effects out of the guitar and get the guitar to work for you a little bit better instead of just turning everything full on, which was my specialty.”
Mark also added:
“There’s a much better way that you can work with a Les Paul, and I had to learn that. And probably my old guitar techs would be sitting there thinking, ‘Now he tells us.'”
During the same chat, Knopfler also discussed how he realized the importance of some of his simple guitar parts. And they ended up being so iconic that he had to stop doing improvisation and variation in many cases. As he pointed out:
“I hate to say it, but there are particular notes that you have to [play] because I’ll remember starting writing it — say, ‘Brothers in Arms.’ So those four notes, I would have tried hundreds of times on stage to play something else and failed each time.”
“So what I would end up doing was playing those notes so that everybody would know, because as soon as you play those notes, everybody [goes], ‘Ahh.’ They know where they are, and it doesn’t matter.”
“And then I realized after a little bit that I could then start to improvise, maybe play something else, but if it’s not those notes it’s not it. So you start to realize that the improvised bit that gave you the song — the version of the song in the first place — has become part of the ‘furniture’ of the thing, and it has become an important part in people’s minds.”
Photo: Raph_PH (KnopfRAH220519 20)