In this issue John Wheatcroft turns his attention towards the bluesier side of a true Local Hero, the finger-picking good Mark Knopfler.
For people of a certain age Mark Knopfler will forever be associated with Dire Straits and the mid 80s era of excess. At that time the Straits were literally the biggest band in the world; Brothers In Arms sold over 3,000,000 copies in the UK alone and their American No.1 single Money For Nothing was the first video to be aired on MTV Europe. However, since dissolving the band in 1995, Knopfler’s carreer has continued to go from strength to strength, with a slew of succesful solo releases and soundtrack scores, awards for songwriting and composition, and a long list of fruitful collaboarations with artists such as Bob Dylan, Chet Atkins, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Sting and, most importantly, French & Saunders (take a look on YouTube right now).
Mark is a left-hander who plays guitar right-handed. This gives him extra strength for executing multiple string bends, a Knopfler trademark. Inspired by the intricate lead technique of Lonnie Johnson and the subtle skills of country blues players, Mark has evolved his own unique fingerpicking style. He uses this quirky approach for single notes, double-stops and intricate chordal passages; mixing blues, country, folk and jazz influences to create a style that is at times raw and direct and at others hip, sophisticated and beautiful.
While raised in Blyth, Northumberland, Mark was actually born in Glasgow to Hungarian and English parents. From a compositional perspective there is a noticeable Celtic influence in much of his writing style, although both Americana and classic country influences are also clearly evident. Mark’s most recent release, Privateering, mixes these styles with a liberal dose of rootsy blues and the net result suits his storyteller songwriting style, his natural almost spoken vocal delivery along with his organic guitar playing style down to the ground. Much of his appeal lies in his warm, melodic approach to guitar playing, a direct result of his early love of Hank Marvin. While more than capable of displaying considerable technical command of his instrument when required, Knopfler always places the melody and the song first, making his guitar style accessible and inviting to everybody.
In typical Blues Dues style there are five short musical examples to learn this month. Mark is definitely a guitarist who plays for the song, so to get the full effect you need to listen to the guitar playing intently, along with the song in which it is placed. It helps when composing or improvising solos to know a little about the context in which your ideas are placed. So next time you play a solo, think about the subject of the song. What is the mood of the piece and how might the lyrics affect what you are going to play? Creating cohesive solos is much more about playing sympathetically to your surroundings than just selecting the correct scale to go with the chords.
If you’re playing an instrumental piece, perhaps ruminate over the title and consider how this might influence your approach. I’m sure that Knopfler would echo these sentiments, but for now learn each example along with the associated backing and then perhaps try to compose some similar short examples that either compliment the mood we’ve created; or perhaps even devise a contrasting idea that changes things around entirely.
It struck me that I knew sod all about music, so I just sat down and made myself stick at it. Mark Knopfler
Mark Knopfler: note the unusual picking approach