by Tom Redmond
An interview with Mark Knopfler
One of the most well-known rock guitarists of all time, Mark Knopfler rose to fame as the driving
force behind British rock band Dire Straits. What many rock fans may not know is Mark's admiration for Chet Atkins
and the projects they were later to work on together as well
as the strong friendship they developed. We spoke to Mark in March of 2014. Visit Mark's official website, www.markknopfler.com
A multiple Grammy award winner as the lead singer/songwriter for Dire Straits, Knopfler combined
his wry lyrics with his guitar prowess to create such major hits as Money For Nothing, Sultans
Of Swing, Romeo and Juliet and Walk of Life. He has collaborated with artists such as Bob Dylan,
Randy Newman, and Van Morrison, as well as scoring several films including Cal, Local Hero, Princess Bride.
Since 1996, Mark has been releasing solo records from Golden Heart to the latest Privateering. He's currently
recording his next solo work at his own British Grove Studios in London, recently voted best studio in the UK.
Tom: Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me today Mark.
Mark: My pleasure Tom, I would do anything for Chet.
Tom: Before we talk about Chet, can you tell me about some of your early memories of music? What you heard when you were young?
Mark: I suppose the first was the "listen with mother" kind of stuff when I was a toddler. We listened to a radio show called Children's Favourites every day on BBC. Children's Favourites was probably my first introduction to music. I would have heard Scottish music too pretty early on.
Tom: Were your parents musical or play an instrument?
Mark: Pretty musical. I mean everybody sang in tune, that's the main thing, right?
Tom: Do you recall the first time you heard or were aware of Chet's music?
Mark: I was at a friend's house and his dad had some records and he had some Chet Atkins stuff but you know we wanted to be rockers and besides, I remember thinking that his guitar playing was from another planet, that I would never be able to play like that. I still think that actually. It just seemed impossible. I didn't know how it all happened. I really don't know how he was able to do all that. I listened to things like Caravan and stuff like that but I wouldn't have had any idea how you'd get to be that good on a guitar.
Tom: I'd like to hear how you would describe your guitar playing and also how you would describe Chet's playing.
Mark: Well my guitar playing is probably a guitar teacher's nightmare and Chet's guitar playing is sublime.
So that I would think would be the essential difference.
Chet also used a thumb pick. I had used a thumb pick in the past when playing on my National steel guitar
and I'd experimented playing with a thumb pick, but in the end I gave it up. I don't know whether it was because
they kept flying off or whatever it would be but I gave it up and that is another kind of disadvantage
in some ways because the definition and the level you achieve with that thumb pick is really something else. I
knew from playing with a pick for years that a pick is the biggest amplifier that there is.
Tom: The pick puts a lot of volume to the strings. Most rock guitarists are playing those leads with a flat pick as you mentioned but you're playing with your thumb as much as your other two fingers. I had read that you started playing that way because you had an encounter with a guitar with a warped neck, is that accurate?
Mark: Oh I had plenty of encounters with them. I had an electric guitar but I couldn't afford an amplifier so I used to borrow friends' acoustic guitars and then I ended up playing in folk places long before I got to play in rock places. When a folk singer showed me how to do a clawhammer style, four beats to the bar, that is what essentially got me going with fingerstyle. It was a big step forward. You make your thumb and fingers go where they don't really want to go. I think that's what sort of put me on a kind of footing with Chet eventually. Certainly never an equal footing but on a good footing. To me Chet was always the complete player and he had so much that he could do. I did start to get a little bit better and I started taking liberties with the rules of picking. My fingers would start to come up onto the bass strings and my thumb would start to wander down onto the higher strings instead of just staying where it was supposed to. And that's really how my style started slowly coming about. It's really from just doing things wrong I guess.
Tom: But doing it your way right?
Tom: I've heard Chet say that he thought when he had his thumb and his fingers working that he could create his own little orchestra. That's what he felt about that bass line being there while he's playing melody with his other fingers.
Mark: Well that's right. That's exactly what it does, it opens up the guitar for you in quite a big way and once you get past the basic folk positions and you start to develop the picking it all advances. I was fortunate to be able to get into a lot of country blues and even ragtime music and so it would be more taxing, but what you're actually doing is a kind of piano music, it's like piano music on the guitar sometimes. It wouldn't necessarily be strict one two three four on the thumb, sometimes you'd be jumping that thumb and imitating the Stride piano style. And you slowly move forward, half the time without realizing that you're just getting better. I think there's no substitute basically for just putting a bit of time in. When I told Chet that I used to fall asleep playing the guitar, he said that he did exactly the same thing.
Tom: Just playing until you ran out of gas?
Mark: Yeah. You'd just fall asleep literally. You'd be nodding off over the instrument but your hands would be moving. Your hands
could be flying around but you were falling asleep. I think that's what probably leads to that intimacy that you can have with it.
When Chet called me it kind of floored me in a way. As the years went by I realized that the thing that I believe that he liked was that I was a finger picker. That's what we had in common, one of the many things that we actually had in common and it just went from there.
Tom: Now the first time that many Chet fans saw you of course was on that TV special in the 80's called "Chet Atkins and Friends", which featured
you and The Everly Brothers and Michael McDonald and some others. Can you describe a little bit about that project from your
perspective and how it came about?
Mark: It was just great to be asked to be on it. I didn't have any of my own guitars, I do remember that and
they were all difficult guitars for me to play. Whenever I have to borrow an instrument like that it always seems hard.
But still it was such a thrill. The Everly Brothers had already figured very big in my life. I had a little friend in
Newcastle when I was growing up and as kids we would pretend we were the Everly Brothers.
Of course I'm sure that was true of probably thousands of kids during that time . Alot of my first chords were singing Everly Brothers songs so it was a real thrill to be on that show because the Everly's had recorded one of my songs and I had the chance to play it with them on the stage and that was that was fantastic.
Tom: That was a beautiful rendition of your song "Why Worry". Did Chet just pick up the phone and call you for that? Was it that simple just like, "Hey I'd like you to come play in this?"
Mark: Yeah, and it was the same with the album "Neck and Neck". I just picked up the phone one day and
he said "Hi Mark, this is Chet Atkins!" and after I'd recovered from that he just said he was making an album and
wanted me on it. I was over awed because he was recording with Earl Klugh and George Benson and some
seriously beautiful guitar players. I just thought that it would be miles out of my league
but anyway I went over there. Paul Yandell was there with Chet meeting me at the airport and I just hit it off with Chet immediately. It was one of those great things that turned into a friendship. We used to go off to breakfast a lot together and hang out a lot. I also had a very good relationship with my publisher in Nashville, it was a chap named David Conrad who was also a friend of Chet's and so it was just good to have some guys there who were helping to break the ice in a sense. It became quite a regular call for me to be over there in Nashville.
Mark: The record that I produced for Chet, "Neck and Neck" was a home record. We never got a budget to do
it in a proper studio so we'd just do it at home.
Tom: The credits on the CD shows the Nashville credits as "CA Workshop". He had that studio downstairs in his home. Is that where you did that?
Mark: We did a lot of it down there, yeah. We did a lot of it in a little place I had in England, in a little
carriage house. Neither would be ideal and the sound wasn't good in either one. At Chet's place I'd hear his wife Leona's fridge
cut on while we were recording. The thermostat got on the record in a few places.
Mark: But it was just a joy to do it. There really was some great repartee between us, we
were just ad-libbing funny stuff. I think we were doing "There'll be Some Changes Made" and Chet said
something about having learned one lick in bible college and I said, "I'd never trust a saint, Chet," and he
shot back immediately in half a second, "I'm only a part time saint!" (laughs) It was just a joy being around him.