Mark Knopfler’s treasured collection of guitars: ‘I never thought that my signature would be on anything, never mind Fenders, Gibsons and Martins’

Mark Knopfler is parting with more than 120 guitars from his collection, including the Les Paul on which he recorded and played ‘Money For Nothing’ with Dire Straits at Live Aid

Dire Straits during the Brothers In Arms Tour, 1985-86. Photo: Bob King / Redferns / Getty Images

‘I think every guitar has a song in it,’ says Mark Knopfler. ‘It’s a superstitious belief. Whenever I worked with new people, I’d give them a guitar, so as to leave them with something to think about: here you are, maybe there’s a song in this for you.’

That was a generous habit, and Knopfler seems to see the sale of his guitars as a means to the same end: he’s sowing the seeds of new music. ‘I spent lots of time with these guitars, but they need good homes to go to,’ he says. ‘Why hang on to them when there are people who would love to have them, and would play them every day?’

On 31 January 2024, more than 120 guitars and amps will be offered at Christie’s in The Mark Knopfler Guitar Collection. A touring exhibition from 9 to 13 December 2023 in New York will be followed by a pre-sale view at Christie’s London headquarters.

There are various species of guitar in the collection: hollow and solid-bodies; basses and 12-strings; dreadnoughts and parlour guitars; golden-age factory models and luthier-made one-offs. But the main division in the collection is between acoustics and electrics.

The electrics fall into three categories: Fenders, Gibsons, and a third mixed group made up of other marques from around the globe. ‘Eko, Ormston Burns, Rickenbacker — these are my magic words,’ says Knopfler. ‘Fenders, Gibsons and Martins — they’re the Father, Son and Holy Ghost of guitars’.

Mark Knopfler playing the 1983 reissue of the '59 Les Paul Standard. Dire Straits, Brothers In Arms Tour, 1985

Mark Knopfler playing the 1983 reissue of the ’59 Les Paul Standard. Dire Straits, Brothers In Arms Tour, 1985. Photo: © Ebet Roberts / Getty Images

‘Money For Nothing’ and the quintessential Les Paul sound

Fender is famous for its Stratocaster, and Gibson for the Les Paul, both conceived in the 1950s. The essential difference between them is illustrated in two of Knopfler’s best-known songs from the bright heyday of Dire Straits.

On the one hand, there is ‘Money For Nothing’, which begins with some hoarse and apparently random chords, like the guitar is clearing its throat, then breaks into that growling walk-don’t-walk riff. It’s the quintessential Les Paul sound. On the other hand, there is Knopfler’s virtuoso playing on ‘Sultans Of Swing’, where he makes the guitar peal like Easter bells or chirrup like a courting songbird. That clarity of tone is Fender Strat all over.

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Gibson Incorporated, Kalamazoo, Michigan, 1959. A solid-body electric guitar, Les Paul Standard. Sold for £693,000 on 31 January 2024 at Christie’s in London

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A rear view of the guitar, showing its ‘buckle rash’: the patch of missing varnish where the hard-working instrument has rubbed against its owner’s belt. Knopfler acquired the guitar from Bobby Tench of The Jeff Beck Group. ‘As soon as I played the late 1950s Les Paul,’ he says, ‘I realised what I’d been missing’

The sale has several examples of both models. There is an original 1959 Les Paul Standard (the most highly valued lot in the entire auction) that Knopfler acquired from Bobby Tench of The Jeff Beck Group. You can tell how much this honey-coloured instrument has been played on stage by its ‘buckle rash’ — a patch of missing varnish on the back where the guitar has rubbed against its owner’s belt.

Before he acquired his first vintage Les Paul, Knopfler played a reissue version of the ’59 dating to 1983 that he had bought from Rudy Pensa, who had a shop called Rudy’s Music Stop on New York’s 48th Street. That instrument, also in the sale, has a place in rock history that makes it as special as its older cousin. This is the guitar that Knopfler used to record ‘Money For Nothing’, and played at Live Aid with Sting on backing vocals. ‘Due to poverty, I was late coming to the really good guitars,’ he says. ‘As soon as I played the late 1950s Les Paul, I realised what I’d been missing.’

Fender Stratocasters — gifted by Knopfler to his fellow guitarists

The Fender Stratocasters tell a different story about Knopfler’s interactions with the two great makers. The sale includes four Hot Rod red Strats, all of which are ‘Mark Knopfler Signature’ models, including the unique prototype.

Designed to reflect his own particular preferences and foibles, this is the guitar that he liked to give to fellow players as a parting gift.

Alongside two production models — both of which were kept in his study for songwriting — Knopfler is selling the first prototype of the signature MK. It consists of a 2002 reissue of a rounded 1962 neck combined with a body dating from 1997. ‘The odds and ends that I thought would go well together just happened to work,’ he says.

The fourth red Strat seems to be another successful experiment: a 2010 model fitted with the ‘lipstick’ pickups usually associated with twangy surfer music. As for the colour of them all, that is in homage to Hank Marvin. ‘It’s the colour I remember from magazine pictures, though I think in real life his was more of a salmon pink.’

Rudy Pensa and the ‘best of both worlds’ guitar sketched on a coffee-shop napkin in Manhattan

Knopfler’s longest-standing player-maker relationship is with Rudy Pensa, who has for many years built guitars at his shop in Manhattan. He and Knopfler became friends in 1980, at the height of Dire Straits’ fame. One of the first guitars Knopfler bought from Rudy’s shop was a black Schecter Telecaster — a guitar that looks like a Fender Tele, but is made from hi-spec components produced by Schecter Guitar Research in California.

Knopfler wanted a guitar that he could take on the road in place of a vintage model (‘I didn’t want to keep flogging a Strat around the world’). The Schecter Tele fitted the bill, and turned out to be a great guitar for grungier numbers, particularly when strung with heavy bottom strings. On every tour in the early 1980s Knopfler used the Schecter to perform ‘Solid Rock’, with its solid, rocking five-six shuffle. At some point in the 1980s, he swapped the black scratchplate for an off-white one, giving the guitar its distinctive magpie look.

John Suhr, the master-builder in Rudy’s workshop, made the purple ‘R’ Custom, designed specifically to work with Knopfler’s Synclavier synth, and which featured in the music video for Dire Straits’ ‘So Far Away’ in April 1985.

Knopfler turned to Pensa again to solve a live-performance problem arising from that yin-yang distinction between Fender Strats and Gibson Les Pauls. ‘I wanted to cut down on the number of guitar changes on stage,’ says Knopfler. ‘So I explained to Rudy that I needed a guitar that was the best of both worlds — a carved top in maple and mahogany, like a Les Paul; a humbucking pickup that could blow the world up, alongside some very sweet-sounding single-poles.’

Rudy and Mark sketched a guitar on a napkin in the coffee shop where that conversation took place. The guitar that came about as a result — the Pensa-Suhr MK-1 — crafted and adapted by John Suhr, is included in the sale. It was quickly finished by Suhr in order to be ready for Knopfler to play at Nelson Mandela’s 70th Birthday Concert, held at Wembley Stadium in June 1988, sharing a stage with Eric Clapton. The shape of both guitars is Fenderesque — but sharp as an Armani suit, not at all curvaceous. The MK-1 is, in effect, a Les Paul trapped in a Fender’s body, which is what makes it special.

‘I love that guitar, it made some unbelievable noises,’ says Knopfler. ‘I recorded so much with it, and now I’m brave enough to know that future songs won’t call for it.’

In other words, he sees this guitar, indeed all the guitars, as tools to be used for crafting songs. And in Knopfler’s mind, that work is separate from performance. ‘I think my playing has really suffered from my being a songwriter,’ he says. ‘It doesn’t bother me, because I’ve got nothing but admiration for the players, and I’m glad to be the mug who writes the songs.’

What can that mean? It’s almost as if he doesn’t consider himself an accomplished musician. ‘I’m not, honestly,’ he says. ‘I was this little strummer from England, catapulted into a world where I felt I needed to up my game. Now, with age, I’m actually getting worse. I’m playing more and more in a kind of half-style shorthand of chords and easy shortcuts. I hold the guitar like a plumber. I’d be a music teacher’s nightmare.’

Mark Knopfler on stage with the Pensa-Suhr MK-1

Mark Knopfler on stage with the Pensa-Suhr MK-1. Photo: © Rob Verhorst / Getty Images

So the songs that Knopfler has recorded down the years are his goods and wares, artefacts as solid and real as the guitars that hang on his wall. The ‘little ditties’, as he calls them, are a kind of musical collection in themselves, a museum of influences. Country and Western, bluegrass, English and Celtic folk, Delta blues — it is all there, all the genres that deal in rootedness, melancholy, and memories of a simpler past.

‘I had a little love affair with the Gibson cello guitars’

Knopfler has a soft spot for many of the guitars that he is letting go. He talks about the hollow-bodied Gibsons in terms of romantic obsession. ‘Yes, I had a little love affair with the Gibson cello guitars,’ he says. ‘I spotted a blonde 175 — and it was love. That started me thinking: now I’ve got to find the 335 that’s got my name on it. And I did find two or three of those, lucky boy.’

There is an entire chorus line of Gibson blondes in the sale, but perhaps the most eye-catching hollow-bodied guitar is a Guild Starfire II ‘Emerald’. It is named for the green paint job — but close-up there is nothing gem-like about the colour of this instrument. The bodywork, with its rich patina of use, seems as vegetal, dappled and ancient as a rainforest.

Factory-made guitars: from Italian Ekos to Japanese Teiscos

Also up for auction are many factory-made guitars from the 1960s and 1970s — the years when the young Mark Knopfler was still honing his craft, and breathing clouds of steam on the windows of the one guitar shop in Newcastle’s Central Arcade. Some of these guitars are fabulous pieces of mid-century design, wrought in the primary colours beloved of, say, Ettore Sottsass or Gaetano Pesce.

Take his Vox Phantom bass, made by the Italian company Eko. Its paddle-shaped body makes the whole resemble ‘a swizzle stick or something: you can imagine it resting in your cocktail’. Also by Eko is a tulip-shaped blue number, which Knopfler used to record ‘Song For Sonny Liston’ on his 2004 album Shangri-La. A curved chunk has been carved out of the lower bout, like the ‘bite’ in the Apple logo. That concave arc lends an asymmetry that is somehow exactly right for the job — like an old-fashioned artist’s palette.

There is a surprising number of Pop-arty guitars from the Japanese manufacturer Teisco. The Teiscos share a fluid form that looks like it was designed with one stroke of a Kyoto calligrapher’s fude brush. Everything else about these Teiscos was done for sheer fun: the split pick-ups stacked like Jenga bricks under the strings, the impressive bank of candy-coloured switches that control it all.

Also in the mix are some stylish solid-body guitars from the mind of Ormston Burns, who turned to making guitars in the late 1950s after a stint in the RAF. Burns guitars are the Carnaby Street of guitar chic, an underappreciated page in British design history. The handsome bone-white ‘Bison’ has bovine horns that curl like kukri knives around the guitar’s neck. But pay attention to the scratchplate, too. Seen on its own, the shape is just like a Picasso sketch of a bull’s head. It’s a work of art in its own right.

Acoustic guitars: fashioned by craftsmen in Pennsylvania, Manhattan and the North of England

There are a couple of dozen acoustics in the sale. The oldest is a small-bodied Martin that dates from 1917 — by which time the firm had been making guitars in Pennsylvania for 80 years. Another 80 years or so after that, Knopfler worked with the firm on the design of a limited edition known as ‘The Ragpicker’s Dream’ — after his album of the same name. It has the petite form that Martin designates 000, and seems made for playing laments and ballads in a backroom bar or round a campfire.

Some of the very appealing acoustics in the sale were made by craftspeople working alone or in small workshops. Among them is an unassuming parlour guitar from Froggy Bottom in Vermont. Just as attractive is a 12-string with a formal, 19th-century air about it — though actually it was made in 2006 by the Midwestern firm of Fraulini.

Perhaps the most beguiling of the handmade acoustics was fashioned close to Knopfler’s childhood home in the north-east of England, by luthier Stefan Sobell. ‘I turned up at Stefan’s place in Northumberland, and I thought this was the one,’ says Knopfler. ‘It’s a fantabulous guitar.’

Every one of these acoustics is enchantingly beautiful for the same reasons that, say, a Shaker rocking chair is beautiful: because it is made with love, and profound understanding of the living materials involved and their particular sonic and aesthetic properties.

‘I learnt pretty quickly not to let a crowd of guitars gather dust’

Knopfler says that most songs start with an acoustic, because that way he can let his nimble fingers do the thinking. ‘Usually there is an idea for the words beforehand but, boy, sometimes the music’s in such a hurry to be born that they come out together.’ He says it makes the world of difference which guitar he selects. ‘Sultans Of Swing’, for example, was a whole other song — a kind of laid-back Joni Mitchell number — before he electrified it with a Strat.

And having a range of instruments nearby makes for interesting possibilities. ‘I learnt pretty quickly not to let a crowd of guitars gather dust,’ says Knopfler. ‘I keep them in the studio, because when you see them, you play them.’

Mark Knopfler and a selection of the guitars included in the sale, photographed at British Grove Studios, London, 2023

Mark Knopfler and a selection of the guitars included in the sale, photographed at British Grove Studios, London, 2023

Roads feature in many of Knopfler’s songs, partly because he has been a touring minstrel for so long, but also because the highway is such an inexhaustible metaphor for life (‘A million miles our vagabond heels / Clocked up beneath the clouds’). It is no surprise that the cover of his 2018 album, Down The Road Wherever, depicts an arrow-straight interstate, tapering to a flat American horizon. Listening to the music, you feel that Knopfler is constantly glancing back to see how far he has travelled, or else looking up ahead to the next lonely billboard or way-marker.

‘That’s absolutely right,’ he says. ‘I’ve just been recording some stuff for a little EP, and roads run through all those nursery rhymes.’

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Since he imagines his long career in these nomadic terms, it follows that the guitars are not so much possessions as travelling companions, fellow pilgrims. And like a reeve or a miller on the Canterbury trail, each guitar has a story of its own. Now the guitars will all take different paths, as footsore pilgrims must. That, really, is what the sale is all about: a parting of the ways.

‘There will definitely be some that hurt more than others when they go,’ he says. ‘But I’m happy, and it’s a sort of a happy pain. Because, I tell you, a guitar is a friend for life.’

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