THE PENSA-SUHR MK-1: MARK KNOPFLER’S PRIMARY ELECTRIC GUITAR FROM 1988 TO 1992
USED FOR DIRE STRAITS’ HISTORIC HEADLINING APPEARANCE AT THE NELSON MANDELA 70TH BIRTHDAY TRIBUTE ON 11 JUNE 1988
Conceived as a crossover between a Les Paul and a Strat and sketched out on a coffee shop napkin, the MK-1 was brought to life by luthier John Suhr in 1988 and became Knopfler’s beloved workhorse for the next four years, synonymous with the style and sound of late period Dire Straits.
Growing frustrated with the constant switching of guitars on stage that the ‘Straits varied repertoire required, Knopfler turned to his friend and Manhattan music store owner Rudy Pensa to posit a possible solution. Knopfler told us: ‘I started talking to Rudy about needing a guitar to cut down on the changeovers – a guitar that could have both the sweet-sounding single-coil and the more explosive humbucker sound, and you could interchange between them. It was an effort to get the best of both worlds. I liked the Strat shape, but explained to Rudy that I wanted it to have the qualities of a Les Paul – in other words, to have a carved top, rather than the slab top of a Strat, and a combination of maple and mahogany that you would get on a Les Paul, so you've got the interaction of these two materials. It was really a guitar that had all the best things about a Strat and the best things about a Les Paul.’ During a May 2012 visit to Rudy’s Music store in Soho for the Sky Arts documentary Guitar Stories, Rudy reminisced with Mark and Dire Straits co-founder John Illsley: ‘I remember listening to Mark saying “I like the shape of the Strat, but there are some things about a Gibson guitar that attract me.” We used to go to this coffee shop all the time, and we started with a little napkin.’ Knopfler continues the tale: ‘I remember sitting there and we drew out what became the first Pensa-Suhr MK-1. The builder at Rudy’s Shop then was a great guitar builder called John Suhr, and John made the first Pensa-Suhr.’
John Suhr recalls that in 1988, while employed as the primary builder and repairman at Rudy's Music, he began the construction of a guitar for himself. He was set on using the finest materials he could obtain and using all his skills as a craftsman to produce a guitar that was both unique and beautiful. While his previous work had been concerned with the slab or contour bodies commonly associated with Fender models, Suhr wanted to try a body with a carved top, much like on a Gibson Les Paul, for his own instrument. Starting with an unfinished body blank from the supplier Tom Anderson, he laminated a cut of highly figured curly maple on the face and commenced carving an arch into the maple top. Captured in a shot of John Suhr at his work bench, the actual body in progress can be seen in a late 1980s advertisement for D’Addario strings (see image). As the body neared completion, Rudy re-entered the workshop with Knopfler’s wish list for his dream guitar and, unfortunately for Suhr, the aesthetics of his bespoke build were much what Knopfler had in mind. With only a few weeks until the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute concert, which would make the ideal debut for Knopfler’s new instrument, it was agreed that Suhr's personal project would become the platform for the custom MK-1.
Knopfler's guitar would have a maple neck fitted with a twenty-two fret bound fingerboard. The arched top would be bound and finished in a tinted clear lacquer that would accent the figure of the maple top and all the hardware would be plated in gold. To achieve the desired flexibility and the tonal range of both a Stratocaster and a Les Paul, it would be fitted with EMG active single-coil pickups at the neck and middle position and an EMG 85 humbucking pickup at the bridge, together with an SPC 'Boost' on a push-pull tone potentiometer. ‘I remember that Mark wanted pickup rings (surrounds) that matched the bridge pickup covers,’ Suhr told us. ‘That was a problem because they only came in white or black back then and the EMG covers were ivory. So, I mounted the bridge pickup though the back of the body which was not easy!’ A concern for Knopfler was the issue of the bridge pickup overpowering the middle position single-coil when the two were selected for play simultaneously. ‘I modified the five-way switch to tone down the double-coil and that balanced the two,’ explained Suhr.
‘It’s quite a departure from his previous guitars,’ noted Knopfler’s then guitar tech Ron Eve for The Official Mark Knopfler Guitar Styles: Volume I, in 1993. ‘The shape of the neck is more of an oval, more of an early slim Gibson neck than a Fender. It’s slightly wider too and the frets are very high, Mark was persuaded to go for a larger fret both in height and width. The action is set pretty much as low as you can go with the barest hint of buzz. Mark plays quite lightly, not heavy at all.’ The double locking Floyd Rose tremolo bridge was added for stability, explained Eve: ‘It’s actually screwed up to the body. It’s fixed so it’s really a non-trem guitar. The main reason is because of the fine tuning at the bridge. The guitar’s tuning stability is remarkable.’ Speaking to Guitarist magazine about the collaboration in September 1992, Knopfler declared ‘John Suhr is so talented, and the guitar is just the last word as far as I’m concerned. It’s tremendous.’ Today, John Suhr regards the MK-1 as one of his crowning achievements in guitar making: ‘I was thrilled to death to be able to finish it in time to deliver it to Mark for the Mandela concert.’
Staged by impresario Tony Hollingsworth, the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute concert was designed to raise awareness and exert pressure on South Africa’s apartheid government to release the imprisoned ANC leader. As the biggest band in the world at the time, Dire Straits were the first to sign up to headline the show. In his 2021 memoir My Life in Dire Straits, John Illsley recounts ‘Mandela was still in prison and we wanted to add our voices to the general admiration for the man, as well as to the mounting clamour around the world for his release… when the organisers approached us to top the bill we didn’t need to go away and think about it.’ On the insistence of Hollingsworth, who pointed out that they hadn’t played together for over two years, the band assembled at London’s Brixton Academy for a week of rehearsals from 30 May 1988 and booked two warm-up gigs at Hammersmith Odeon on 8 and 9 June. Knopfler enlisted none other than Eric Clapton to step in as second guitarist, replacing Jack Sonni who was holed up in the US with newborn twins. John Suhr apparently completed the custom build and paint job in record time, as the MK-1 arrived around a week before the Mandela concert, making its debut at The Prince’s Trust Rock Gala at the Royal Albert Hall on 5 and 6 June 1988. In a scarce photograph from the rehearsals at Brixton Academy, Knopfler is seen with his black Pensa-Suhr, indicating that the MK-1 must have arrived between the beginning of rehearsals on 30 May and the Rock Gala on 5 June. Knopfler performed as part of Eric Clapton’s All Star Band, with Elton John on piano and Phil Collins on drums, kicking off with Dire Straits’ ‘Money For Nothing’, followed by Elton John’s ‘I Don’t Wanna Go On With You Like That’ and Clapton’s ‘Layla’, before closing with an ensemble performance of the Beatles’ ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’ – all on his shiny new MK-1. ‘Boy, as soon as I got it, I just pressed it into service,’ Knopfler told us. ‘I got some great sounds outta the Pensa.’ The concert was recorded and released on VHS by MSD in 1988.
As warm-up gigs for the big one, the two shows at the Hammersmith Odeon would follow the same set as the Mandela concert, with Knopfler proudly playing the MK-1 for ‘Sultans Of Swing’, ‘Money For Nothing’, ‘Brothers In Arms’, Clapton’s ‘Wonderful Tonight’ and closing with ‘Solid Rock.’ With a host of acts appearing on stage over 11 hours under the banner Artists Against Apartheid, The Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute at London’s Wembley Stadium on 11 June 1988 was broadcast to 67 countries and a worldwide audience of 600 million. Dire Straits closed the show, taking to the stage after Stevie Wonder’s surprise performance. ‘I remember walking out and somebody saying “650 million people watching this”,’ Knopfler told us, ‘and I remember thinking, geez, I hope I don't make of a mess of this.’ He needn’t have worried – the band brought down the house and the powerful Pensa-Suhr glistened under the spotlights, roaring into life on that famous ‘Money For Nothing’ riff. Introducing ‘Brothers In Arms’, Knopfler noted that Dire Straits had donated all South African royalties from their first album to Amnesty International, which didn’t go down well with the apartheid regime: ‘…we were banned by the South African government back in 1979, I’m very pleased to say.’ Illsley remembers the Mandela tribute as ‘a magnificent and moving occasion… The concert succeeded in bringing together one-tenth of the world’s population for a day, and you could only rejoice and be moved by the power of music to achieve that.’ It’s widely recognised that the concert made a significant contribution to the campaign, helping to generate the pressures that secured Mandela’s release 20 months later. Dire Straits’ performance of ‘Brothers In Arms’ and ‘Wonderful Tonight’ were included on the official VHS, released by CMV in 1989.
From then on, the MK-1 was firmly established as Mark’s favourite guitar, referenced by guitar tech Ron Eve as ‘pretty much the love of his life’ in the June 1991 issue of Guitar Player. Quoted in The Official Mark Knopfler Guitar Styles: Volume II, Knopfler explained what made the guitar so special: ‘My Pensa-Suhr enables me to play with a lot more power than a Strat and it’s more flexible. I’ve got more range on it than most other guitars.’ In addition to the staple red Schecter on ‘Walk Of Life’ (lot 8) and the National steel on ‘Romeo And Juliet’, Mark would play the MK-1 for the majority of live sets through to the end of the decade. Following the Mandela concert, Knopfler re-joined Clapton as second guitarist on the US, Canada and Asia leg of his 25th anniversary tour, billed as Eric Clapton And His Band Plus Special Guests. Explaining how he came to join the tour, Knopfler told Guitarist magazine in 1992: 'He just asked me to do it, and I felt like playing live again to keep my chops up. I hadn’t been out for a long time, so I just did it for the relaxation, really!’ While predominantly supporting Clapton on the Pensa-Suhr, Knopfler would usually play one or two Dire Straits songs at each show – ‘Money For Nothing’ and sometimes ‘Solid Rock’. The tour closed with a series of six shows at the Royal Albert Hall in January and February 1989. At the end of the tour, Knopfler gifted Clapton a Pensa-Suhr Custom Strat, which he auctioned at Christie’s in aid of the Crossroads Centre in 1999.
During this time, Knopfler and his country quartet the Notting Hillbillies worked away in the home studio of his Notting Hill mews house from mid-1988 to late 1989 on their 1990 album Missing... Presumed Having A Good Time. Richly complementing bandmate Brendan Croker’s haunting vocals, the MK-1 was used to record the Charlie Rich song 'Feel Like Going Home' – which was released as a single in April 1990 after the album reached number two in the UK album charts that March – and featured in the official music video. The guitar saw heavy use on the Notting Hillbillies’ UK tour from April to May 1990, used for performances of ‘Feel Like Going Home’, amongst other songs such as ‘Railroad Worksong’, ‘Hobos Lullaby’, ‘Steel Rail Blues (Roll Roll Roll)’ and ‘I Think I Love You Too Much’. The latter song was a Knopfler composition that was given to Jeff Healey to record, although Mark further contributed by playing the MK-1 and providing backing vocals on the recording for The Jeff Healey Band in early 1990, for release on their 1990 album Hell To Pay. Two highlights of the album promo tour were the Notting Hillbillies gig at Snape Maltings in Suffolk on 15 May 1990, which was recorded and broadcast by the Channel 4 television show Rock Steady, and the band’s performance of ‘Railroad Worksong’ and ‘I Think I Love You Too Much’ on NBC’s Saturday Night Live in New York on 19 May 1990. The guitar made another notable appearance when Knopfler, Illsley, Guy Fletcher and Alan Clark reunited at Knebworth on 30 June 1990 for a historic charity concert in aid of the Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy Centre, joining a stacked bill of legendary Silver Clef Award Winners including Paul McCartney, Pink Floyd, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Genesis, Robert Plant and Status Quo. After the foursome played ‘Solid Rock’, ‘I Think I Love You Too Much’, and ‘Money For Nothing’ with Clapton’s band, Knopfler – sporting a caramel coloured suit to match his MK-1 – remained on stage to back both Clapton and Elton John. Recorded for a VHS release that year, the concert has since been re-released on DVD in 2002 and Blu-ray in 2015.
Having officially disbanded Dire Straits in 1988 and leaning heavily into American roots and country collaborations in the interim, Knopfler now felt the pull to reform the band for one more album, assembling the core quartet with a medley of session musicians at London’s AIR Studios from November 1990 to record On Every Street. Guitar tech Ron Eve notes that Mark chose the MK-1 ‘for the heavier sounds – like on ‘Heavy Fuel’ and ‘Calling Elvis’ – typically with the bridge humbucker and middle pick-up selected’ and played through a Soldano amplifier (lot 12) with a Marshall 4x12 cabinet. Inspired by a character in the 1984 Martin Amis novel Money, who was ‘running on heavy fuel’, the former track was a reaction to the growth of the American burger lifestyle and materialistic consumer culture in England, while the idea for ‘Calling Elvis’ was simply sparked by Knopfler’s brother-in-law commenting that trying to get through to his sister was like calling Elvis. Both tracks were released as singles, in October and August 1991 respectively, with an official music video for ‘Heavy Fuel’ which featured Mark on stage at Sheffield Arena with his Pensa-Suhr. Knopfler also employed the MK-1 to record the country shuffle ‘When It Comes To You,’ the jazz inflected groove ‘Planet Of New Orleans’, released as the B-side to ‘Heavy Fuel’, and the bonus track ‘Millionaire Blues’, likewise released as a B-side to ‘Calling Elvis’. As Knopfler’s electric guitar du jour, the MK-1 was used extensively throughout the epic fifteen-month On Every Street Tour, which ran from August 1991 to October 1992, used for performances of the aforementioned album tracks, with the addition of ‘You And Your Friend,’ plus the Dire Straits classics ‘Sultans Of Swing,’ ‘Tunnel Of Love,’ ‘Telegraph Road,’ ‘Money For Nothing,’ ‘Brothers In Arms,’ ‘Romeo And Juliet’ (outro), the show closer ‘Solid Rock,’ and the occasional performance of ‘So Far Away’. The shows at Les Arenes in Nîmes and Feyenoord Stadium in Rotterdam in May 1992 were recorded and released on the 1993 live album and VHS concert film On The Night.
After Dire Straits’ gruelling fifteen-month On Every Street Tour drew to a close in October 1992, founding members Knopfler and Illsley had agreed to dissolve the band. By 1994, Knopfler was refreshed and ready to begin work on what would become his debut solo album, Golden Heart, which was written and recorded over a two-year period, with sessions in Nashville, London and Dublin, and released in March 1996. Knopfler used the MK-1 to record the bonus track ‘Gravy Train,’ which was released as a B-side to the album’s lead single ‘Darling Pretty’. As a preview for the upcoming Golden Heart Tour, Knopfler and an expanded instrumental band performed a full two-hour set for a live studio audience at BBC Television Centre in London on 15 April 1996 for the Later… With Jools Holland special Later Presents Mark Knopfler, leading to the DVD release A Night in London. Mark played the MK-1 to perform ‘Sultans Of Swing’, ‘Romeo And Juliet’ (outro), and the recently recorded bonus track ‘Gravy Train’. When Knopfler’s tour of Europe kicked off in Galway ten days later, he would continue to use the MK-1 for those three numbers, along with ‘Telegraph Road’, and ‘Romeo And Juliet’ (outro) throughout the tour, which closed on 4 August 1996 in Antibes, France. ‘It’s got a few belt scratches on the back there ‘cause it's been in the wars, this thing, over the years’, Knopfler told us. ‘It's seen a hell of a lot of action - it was just a great axe for me.’
By 1996, Knopfler had taken receipt of the updated Pensa MK-2 and acquired his 1958 Gibson Les Paul, and thus the original MK-1 with its distinctive crunchy tone began to be phased out as he started to develop a preference for the fatter neck of the vintage ‘burst’. ‘I love this thing’, says Knopfler, ‘it made some unbelievable noises. But I think I’m brave enough now to know that chances are that future songs won’t call for the Pensa MK-1 because I’ve recorded so much with it, and I want to be enjoying the sounds of new characters.’