One of two late 1950s Les Paul Standards owned by Mark Knopfler for well over twenty years, this treasured vintage instrument was a holy grail acquisition, even for a seasoned guitar hero. ‘I’d wanted a Les Paul really badly since I was a kid,’ Knopfler told guitar guru Tony Bacon in 2002, ‘but I’m afraid it was always out of the price range. I knew about Strats since I was very small, but I got more aware of the Les Paul through becoming a blues fan in my early teens. I do remember the John Mayall album cover with Eric [Clapton] on it, we were listening to that a lot. It’s a very, very evocative thing... So Gibson has always been there in my life, big time. Gibson is one of the most beautiful words in the English language as far as I'm concerned.’ Knopfler purchased his first Les Paul Standard, a ’59 reissue (lot 10), from Manhattan music store owner Rudy Pensa in 1984, just as Dire Straits headed out to AIR Montserrat to record their landmark album Brothers In Arms. Speaking to Willie G. Moseley for Vintage Guitar magazine in 2004, Knopfler explained: ‘I could never afford to buy one from the “classic years,” so I got a reissue in the [80s], and I recorded things like ‘Brothers In Arms’ and ‘Money for Nothing’ with that one, and I toured with it. Then the Gibson Custom Shop built one for me in the 80s, with my birthdate as the serial number’ (lot 30). Looking back, Knopfler admitted: ‘I didn’t realise… I didn’t know that there was much of a difference between the more recent guitars and the late 50s ones – the 58s and 59s – I didn’t know about that, because I’d never been near a guitar like that.’
Speaking to Sylvie Simmons for Rolling Stone in 1996, Knopfler admitted: ‘Success I adore. Success means I can buy 1959 Gibson Les Pauls and Triumph motorcycles... As far as I can see, fame is just a waste-product of success.’ Reaping the rewards of his success, Knopfler ultimately acquired his first real 50s model, a 1958 Les Paul Standard that remains in his collection, circa 1995 – well into his musical career and with a few years distance from the dissolution of the band that had made him famous. 'It wasn't really until comparatively late that I got hold of the '58 Les Paul and then the '59 335, and it was then that I realised what I'd been missing all those years,’ Knopfler told Bacon. ‘The slim necks are beautiful in their way, perhaps better for a jazz player or an orchestral kind of player who puts the ball of his thumb in the back of the middle of the neck. But if you hold it like a plumber, which I do, then the fat neck seems to suit my big mitts. It feels more comfortable and faster to me.’ As the 1958 Les Paul swiftly became his instrument of choice for both touring and recording, it became clear that a backup would be required. A noted collector and sometime guitar dealer, Pete Townshend’s late guitar tech Alan Rogan presented a group of five 1950s Les Paul Standards for Mark to test out, from which he selected this guitar, preferring that the stripes in the wood were not too accentuated. With Rogan acting as intermediary, the guitar was sold to Knopfler by New Kings Road Vintage Guitar Emporium on 23 March 1999. From 1983-1999, the guitar had previously belonged to British vocalist and formidable guitarist Bobby Tench, best known for his work with Jeff Beck, Freddie King, Van Morrison, Hummingbird and Humble Pie. ‘The ’59 came about because I needed to have a standby,’ Mark affirms. ‘[Alan Rogan] turned up with this guitar, and it was in perfect shape… an immaculate ’59. I used it pretty quickly, I think I used it on a B.B. King session, and it went on the next album [Sailing To Philadelphia]. And I then I started using it on stage a lot. So, it saw a lot of touring action, the ’59.'
Knopfler first used the 1959 Les Paul to record the song ‘Let’s See You’, at AIR Studios, Lyndhurst, circa 2000, released as a B-side to ‘What It Is’, the lead single on his 2000 solo studio album Sailing To Philadelphia. The guitar was first seen on stage on Knopfler’s Sailing To Philadelphia Tour from March to July 2001, used for performances of ‘Pyroman,’ an unreleased track from the Sailing To Philadelphia sessions, and ‘Brothers In Arms’. According to guitar tech Glenn Saggers, however, the three Les Pauls slated for specific song use on this tour were occasionally interchanged, particularly on ‘Brothers In Arms’. Reflecting on the experience of performing such a beloved song so many years after its original release, Knopfler told the Belfast Telegraph in 2015: ‘It’s quite astonishing. If you are up on stage and you're getting ready to play ‘Brothers In Arms’, for example, you realise just how important it is for some people... what it's meant to them, all the generations as well. And you're thinking to yourself, 'I hope I don't mess this up'. You know that it had better be good. There are astronauts that have taken it up into space. People say what they were doing, and you realise you've written half of the soundtrack to their lives.’ Reportedly, the show at Plaza de Toros de Las Ventas, Madrid, on 2 July 2001 was filmed for a live concert DVD that was never released, however various fragments of fan footage from the tour are available online.
Although photographed by keyboardist Guy Fletcher in the studio at Shangri-La in Malibu, California, in early 2004, and likely tested for sound on several songs, the 1959 Les Paul did not make it on to any recordings at that time. Knopfler remembers using the guitar for a B.B. King session in June 2005, recording overdubs on the Carl B. Adams song 'All Over Again’, at his newly opened British Grove Studios for the 2005 B.B. King & Friends album 80, in celebration of King’s 80th birthday. The album won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Blues Album at the 48th Annual Grammy Awards in 2006. Back at British Grove Studios in 2006, Knopfler used the Les Paul to record the song ‘The Scaffolder’s Wife’ for his fifth solo studio album Kill To Get Crimson. Hitting the road in support of the album, Knopfler played the ’59 for performances of the Geordie inspired ‘Why Aye Man’ throughout the Kill To Get Crimson Tour from March to July 2008, including a six night run at the Royal Albert Hall in London. The guitar’s distinctive grain and colour can be clearly seen in numerous superb photographs from this tour, including by Brian Rasic and Sarah Groenen. In late 2007, Knopfler contributed to recording sessions at British Grove Studios for longtime collaborator Guy Fletcher’s 2008 debut solo album Inamorata, playing the ’59 Les Paul on the track ‘Different World’. Around the same time, Mark used the guitar to record overdubs at British Grove for American blues musician and slide player Sonny Landreth’s song ‘Blue Tarp Blues’, released on Landreth’s 2008 album From The Reach. Reportedly, Landreth had written the song specifically with Knopfler in mind.
Recording his sixth solo studio album Get Lucky at British Grove between October 2008 and March 2009, Knopfler used his 1959 Les Paul to record the song ‘Cleaning My Gun,’ about a gun-toting vet. With a hint of reference to his own experience, Mark told HuffPost in 2009: ‘I have become a bit of a veteran at this music thing, so there's some of what made me. One song, ‘Cleaning My Gun’, is from the vet's viewpoint, the survivor's viewpoint.’ Two passes were recorded for the track, the first using the ‘58 Les Paul and the second on the ’59, with the latter preferred as the final pass for the record. 'Why should these combinations of wood and wire have this mystery to them?' Knopfler mused. 'You don’t necessarily know. Part of the answer, maybe, is that in the old days those pickups were wound by hand, not machine, and the ladies who worked in the factory would be winding away, and they’d be talking to each other, so you might sometimes get extra wire!' Although an official video was filmed for the song, Knopfler opted to use the 1958 Les Paul for the video as he preferred the simpler appearance of the wood top.
‘This [guitar] is a killer,’ Knopfler declares during our interview. ‘You know, I only realised too late in life how great these ‘58s and ‘59s are, I mean, they'll spoil you. A guitar like this will spoil you.’ Going on to give the guitar an admiring once over, Knopfler quips, ‘it's only got about 10,000 belt scratches on the back from my impossible belts but, you know, that's just playing wear, nothing wrong with that', and reverently tucks it safely in its faded plush case, adding fondly, ‘Back to bed’.
THE GIBSON LES PAUL
With the successful introduction of the Fender Esquire and Broadcaster in 1950, the leadership at the Gibson company realised that the electric solid-body guitar phenomenon was here to stay. Gibson’s president at the time was Ted McCarty and he understood that the company he led must enter this new market. Gibson had built its reputation over the last half century on quality, both in the workmanship employed and tonal excellence their instruments displayed. McCarty's vision was a guitar that upheld that reputation and fulfilled the needs of the musician. Rather than a bolt on neck, the Gibson craftsmen chose to carve a mahogany neck with a separate rosewood fingerboard, set into the body in the traditional luthier’s fashion. The body would be slab cut mahogany with a laminate of quarter sawn maple laid on top. The mahogany was chosen for weight and the maple for density that would facilitate sonic sustain in string vibration. It helped that both these woods were already extensively used by Gibson so easily sourced.
Considered the success of the Gibson archtop guitar created by Orville Gibson in 1894, McCarty saw fit to call attention to that tradition. He had the top laminate of maple carved into an arch just like a violin or cello. Though this added nothing to the tonal quality of the guitar it set Gibson apart from the field and showed that quality craftsmanship not expedience came first with a Gibson. With the first prototype, Gibson believed they had succeeded, and now just needed a 'hook' to introduce the guitar into the market place.
The Gibson company had a long tradition in garnering endorsements from celebrity musicians who helped Gibson position their instruments in the market. Nick Lucas, Roy Smeck, Charlie Christian, Kenny Burrell, and Wes Montgomery were just a few of the many Gibson artists. Both Lucas and Smeck had their own guitar models named after them, which became successful sellers for Gibson.
In 1952, the guitarist Les Paul and his wife Mary Ford were household names. Their recording 'How High The Moon' had reached number one on the pop charts with thirteen other recordings charting in the top ten. Thanks to radio and then television, Les Paul’s prowess as a guitarist was known globally. He was also a proponent of the solid-body guitar and played one of his own design. With this knowledge, Ted McCarty approached Les Paul with the first prototype and the proposition that Les lend his name to this new Gibson guitar in exchange for a royalty on each one sold and his agreement that he and Mary would only be seen playing Gibson guitars. Les Paul agreed and in so doing, his name would be forever linked to one of the two most iconic electric guitars in popular culture.