29 January 2024

Mark Knopfler: 'Your guitar will always be a good friend, however your life is going'

By Lark Music

Collection of rock musician’s guitar “beauties” go under the auction hammer at Christie’s

Former Dire Straits’ guitarist, singer and songwriter Mark Knopfler says he “never wanted to see himself as a collector” but there came a point when he realised that was exactly what had happened – and during his six-decade love affair with the guitar, his studio walls became lined with acoustic and electric guitars.

Now 113 of his ‘collection of beauties’ go under the hammer at Christie’s this week and Knopfler is hoping they’ll be played and enjoyed by their new owners and he tells them in the foreword of the Christie’s Mark Knopfler Guitar Collection catalogue ‘Your guitar will always be a good friend, however your life is going’.

In their hey-day, 1978 to 1992, Knopfler’s band Dire Straits recorded some of the most iconic music of their era; Brothers in Arms (1985) sold more than 30 million copies worldwide and remains the UK’s eighth best-selling album. It also became the first CD to sell more than a million copies while Money for Nothing reached No. 1 in the UK and was the first (and very iconic) music video to be played on MTV Europe.

Many guitars (and amplifiers) in the collection have been the ‘tools’ for some of the best albums and tours of all time and Knopfler concedes: ‘I’ll be sad to see them go but we’ve had wonderful times together and I can’t play them all.’

A private tour for our ‘Private Investigators’

Amelia Walker, Christie’s Head of Sale Specialist and Head of Private & Iconic Collections said during a private tour of the collection for senior members of the Lark Music team: “Mark has songs going round in his head all the time and is always looking for a new sound, always looking for a new tone. What makes him such a unique player is he uses his fingers, not a pick, so he gets a completely different sound. He plays right-handed, although he’s left-handed, so he has a strong left hand and can bend the strings in a way that most people wouldn’t be able to.

“When I’ve heard him speak about not having a guitar lesson it was to his advantage because he had to figure it out himself. He also had a range of influences – listening to skiffle in the 1950s and then rock ‘n’ roll, Rockabilly, country, and blues. Celtic music was also an enormous influence. It’s most likely how he developed his own unique style. When you listen to a Dire Straits track, you can tell it’s him playing because he has a distinct sound.

“He talks about guitars like they’re friends. He sees personality in each and every one. He also talks about the fact that he’s a bit addicted to buying guitars. By his own admission, he’s now only really playing about two dozen regularly but he’s still recording music. His new album One Deep River will be released on April 12 (markknopfler.com).

“A lot of the guitars here in the auction hadn’t been played for years and were just sitting in their cases and he really wants them to be played. He wants them to be bought by musicians, by people who can find new songs in them.”

Knopfler confirms in the catalogue: ‘I’ll be sad to see the guitars go but we’ve had wonderful times together and I can’t play them all.’

How it all began for the sultan of swing

The young Knopfler, 74, who was born in Glasgow and moved as a child to Blyth in Northumberland, would gaze at a red Fender Strat guitar in a music shop window on his way to and from school. Knopfler told Christie’s that he “wanted a guitar so badly that I used to smell the Fender guitar catalogue”.

Amelia adds: “Mark said that he always wanted to be in a band and used to draw pictures of bands when he was in school. He said ‘I used to draw pictures of guitars all day. I used to go and watch a guy in the woodwork room making a guitar, just so I could hold it.’

“The guitar-obsessed boy eventually persuaded his dad to buy him a red twin pick up Hofner V2 which cost £50, the equivalent of at least £1,000 in today’s money. It had to be red, like his hero Hank Marvin of The Shadows.

“There was no more cash for an amplifier so Mark plugged it into the family radio until the speaker blew up! He therefore got into fingerpicking as he had no amp.”

Money for nothing (but the guitars aren’t free)

The exhibition of guitars features several rooms including a large space with a stage and a giant screen showing clips from Dire Straits’ performances from around the world. Among the prized guitars on that stage is Knopfler’s 1959 vintage Gibson Les Paul Standard, used on his Sailing to Philadelphia tour in 2001 and Kill to get Crimson tour in 2008.

With an estimate of £300,000-500,000, it’s  a true collector’s instrument with a beautifully faded cherry-red sunburst finish. It is one of two late 1950s Les Paul Standards owned by Knopfler and this vintage instrument was a “holy grail” acquisition, even for a seasoned guitar hero like Knopfler, who says in the catalogue “Gibson is one of the most beautiful words in the English language. This is guitar is a killer… a guitar like this will spoil you.”

Amelia explained: “This guitar is special because you have a huge amount of tonal variation in the timber. The maple on the top is beautifully quilted, but it’s also got a shimmer. The sunburst, which goes out to the red at the edge, has not discoloured too much so this is a really highly prized instrument, which is why it’s got a much higher estimate. It also has an original case.”

At a lower starting estimate (£10,000-£15,000) is a 1983 Les Paul guitar that Knopfler used to record two of Dire Straits’ best-known songs: Money for Nothing and Brothers in Arms. He also played it on stage at Live Aid in 1985 when Sting sang vocals on Money for Nothing. Even more incredible, says Amelia, is that Dire Straits were the headliners for the concert but as they were already in the middle of their long series at Wembley Arena they played the 6pm Live Aid slot and then walked along the road to their next venue. She said: “The guitar is very heavy and it’s loud … it’s a real piece of music history.”

Amelia also told the Lark Music team that Knopfler has the rare accolade of having collaborated on signature series with Fender, Gibson, and Martin – the three main guitar makers. In the collection is a prototype of his work with Fender (estimate £4,000-£6,000) where Knopfler chose all the different elements he wanted – a rosewood fingerboard, a maple headstock – and it had to be red.

Another interesting pair of guitars by Ovation are bound to intrigue collectors. The first, Knopfler’s first acoustic-electric guitar, was used to record Local Hero (best known as the theme from the film of the same name) and the six-string guitar has an estimate of £3,000-£5,000, while the 12-string guitar is expected to fetch at least £2,000-£3,000. These guitars were first used during Knopfler’s recording sessions for Bob Dylan’s studio album Slow Train Coming in Alabama.

Ordered in April 1979, the custom-made guitars became some of Knopfler’s longest-serving instruments, still in studio use up to 2022. They have a graphite and birch veneer composition top, which is very thin and very strong, with a series of sound holes instead of one big one.

Amelia explained:Ovation is an industrial company and the guitars were developed by an aircraft engineer. The composite material, which is expensive and hard-wearing, has excellent sonic tonal properties. As a result, they were great guitars for touring because they’re  incredibly durable. Bands while on the road  got used to items being thrown into the back of the van – and you didn’t want to take that chance on your vintage Stratocasters because they could get trashed.”

In the exhibition’s immersive sound experience Dolby Atmos Room, where visitors can listen to Dire Straits tracks, is a Gibson Les Paul Standard ‘Gold Top’ solid-body electric guitar which is signed on the body, pickguard, and headstock. Estimated at £20,000-40,000 it has been signed by many of the finest guitarists and best-loved rock musicians on the planet. Among the 33 signatories are David Gilmour, Ringo Starr, The Edge, Eric Clapton, Brian May, Sting, Roger Daltrey, Nile Rogers, and Pete Townshend. On the back are more famous autographs including Joan Armatrading, Duane Eddy, and Ronnie Wood. Whether you’re a keen guitarist yourself, or just want to gaze upon these legendary instruments, if you get the opportunity to see this collection for yourself = just do it.

The Mark Knopfler Guitar Collection auction is on 31 January, 2024.

Mark Knopfler will split at least 25 per cent of the total hammer price between his preferred charities The British Red Cross Society, Brave Hearts of the North East and The Tusk Trust.

For information or to watch the auction visit christies.com.

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