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    A few days ago I wrote a blog post in which I compared the first Sultans of Swing solo played with 010 strings and with 009 strings. With today’s blog post I want to have a closer look at some details of that sound: I recorded a video to compare lots of different pickup combinations, and to compare 009 to 008 strings. I used the same Japanese Strat copy with the Sultans pickguard with VFS-1 pickups. This way I could emulate sounds that Mark might have created with both Fender pickups or with his DiMarzio FS-1. I recorded the guitar directly into the desk, using the same setup as the last time. Maybe I should have used an amp and mics to get a more authentic sound, this way Mark’s version always sounds much better (well, his would still sound better if I had used an amp anyway :( ). If you have questions about the setup and effects and such, refer to the last blog post.

    I compared a few licks with Mark’s original, using the guitar track that came available with the Guitar Hero game. I must say that after listening to so many pickup versions, it is not easy to judge which one is best. Depending on the speakers or the listening situation, sometimes this one sounds best, and then again another one. Please don’t forget that

    I setup a poll again so that you can judge for yourself, and also see what others say. I only included the combinations that seem to be most likely, if you prefer something not mentioned here, let us know using the comments for this blog post.

    Which pickup combination sounds closest to the original?

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    As most of you voted for the thinner strings last time, I decided to go more into the details here.  A the end of the video I am also comparing 009 and 008 strings. Remember, we have a hint that Mark used 008 strings. As both sets share a 011 b-string, I contrasted some single tones on the g-string and on the high e-string. I was surprised to hear how those ultra-thin strings sound, but listen for yourself. I also made a poll for the strings:

    Which strings sound more like the original - 009 or 008?

    View Results

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    Listening to Sultans of Swing in 1979 was one of the reasons I started to learn the guitar. From this time on I wanted to get that magic guitar sound. One major component for a guitar sound is the right string gauge. I guess you all have heard about using heavier strings to get a fuller sound. On the other hand thinner strings are easier to play, and they give you a different kind of attack which can be nice as well.

    For most of the big guitarists we know which brand and gauge they played during the different stages in their career. Of course we know a lot about Mark Knopfler’s strings, too, but unfortunately there is almost no information about his strings during the time of the original Dire Straits setup. And the guitar sounds of the first two albums are still the holy grail for many of us. Check this blog post for the earliest info we have, including the possibility that Mark played 008 strings.

    I personally change string gauge periodically. After playing thin strings for some time I start to miss something and sooner or later I change to heavier strings, and with heavier strings the same is true so that I go back for thinner strings again.

    This is why I recorded a video today in which I play the first Sultans solo with heavier and thinner strings for a side by side comparision.

    I used a 1983 Japanese Squier Strat on which I installed the Sultans pickguard with the VFS-1 pickups. It seems Mark played a DiMarzio FS-1 (13k!) in the middle position of one of his two Strats  in early 1978, combined with a normal Fender pickup at the bridge. With the ‘Sultans’ pickguard I can switch each of the three VFS-1 pickups individually to the DiMarzio or Fender sound. This is great as with a DiMarzio in the middle I would get new sounds but at the same time would lose not only the normal middle pickup sound but also certain flavours of  the traditional bridge & middle sound. The same is true for a DiMarzio in the neck position – this is where Mark’s DiMarzio went to in October 1978. With the Sultans pickguard I have all these combinations, all normal Strat sounds plus any DiMarzio/DiMarzio or DiMarzio/Fender combination. 26 different sounds!

    I put new Fender ‘regular’ nickel strings (010 -013-017-026-036-046) on the guitar and recorded the solo over the backing track. Then I changed the three unwound strings to 009-011-015 and recorded it again (with some subtle volume and EQ adjustments to match the differences). I left the bass strings so that I do not have to adjust the trussrod on the guitar and do a complete new setup. I did not try with 08 strings (008-011-014) as these should be similar to the 009s. If the 009s sound clearly better, I thought to examine the difference between a 008 and a 009 and a 014 vs. a 015 later.

    I recorded the guitar straight through a treble booster into the mixing desk. You normally need a trebly amp setup (e.g. a vintage  Fender or a Jazz Chorus) with a lot of reverb for this sound, plus a little bit of chorus. I added these ingredients in the recording software, just for convenience. Of course I cannot get the original sound 100% this way, as it requires a tube amp, some good microphones, a great recording room,  a 1961 Strat, and more, but I was hoping to get something close enough to judge the strings.

    So which string gauge sounds closer to the original sound? – I must admit I am lost a bit here. I first recorded with the 010 strings and felt that something was missing. With the 009 strings I felt it was better during recording. However, when I listen to what I recorded later I am not sure anymore…

    Maybe you should judge for yourself. You can let us all know which you think is better with the poll below, or use the comment option below this blog post to share your thoughts.

    Which strings sound more like the original - 010 or 009?

    View Results

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    After almost 40 years, Fender recently dropped the 15o SL strings from their product range. For me bad news because the 150 SL (pure nickel, 008, 011, 014, 022, 030, 038) are the strings of choice on most of my Stratocasters.

    08-strings had their popularity peak surely some decades ago. They were favoured especially among country players since thin strings made all those fancy banjo-style rolls and licks easier and faster. When players like Stevie Ray Vaughn promoted  heavy strings, 08 became rare and were often no longer on stock in most smaller shops.

    I started to experiment with strings thinner than 09 amost 20 years ago. Two things I especially liked about them were the thinner g- string because with vintage-style Strat pick-ups (staggered pole pieces) an 016 always seemed too loud for me compared to the 011 b-string, and I like the sound of the thinner wound strings, especially the d and a strings.

    It was however just a few years ago that I got a hint that Mark Knopfler might have played 08s on the early Dire Straits stuff.

    By the way, Fender also dropped the 010-038 set some time ago (010, 013, 05, 026, 032, 038) which I personally liked better than 010-013-017… .

    At least I don’t have to worry about not getting 08 nickel wound strings anymore because Fender still have them with that bullet end at a slightly higher price (3150 SL). I also noticed that they still have the 09, 011,015, 024, 032, 040 set (originally known as 150 extra lights, the strings Mark played on the Making Movies tour) which are now denoted as 150XL, while 150L is now 09,011,016,024,032,042.

    Knopfler himself has meanwhile moved to heavier string as we know, and plays 010s (or heavier) on most of his electric guitars now. At least on Sultans of Swing and Romeo & Juliet he still played a signature MK Strat with 09s, but even on these songs he tried out 010s on the last tour.

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    (At the end of this article you will find a matching video for all who prefer watching to reading)

    An acoustic guitar has normally heavier strings than an electric guitar because you want a loud and rich sound. With an electric guitar you don’t need that much volume because you can adjust the sound easily with the amp. Consequently playing the acoustic requires more strength and finger pressure, and some techniques like string bending are much more difficult or – e.g. on the wound g string – not really possible.

    At home I normally play acoustic guitars the way they are supposed to, fingerpicking or strumming with heavy string. For that lead stuff I take an electric guitar which I often play without amp at home. While this is loud enough for practicing in most situations , it surely wouldn’t hurt if it was louder, like an ‘acoustic’ electric guitar so to say (I have friends who favour semi-acoustics like the Gibson 335 for this reason).

    One day I found another, even better solution: I took an acoustic and simply put really light strings on it. This way I can play it like an electric guitar. One the other hand, the warm sound of a an acoustic has also to do with the different kind of strings used on them – normally bronze or phosphor wound. And these are not available in thin, electric-guitar like gauges of course. No problem, I take a normal set for acoustic guitar (like a 012 – 056) but I use a thin 09 string for the high e-string (the unwound strings are the same material for electric and acoustic guitars anyway). Then I use the e-string of that set for the b-string, the b-strings for the g-string, and so on. The low e-string is left over. So, if your set is e.g. 12, 16, 22w, 32, 42, 56, this will result in 09, 012, 16, 22w, 32, 42 – pretty much a standard gauge for electric guitars but in bronze or phosphor-bronze.

    I recommend to relief the truss-rod of that guitar a bit to match the lower string tension. The Martin DXK2 I use for this purpose (a rather cheap Martin model) sounds of course different than it did before but still sounds great for all kind of stuff and plays like an electric, great for practicing. Something to try out – I love it.

    Here is the video for this article:

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    It cannot be answered with 100% certainty which string gauge or brand Mark Knopfler played on e.g. the first Dire Straits album or on Communique. There were a few interviews with major guitar magazines, but unfortunately none of these asked for strings.

    For a long time the earliest information was from the Making Movies tour book which listed Fender Extra Lights for this tour. However, this was late 1980 and Knopfler meanwhile had changed to a different guitar (Schecters instead of vintage Fenders) and completely different gear (e.g. all that rack stuff).

    Fender Extra Lights were pure nickel strings with gauges 09, 11, 15, 24, 32, 40 (they have different gauges these days: 16 instead of 15, 42 instead of 40 !). On the next tour he also played 09ers (Deam Markley Custom Light: 09,011,016,026,036,046) so it seemed he was a 09-player in all those years.

    It was only a few years ago that I bought a guitar magazine from 1980 with Knopfler and his red Strat on the front cover on ebay. This was Musician from July 1980.

    Besides the rather informative interview there was an info box about Mark Knopfler’s gear on the last page of the interview which lists guitars (e.g. his brand new Schecters) and amps/effects (still the old stuff from the Communique tour, mind the interview was before the Making Movies tour), and it said which strings he played, and these were not 09ers as assumed, but …

    Fender Super Lights

    Fender Super Lights was a 08 set (08, 11, 14, 22, 32, 38), also pure nickel. Of course the magazine does not say explicitely that these were used on any of the first CDs or on the first tours, but nevertheless, it is the earliest available information.

    I myself had started to use thinner strings on most of my Strats since a few years before because I had the feeling they make some particular licks sound more like those old Dire Straits sound, also Fender and almost the same gauges as the Super Lights (only difference: I favour a 09 instead of 08 for the high e string), so I can indeed say that to me 08 sounds pretty good.

    There is still the saying that big strings give you a big sound, so people like Stevie Ray Vaughn favoured extremely heavy strings, and also Knopfler seems to have gone more and more towards heavier strings over the decades. However, to me that Sultans sound is still one of the best I have ever heard and absolutely unique, so why not using a rather exotic sting gauge for it? And besides, 08s were rather common in the 70ies, you could get them everywhere and only recently they have disappeared from most shop shelves. The good thing: Fender still makes them, and who know, maybe this artice will help that they never will discontinue them :)

    PS: Due to a technical problem I had to change some setting concerning the RSS feed function, so in case you get problems with the RSS, please subscribe again, sorry for the inconvenience. :(

    To all other readers who read this blog regularly and are not familiar with RSS: You find the RSS subscribing uner Meta in the left sidebar, or at the bottom of each page. Use it to subscribe to the blog, which means you are automatically informed about any new posts (or also comments if you want) directly in your browser or your feed reader software.

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