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.
Mark Knopfler’s guitar sound on the first two Dire Straits albums is firmly associated to the 1 & 2 position (bridge & middle) of the 5-way switch. This position causes a special, nasal “out of phase” sound. The term out of phase is technically incorrect as both pickups are still in phase but – similar to a true out of phase wiring – certain frequencies are cancelled or at least decreased and others boosted so that the resulting sound of both pickups together is totally different from the sound of a single pickup.
In one of his two red Fender Strats Mark had a DiMarzio FS-1 pickup (confirmed in a Guitar Player interview from early 1979).
This DiMarzio pickup can be heard in the neck position on countless bootleg live recordings of the original Dire Straits setup. It has a louder, warmer and fatter sound which on stage Mark played on songs like Single Handed Sailor, Once Upon a Time in the West (only live versions), Follow me Home (live), or sometimes on Wild West End (live). He also liked to switch to the hotter FS-1 sound just for the solo, e.g. on Sultans of Swing (live in late 1978), or Where Do You Think You’re Going.
The FS-1 in the Middle Position
Both the stock vintage Fender pickups and the DiMarzio FS-1 have staggered pole pieces (the stagger on the FS-1 is a bit different), for this reason they are hard to distinguish on pictures. However, the pole pieces of the FS-1 – then in 1978 being rather new compared to his 1961 Fender pickups – are shinier than the old corroded Fender pickups.
I recently was watching a picture (below) of Mark’s maple neck Strat from early 1978 (backstage at the Marquee club). The guitar had the pickguard that came of his 1961 rosewood Strat (the one that often had a black volume knob), the pickguard normally with the DiMarzio. I clearly had the impression that there is a stock Fender pickup (with corroded, slightly bevelled pole pieces) in the neck position. Instead, the middle pickup looks much newer and might be the FS-1.
The picture quality is too bad to be a real proof but at least it is a hint. When thinking about it I realized that on all the live recordings with this pickguard from that time (Chester, Birmingham, London BBC, Revolver TV, Greenwich rehearsals) there is not one single example where Mark plays the neck pickup (!). All 1978 concerts on which he plays the neck pickup (in fact astonishingly often) are after October 1978 (Hamburg, Amsterdam, Paris Chorus TV) , just after his 1961 was refinished to red. So I assume the DiMarzio moved into the neck position at the break when the 1961 Strat was refinished.
OK, no neck pickup on the summer 1978 gigs. So the next question was, can we hear the middle pickup alone on any recording from that period? If it was the FS-1, the sound should be fatter than normally. If not, it might have been a stock Fender pickup in the middle, and the FS-1 was purchased in late 1978.
A song that normally was played with the middle pickup (compare e.g. the Rockpalast video from 1979) was What’s the Matter with you, Baby. And in fact, there is an ultra-fat middle pickup sound on this song on the recording from Birmimgham, Barbarellas club ( July 4, 1978).
The only other existing recording with this song from this period is the one from London (“Live at the BBC” CD). On this concert the guitar sound is extremely bright. What’s the Matter with you, Baby was also played but does not seem as fat as on the Barbarellas gig. But when a/b compared with the other songs it becomes clear that it is the middle pickup and that there also is less treble but more distortion than on the the other songs. Likewise, you can compare Water of Love from these recordings with What’s the Matter with you, Baby to find that the sound is fatter on the second – generally, a stock Fender Strat pickup is about as loud and bright as the neck Telecaster pickup on Water of Love, or even brighter (the metal cap on the Tele reduces treble), not so here.
Another song that seem to feature the middle pickup is Lions. Mark sometimes played the intro or middle solo with the middle position (sometimes even the bridge position. There is a video of Lions live at the BBC Whistle test, and the sound is also astonishingly fat and warm here.
The DiMarzio FS-1 and the in-between (1 & 2) Position
While the DiMarzio alone sounds totally different from a Fender pickup, it also changes the in-between sound (bridge & middle, 1 & 2 ) significantly. The interesting thing here is that the 1 & 2 sound will not become fatter and warmer, but sharper and less nasal. This is because the high frequencies do not cancel themselves to that typical nasal Strat tone as they do with two identical pickups. Instead, the 6k ohms Strat pickup and the 13k DiMarzio blend differently. The sound is more like the sum of both: the warm midrange from the middle pickup plus clear treble from the bridge pickup. I see this as the formula for Sultans of Swing on the first CD. The sound on this song is noticably different from most others of the first album. I assume he plays the 1961 Strat (he calls it his Sultans Strat…) on Sultans, and possibly the maple neck with its original pickguard (probably with three Fender vintage pickups) on most other songs ( This makes sense as he favoured this guitar on the previous tour with the Talking Heads directly before recording the first album).
On all 1978 pictures and videos after the recording of the album, we see him with the maple neck Strat which then has the 1961 pickguard of the rosewood Strat (with the DiMarzio), until in October 1978 he plays the rosewood 1961 Strat, with its own 1961 pickguard again, and the DiMarzio now in the neck position.
The 1 & 2 sound of Sultans of Swing (first album) and on all live recordings (e.g. Live at the BBC) after the album and before October 1978 feature the DiMarzio FS-1 in the middle position.
After October 1978, the DiMarzio moved to the neck position and the 1 & 2 sound became “normal” then (compare e.g. the Rotterdam 1978 bootleg).
I myself already found out that the sound of the DiMarzio in the neck position plus the Fender in the middle (3 & 4 position) is similar to the Sultans sound so that I used this for the Puresolo competition some time ago. With the DiMarzio in the middle and a stock Fender at the bridge, it sounds even more original to me.
(Youtube video demo / sound demo to come)
The VFS-1 as the ideal pickup for the early Dire Straits tone
With what was said before, it seems difficult to obtain all the different sounds of the first two albums and the live gigs from this era, as these require different pickup setups:
** three Fender vintage pickups (all that was played with the original pickguard of the maple neck Strat, e.g. many songs of the first album, the January 1978 tour with the Live at Leeds or at the Roundhouse bootlegs, the early 1979 concerts like Rockpalast,…)
** a DiMarzio FS- 1 in the middle (1961 pickguard before October 1978, e.g. Sultans of Swing (album), Live at the BBC, Live at the BBC Whistle Test,..)
** the DiMarzio FS-1 in the neck position (1961 pickguard from October 1978 on, e.g. Single Handed Sailor (Communique), the late 1978 concerts and all other live recordings from March 1979 on)
What we ideally need is a pickup that can be switched from vintage sound to DiMarzio sound, to put this one in the middle and the neck position. Then we can get all sounds mentioned before. Dreaming? No, this pickup already exists – the VFS-1, which I designed myself exactly for this purpose (this Youtube video compares it to a vintage pickup and to the DiMarzio pickup.
The VFS-1 is a tapped pickup (two different sounds switchable) made to my specs exclusively for me by Germany’s high-quality pickup guru Harry Haeussel. I have been offering it with the loaded Schecter-style pickguards for some time now, as it is also ideal to get the Alchemy sounds without loosing the option for fatter sounds and the 26 sound combinations of the three mini switches on a Schecter vintage pickguard. I also recommended it for the neck position to get the DiMarzio sound or the vintage sound for early Dire Straits tones. But now, with the DiMarzio FS-1 in the middle and its effect on the 1 & 2 sound, it really becomes the ultimate sound tool.
Without the three mini switches (with up, off, down positions each) the two sounds of a VFS-1 can be switched with e.g. a push/pull poti. Note that you can wire the push/pull switch as you want to make the fat or the thinner sound the “default” sound with the poti pushed in. Pulling it will enable the other sound then.
Buy the FS-1 or the VFS-1 directly here
I am official DiMarzio dealer and offer the FS-1 brandnew at the hottest price. So if you read about it here and feel the urge to get one, you can support this site by buying it here instead of somewhere else.
After the last video in which I already compared the VFS-1 pickup to a 1955 Fender Strat pickup and to the DiMarzio FS-1, here is a first demo of the complete Schecter-style pickguard with the VFS-1 pickups. I was jamming in the Mark Knopfler style over a self-produced 2 chords backing groove on my metallic pink Strat, which is mainly a 1983 Japanese vintage Squier but with a new bird’s eye maple neck. You are hearing the combination of neck & middle pickups, the switches are in the up position (tapped coil). More demos of others of the 26 possible sound combinations will follow.