What tuning is Setting me up by Dire Straits, and what guitar?

The guitar playing on Setting me up from Dire Straits’ first album is a true masterpiece. The recording features three guitar tracks: the opening riff, the lead guitar (both played by Mark), and a strummed ryhthm guitar by Mark’s brother David.

On Youtube you can find countless attempts by different players to play this riff. Most of them try it with standard tuning, which also works more or less. However, I am almost sure that it was played in open A tuning (e, a, e, a, c#, e , from low to high). Open A is basically the same as open G, only tuned up one note.

The problem is that there is no video of this song available from that time (later versions with the Notting Hillbillies or with Dire Straits in the 90ies were different, these days he even plays a different riff in standard tuning).

So what makes me think that it is open A?

Hint 1: One reason is obviously that I myself play it in open A, and it works (listen to a sample of riff, refrain riff, solo and outro riffs). But you might argue that this is no real proof of course.

Hint 2: Check out the following picture from I guess early 78. It shows Knopfler playing that old black Telecaster on which he also played Water of Love on almost all Dire Straits concerts up to late 1979. This guitar was tuned to open A, and had a capo at the 5th fret (proven by countless live videos of Water of Love). Note that on this picture there is no capo !!

Playing Setting me up?

I can’t imagine that the Tele was tuned from one song (Water of Love) to standard tuning within the same concert, but if not, it means it shows Mark Knopfler playing a second tune in open A tuning. Which? My guess: Setting me up. Again, more a hint than a proof? The let’s go on to …

Hint 3: On the bootleg CD Live in Leeds (January 1978) Water of Love is directly followed by Setting me up, you can hear the noise when Mark plugs in the guitar before Water of Love, and after Setting me up, but no noise between. So, Water of Love and Setting me up probably both on the black Tele.

Hint 4: This video on youtube shows Knopfler playing Setting me up with the Notting Hillbillies in 1990. At this time the riff was still played similar to the original recording. Obviously it is open G tuning, with a capo at the 2nd fret. (At this time he played heavier strings than in the 70ies, so I guess he now prefers G).

At least this is a proof for open tuning. Last not least, we have …

Hint 5: Many years ago I bought a CD-ROM with pictures of different rock bands, one was Dire Straits. The pictures were from two concerts, one from 1981, the other one from probably May or June 1979.

The 31 pictures from the 1979 concert (my guess is it is Munich or Wettingen) seem to be in chronological order (Mark looks more and more sweaty with each picture). Picture #28 seems to be before the encores.

From bootleg recordings we know that the last two encores were Setting me up and Southbound again.

The next pictures #29 (below) and #30 show Mark playing David’s (!!) black Strat (which was not used by David in those concerts, he meanwhile played a Peavey guitar). I am sure that it is Setting me up, no capo, and the left hand fingering matches Setting me up in A as well.

Setting me up on David’s black Strat

Ok, this is why I think it is open A.

Again, the guitars used for this song :

* studio recording: unknown
* early 1978: black Tele (AFAIK, later in 1978 the song was not played)
* May/June 1979: black Strat (song wasn’t played in early 1979)
* late 1979: Les Paul Special (mentioned in a concert review from a magazine)

To end with, another goodie: I will not hold back picture #31 from that photo CD. It shows Mark Knopfler playing Southbound Again, played on the red maple-neck Strat. This is the only picture where we know that it is this song (no video of Southbound existing).

Southbound Again on the red Strat

Stay tuned,


17 thoughts on “What tuning is Setting me up by Dire Straits, and what guitar?

  1. This is just superp info Ingo, it’s higly appriciated. I also figured out that this song is in open A, but I am almost certain that the last solo is in standard tuning (I can’t get it to fit in th eopen tuning, it seems too hard to do)What is your opinion on this?

    All the best



    Great to see you at the MK user group ;o)

  2. This is possible. On that Leeds 78 bootleg, he doesn’t play the outro solo, only riffs instead, in 1979 he played the outro solo live as well.
    Since on the studio version the solo was an overdub anyway, I can imagine that he simply took standard tuning here but I admit that this is one of a view of those early solos which I have never tried to play, so I can’t tell for sure.


  3. Hi Ingo,
    This is really incredible stuff! Thanks very much for all the interesting info on this song. I think ‘Setting me up’ is indeed a true masterpiece, especially guitar-wise.
    I’m trying to play this song in standard tuning at the moment (like the late 90s versions of the NHBs) and to my ears it works out pretty good so far, at least for the intro riff and while accompanying myself while singing. During the solo bits I would like to improvise a bit in Knopfler-style. Could you give me some advice on which scale to use (i.e. what does Knopfler here live)? Assuming the song’s key is A major (?), I would use the following notes: a,b,c#,d,e,f#,g#. However, when I tried this it didn’t sound good and didn’t feel right. Maybe I have to omit some notes or add a few others in some places. I don’t know, I never took a lesson, all my notes or a matter of guessing;-) Maybe I just came up with crappy licks…
    I hope you or other blog readers can give me some advice on this.
    Kind regards,

  4. Hi, great info, would you please give any hints or tips how to play it? I mean properly in open tuning, as it is meant to be played:) Thank you!

  5. Hi Ingo, hi Allan, the last solo is surely in open A tuning (maybe in G with capo if you prefer,but you can have some difficoult on bending then) you can also listen on the sample solo of Ingo, there’s a scale that is very similar of the one mark plays at the end of the tune. Anyway Ingo a very good work, thanks for yr suggestions that are very useful
    thnaks + rgds

  6. I have recently listen to Amsterdam 4.11.79, and I didn’t hear so much difference in the guitar sound between Setting me up and other songs.
    To me, it doesn’t sound Les Paul special. Maybe the interview from “late 79” was about another gig. I will listen to Oslo tomorrow 🙂

    However, I hear the LPS sound on the demo version. The sound is less clear than a strat, I think. And there’s effects like chorus or flanger or so

  7. It is confirmed that he played the LPS on this song on the next day (Germany, Essen) , so it is more than likely that he played it here, too.

    On the May ’79 gigs he played David’s black Strat on Smu. (while David played a Peavey)

  8. Ingo you have put together a truely amazing site and your playing is superb. I would love to see a video of your interpretion of the rhythm playing on single Handed Sailor my favourite DS song. The Rockpalast 79 version captures Mark’s rhythm part in the verses but he concentrates on the lead during the chorus. I’m sure you could make it work!

    All the best,


  9. Very nice information! thanks for sharing!

    I also tried playing this, but in a standard tunning version.
    However, contrary to what I imagined (and from what I read above, I think you also may have had this perception that would not work well) I managed to get a very satisfactory result.

    In the final part, I tried to mix sometimes, rhythm guitar, and sometimes, some excerpts from solo.

    If you want to watch, here’s the link:


    comments and constructive criticism are very welcome! 🙂

    All the best,
    SP – Brazil

  10. this morning, by listening to the Ronettes’ song “be my baby” the backing vocals remained me of the ones on Springsteen’s Hungry heart (I am talking about the verses on both songs)
    So I started to search if it was intentional, and if Bruce wanted to have typical Spector backing vocals in his song.

    An by searching infos on this song, I found something else that I havent’ heard before :

    [i]Springsteen’s voice was slightly sped up on the recording, producing a higher-pitched vocal. (Dire Straits had done the same thing on 1978’s “Setting Me Up”.)[/i]


    indeed, Mark’s voice sounds a little high pitched, but does anyone have heard infos about this ?

    Thanks to Ingo, we know that In the Gallery has been sped up

    Could it be the same about Setting me up ? if so, the original key would not be open A then…
    or maybe is it only the vocals ?

  11. I’m writing on this topic these days, slotsite, but I have stopped writing because there is no reference material. Then I accidentally found your article. I can refer to a variety of materials, so I think the work I was preparing will work! Thank you for your efforts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.