The one-man band – Playing both rhythm and lead guitar together

The video in today’s post demonstrates an important aspect of Mark Knopfler’s unique guitar style: the blend of rhythm and lead guitar playing.

I remember the day I first saw Mark Knopfler on TV in the late 70ies. I knew their stuff from the records, and I heard his lead guitar playing on these. What was striking when seeing him play was that his hands were apparently doing something all the time, he did not pause between all those lead licks on e.g. Sultans of Swing, he was constantly playing something – although you mainly heard the lead licks.

In this respect his playing is like an ice-berg: what you see is only the top of it, while the biggest part is under water. Just like the part under water, there is a constant rhythm, sometimes only scratching or clicking sounds. Something that is there although you are not always aware of it. This is one reason why it sounds so groovy and why the lead licks sound so effortless, and why often it sounds different when less advanced players cover the song with their bands.

In later years he emphasized the lead lines with the volume pedal a bit – bringing things in or out, but it works without as well – in the early days of Dire Straits he often left the pedal fully up for parts of the song. Simply make sure to play the rhythm carefully, not as loud as you would do when playing rhythm only.

I guess this approach resulted from playing alone (e.g. all the finger picking stuff Knopfler used to practice endlessly when not having a band) and from playing with a trio (his band before Dire Straits – the Cafe Racers – had only one guitar, bass, drums, and a singer). When David Knopfler came in with his rhythm guitar, he doubled the rhythm or kept it up when Mark played lead. This way both guitars could be panned to different sides of the stereo panorama without any sound holes. Also these partly percussive elements blend nicely with the drums. A great CD on which this can be studied is Live from the BBC – a radio concert from July 1978 that was officially released many years later.

I remember an interview with John Suhr – the luthier who built his famous Pensa-Suhr guitars – who said that Mark Knopfler sounds like a band when playing alone.

Here is the video in the standard video quality version. You can watch a high-resolution version directly at youtube (click here).

17 thoughts on “The one-man band – Playing both rhythm and lead guitar together

  1. Hi Ingo

    Great as always.

    How do you do the lick comming in after “and the horns are playing that sound”________?

    I think I have it figured out but I’m split between two versions?

  2. Thanks for your comment, Philipp.
    Knopfleberg, I think I play the the f on the g-string with the d on the high e-string, next only the c on the e-string, finally the f and the a (g- and b-strings), not 100% sure of it but sounds alright to me

  3. Hi Ingo

    Ok, I play the the f on the g-string with the d on the high e-string just like you, next I play the g on the b-string and the e on the g-string, finally the f and the a (g- and b-strings)like you.

    the f on the g-string with the d on the high e-string just like you, next I play the c on the e-string and the e on the g-string, finally the f and the a (g- and b-strings)like you.

    I cant decide which is most correct?

  4. By the way….

    I’m sorry I got so caught up in this I totally forgot to say thank you for your great great articles and your effort in doing this, Thank you Ingo.
    I live in Denmark, so overall we are not that far apart, what a day we could have sitting “nerding” knopfler stuff eh ;o) If you are ever going in the Copenhagen area, please write me an email, I would love to buy you a beer in real life ;o)

    All the best

    Allan (knopfleberg)

  5. Hi Ingo,

    thank you for this article. I really enjoy your blog. Could you please explain Mark’s right hand rhythm technique or the way you do it? I’m interested in the progression of thumb and ring-index-combination. Can’t really figure it out…
    Than you in advance.


  6. Hello Ingo,
    Lifelong Knopfler fan here .
    Always wanted to learn to play his songs.
    The beauty of his style is the flow; the way the song just effortlessly moves from bar to bar with no abrupt or pushed changes. It just flows.

    I love that and I am struggling with my first few months of guitar learning – mainly from youtube – and I hope that I can pick up some tips from your site to learn to play even a small little bit of Knopfler’s style.

    I am 42; used computers all my adult life and now have developed some iteration of carpal tunnel syndrome , so its all the more difficult for me to “flow” over the fretboard.

    But I really would love to learn to play like The Knopf.

    cheers and thanks
    glad i found this site today

  7. Well, I just got schooled.
    I think I need to go back and re-learn Sultans. Your website is great, thanks for the lessons and inspiration.

  8. Hi, thank you for this great article. I was wondering, in the rythm part, what cord do you play after the D-minor grip? is it some kind of variation of the c-barré chord? I see that MK does the same or similar grip when he’s playing live. I really can’t imagine that it is the c barre, because I find it rather difficault to hold my thumb around the neck when playing that particular chord.

  9. It is a normal C (with the e in the bass), Knopfler plays it quite often. No need for the thumb, it is only on four strings.

    low e: x (mute), a: 7th, d/g/b: 5th, high e: mute

  10. you could also add :
    – just the 8th on the low e with the pinky
    – or the 8th on the low e with the ring and the 8th on the high e with the pinky

    it is the “G-barré positon”. You can use it for any chord, but it is rather difficult for the first frets, especially if you have small hands.

  11. Dear whoever wrote this, and whoever is in the video. YOU ARE COMPLETELY WRONG. This is not rythm and lead at the same time. this is rhythm then lead then rhythm then lead. However, the guitarist is still in a rhythm, BUT not playing the rhythm notes. a good example of rhythm and lead at the same time, is “nothing else matters” by metallica. they play a rhythm using the 4 lowest strings, then the lead is played on the 2 highest strings. you might say “impossible” but how they do so, is simply by plucking multiple strings at the same time. Give it a listen

  12. Hey Ingo…

    Your video and playing is the best yet that I’ve seen as far as demonstrating how to play Mark’s right-hand style on Sultans. There are many videos out there teaching the wrong way, sometimes making it even more difficult than it is. I think what the world needs now is a video from you showing in slow motion step-by-step detail exactly how this right hand technique works (did you already do this?). You obviously know how to do it if you can move from rhythm to lead without stumbling. As a guitarist who has played “normal” picking style (not finger-picking) for years, suddenly jumping into this song and trying to learn it is extremely difficult and I know I’m not the only one. I can play it my way, and I can get a very similar sound just playing intuitively, but I’m not satisfied with that. Please explain it! Thanks!!! – Hundreds of guitarists around the world.

  13. I haven’t found a good tutorial on his right hand rhythm country style playing. He has explained it on two occasions on two YouTube video clips but most people who have tutorials either focus on how to play the ryhthm for Walk of Life which I have found a great affection for or focus on what they believe he’s doing based on his country style rhythm work which Knopler himself talk about finger style blues and also country finger style style which from my understanding is heavily influenced by the Travis style. I hope you can do a tutorial as I haven’t seen a very definitive tutorial for Walk of Life. The left hand is simple enough from guiatar tabs I’ve seen even the official books.

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