Easy stuff for beginners

The Circle of Fifths: What is it for? – plus: example analysis of Knopfler songs

Posted on

What is the Circle of Fifths and what do I need it for?

Every guitar player pretty soon realizes that certain chords seem to belong together, they are related in a way, while other chords are only rarely used within the same song. The chords C , F, and G seem to be such related chords – these are not only the chords you would use for a blues tune in C, but also the majority of traditionals – if you play them in the key of C – do not require any other chords than these three.

So, how do I know which chords are related, which ones are even closely related, which ones are not?

The answer can be found from a simple chart that is called the “Circle of Fifths”. I will simply skip all the redundant information like “why a circle, why fifths – or sometimes even ‘fifths and fourths'”, instead let’s only look at some practical use it can have. More theoretical information can be found at countless places, e.g. here the Wikipedia link.

Here is the chart (taken courtesy from library. thinkquest.org), read on how it works:

To keep it really simple: Outside the circle you will find major chords, insides are minor chords. Each major chord has a corresponding minor chord (e.g. Am belongs to C, C#m to E, ..).

Rule 1: The closer the chords are in this circle, the more they are related !

For example, we have a song in the key of C. The right neighbour is G, the left is F. –> F and G belong to C (the right neighbour is the so-called dominant chord, the left one the sub-dominant chord).

Let’s add some minor chords: Am belongs to C, Dm to F, and Em to G. –> We get the chords C, F, G, Am, Dm, Em.

On the other hand, a C#m would be very far away from our C, so it is not related, does for this reason not appear in many congs in C, and would sound rather ‘strange’, or at least ‘surprising’.

Only one additional rule:

Rule 2: In a minor key, the left and right minor neighbour chords (in the key of Am, these would be Dm and Em) can also appear as a major chord (D or E).

So, a song in Am might not only have chords like C, F, G, or Dm, but also D and E.

That’s all you need to know, easy, isn’t it?

Now, what do I need it for? Well, to write your own songs (make it sound ‘normal’, or deliberately use strange chords, as you want) , or to figure out the chords of a new song you want to learn by ear: as soon as you have the first chord, try to find the other ones by trying out neighbour chords, often these are the ones you are looking for.

Enough theory, here are some examples:

Example 1: Sultans of Swing

The key is Dm. All chords of the song: Dm, C, Bb, F, and A.

See the next picture: all the chords are pretty close, only the A (right side) does not fit in. If you apply rule 2 (the Am can be replaced by A), everything is in place again, all the chords are “one family”.

(Note: some of the long live versions also have a Gm and Am chord, I left these out, but note how these would also fit in).

(some of the long live versions also have a Gm and Am chord, I left these out, but note how these would also fit in).

Example 2: True love will never fade

The key is C, all chords are: C, F, G, Dm

They are all related and thus very close in the circle of fifths, see below:

Example 3: Money for Nothing

The key is Gm, all chords are: Gm, Bb, F, Eb, C, D, and E.

The C, D, and E chords seem to be out of place (see below), the C and D can be understood as replacements for a Dm and Cm chord (rule 2) and do thus fit into the pattern, while the E is completely out. In fact, this chord sounds somewhat unexpected (it is the last chord of each refrain, on “color TViii-iiih”), especiall the following change back to Gm is very unusual and thus adds some extra kick.

Alright, that’s for today. You should use use the comment function (no registration or email required) to let me know if this article was helpful, or to ask questions, or to make suggestions.

CU soon here again,



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

Posted on

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,


MK guitar style and licks

Eastbound Train: opening chord analysis

Posted on

The song Eastbound Train is a boogie groove in the key of E. It was the b-side of Dire Straits’ first Single Sultans of Swing, and has been played live on most concerts during the first two years of Dire Straits.

Below you will find an explanation of the opening chord (listen to sample, live at the Hope&Anchor, London, 1977).

In blues-based tunes – and a boogie is often just an up-tempo version of the good old blues scheme – each cycle of the chord progression pattern can end on the dominant seventh chord. This chord always starts with the 5th note of the given major scale; so in the key of C we have a G7 chord, while in the key of E we would get a B7 chord.

By the way, ending on this chord is also called turnaround. And often a turnaround is used to open a blues tune – in other words, you start with the dominant seventh chord or with a phrase running over it. This is the case in Eastbound Train. It starts with the same chord that is normally the last chord of the chord pattern.

A B7 chord can be played like this, using only the four top guitar strings:

Now, this is not exactly the chord in Eastbound Train, but we only have to change one single note, the f# on the b-string is raised to a g. The resulting chord looks like this:

Since one note of the B7 chord is raised – this is also called augmented – we have an augmented B7 seventh chord, in short B+7 or Baug7. For more general information on this chord, see the corresponding Wikipedia article.

Left hand fretting: use the index finger on the d-string, 3rd on the g-string, the pinky on the b-string, and the remaining second finger on the high e-string.

Unfortunately there are only two videos available (Rockpalast 1979, Paris 1978) which show Mark Knopfler playing Eastbound Train, and both don’t feature close-ups of his left hand when playing this chord, so the following two pics are the best ones we have.

That’s for today,



Early Dire Straits: Which of the two red Fenders was used in which concert?

Posted on

Before Knopfler changed to the Schecter Strat in 1980, he played two red Fender Strats with Dire Straits, one with a rosewood finger board (SN 68354) , one with maple (SN 80470).

rosewood Strat
Rosewood Strat (68354)

Maple neck Strat, white pickguard
Maple neck Strat (80470) with white pickguard

maple neck Strat with greenish pickguard
Maple neck Strat (80470) with the greenish pickguard of the rosewood Strat

Have you ever wondered which of these guitars was used on which of the many bootleg concerts that are available from that time?

(yes, in fact he didn’t change beween these Strats from song to song, like he does now, instead he played one guitar for a whole concert while the other served as back-up)

After checking probably hundreds of pictures over many years, I came to the conclusion that apparently he had a favourite guitar for each particular tour, but there are also some tours on which he used both. In detail:

Sommer 77 to late 77:
rosewood (it seems he only had this one then)
e.g. The Demos bootleg

late 77 to summer 78:
maple only (with original white pickguard until early 78, with the greenish pickguard of the rosewood Strat after the recording of the first album in Febr. 78, yeah, he swapped the complete pickguards incl. pick-ups)
e.g. the official CD Live at the BBC
Live at Chester
Revolver TV show …

late 78 (likely from Sept/Oct to the end of the year):
rosewood only (which was painted red from probably then on, his brother David’s Strat was painted black probably at the same time, before both were wood finish)
e.g. Live at Rotterdam
Live at Hamburg

early 79 (Jan/ Febr):
mainly maple (with its original pickguard), but sometimes rosewood as well
e.g. Rockpalast

March 79 to summer 79:
maple with greenish pickguard of rosewood Strat
e.g. Live at Old Waldorf, On the Road to Philadelphia

late 79:
both, but always the greenish pickguard (or possibly maple on the US tour, rosewood at least on the very last gigs in London, see Arena documentary)

rehearsals in 1980 (BBC Arena documentary): both


MK guitar style and licks

Unusual double-string bend in Sultans of Swing and Once Upon a Time

Posted on

Remember the guitar lick In Sultans of Swing following “and Harry doesn’t mind..” ?

In songbooks or tabs you will find something like:

Harry bend a

(play b-string at fret 8, plus g-string at 7th fret, bend g-string one whole note, notes g and d, the d is bent to e)

In fact this is the way Knopfler seems to play it on many old or new live recordings.

I suspect that on the studio versions (both the CD version and the alternative vinyl single version that was released in some countries like Germany or England), he played it differently, like this:

Harry bend b

(b-string at fret 6, g-string at fret 7, then bend up *both strings* one whole note, use the second and third finger of the left hand for bending, notes f and d, bent to g and e)

This is more difficult which might be an explanation why is was only played in the studio this way. The problem is you must be very careful not to mute the b-string accidentally with the finger that bends the g-string.

If you play it this way, you can make it scream more, also you can release the bend and both notes will perfectly match the following Dm chord (listen carefully, this was what gave me the idea to this).

The same bend seems to appear on ‘Once Upon A Time in the west’: oy yeah … (the bend, and release it) …. once upon a time in the west”

See this article for one of my youtube videos where I also demonstrate this bend.


Guitar in general

Hello world

Posted on

So, here is my first post in this new blog. The idea behind this blog is to write about some things I am fascinated in, namely electric guitar and playing it in the style of the unique Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits fame.

I created the Dire Straits Guitar Page, one of the earliest and best-known sites about this topic, in 1996. It was soon quoted and copied almost everywhere. I didn’t find the time to update it regularly, later I planned to create it completely new at mk-guitar.com. Unfortunately I never found the time for this ambitious project.

Maybe a better way to go is with a blog. This way I can write about one single aspect at the time, and let it grow and grow. Also the interaction with other people in a blog seems to be something pretty cool.

Hope to see you all here a lot in the future