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Postcards from Shangri-La
Mark Knopfler Expands His Timbral Palette
By Andy Ellis

Players who manage to forge an identifiable guitar voice typically stick with it throughout their career. But not Mark Knopfler, who traded his signature phasoidal Strat tone--a clucky bridge-and-middle-pickup timbre that propelled "Sultans of Swing" to the top of the charts in 1978--for a throaty Les Paul lead sound. This singing, cello-like color wends its way through Knopfler's newest album, Shangri-La [Warner Bros.], adding a sense of brooding mystery to his poetic lyrics and laid-back melodies. In addition, wang-bar-and-reverb-drenched lines, funky lipstick-pickup textures, subtle nylon-string picking--and even raw slide licks--prove that the 55-year-old Scot would rather explore the 6-string's sonic possibilities than revisit his past. We asked Knopfler to take us back to a vintage studio in Malibu, California, where he and his bandmates of nearly a decade recorded Shangri-La's 14 evocative songs.


You named this album after the studio where you recorded it. Can you describe Shangri-La?

It's primitive, in the sense it only has one little room and one small isolation booth. The Band, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young recorded there in the '60s, so the place has loads of atmosphere. The studio offers a fine collection of vintage gear, including an old API board. We recorded the basics with a pair of 16-track tape machines, and then transferred the results to a Nuendo hard-disk system for overdubs and minimal editing.


Did you track live?
Yes, just like the old days. I sang and played with the musicians I've been working with for years: guitarist Richard Bennett, bassist Glenn Worf, Guy Fletcher and Jim Cox on piano and organ, and Chad Cromwell on drums. We'd do several takes of a song, but we often used the first one. That's a tribute to these players.


How did you arrange the songs?
I sing a song all the way through to the guys, and we talk about it just a bit. Then they turn my piece of paper into a record. When players of this caliber are allowed to find their own parts, chances are the music is going to sound much, much better than anything I could think of. I include [co-producer and engineer] Chuck Ainlay in this, because he really is another band member. He's behind the glass listening through the studio monitors, so he hears things we don't pick up in the headphones. Chuck has a way of keeping you from dithering so much that you disappear up your own rear end.


When I hear three guitars in a song, did you record a rhythm part with the band and then come back to overdub a solo?
Not necessarily. Sometimes I'll track the solo live with the band, and then overdub my rhythm part. I try to keep the overdubbing to a minimum, so more and more I've been doing the whole thing all in one go. If I can get my sound happening, I prefer a spontaneous approach.


How do you and Bennett divvy up the guitar parts?
We use shorthand. I might say, "Richard, I'm going to stick on this rhythm approach. I'm hearing Gretsch coloring." Or I might just ask, "thumb and Strat?" He'll know exactly what I mean.


You're known for your distinctive fingerpicking technique. Yet on several songs, including "Our Shangri-La" and "Everybody Pays," you solo with a twangy Hank Marvin tone. Did you flatpick these lines?
Oh yeah. For what I call "spaghetti" playing, you really have to use a flatpick. It's not something I do very well. The guitar I often use for that sound is my '54 Stratocaster. It has heavy strings with a wound third [a D'Addario set gauged .012-.052]. They're like rods, man. You must have a wound third for that sound. I'm getting more used to it now, but I still have to remember that once I grab the whammy bar, I can stop my fretting hand vibrato. I don't want to get two vibratos going.


Didn't Marvin use a Vox amp on those classic Shadows records?
Yep, so I used an old Vox AC15--a fantastic amplifier.


What guitar and amp did you use for those liquid, singing solos on "Boom, Like That" and "Sucker Row"?
That's my sunburst '58 Les Paul. It's stock, except I had bigger frets put on it--like the ones Gibson switched to in '59. I like big, smooth frets. In fact, they're on my signature Martin dreadnought [the HD-40MK] and signature Fender Strat. I don't like little hard, mean frets [laughs]. For that tone, the real power is coming from a Komet amp, which is designed by [amp guru] Ken Fischer and built in Louisiana. It's no coincidence that Ken knows a great deal about Vox amplifiers.


Guitarists tend to associate a soaring Les Paul with an amp cranked to 11. But your sustaining sound is very intimate--sweet and clean with a thick distortion bubbling just underneath the attack. What's the trick to getting this supple, textured tone?

That's the amazing thing about the Komet - you control its tonal range with your hands. If you tickle the strings, it sounds clean, but if you play harder, the amp starts to distort. When I lined it up with an old red basketweave Marshall 4x12 cabinet, it nearly blew the roof off the studio.


Did you use other amps, too?
On "Back to Tupelo," and quite a few other songs, I ran through an old tweed Deluxe that belongs to the studio owner.


You seem to gravitate toward touch-sensitive amps that allow you to control the distortion manually.
Exactly that--I want the tooth coming out, but I want it to give you a bit of delicious pain before it does.


In addition to your '54 Strat and '58 Les Paul, you played some unusual guitars on Shangri-La.
I used my Ramirez classical and Teisco Spectrum V on "Postcards from Paraguay." In "Don't Crash the Ambulance," I played a '60s Silvertone Hornet, which was built by Danelectro. It has two lipstick pickups and a tremolo arm. I got into these guitars in a big way through knowing [slide ace] Mike Henderson. The last time I played with him in a Nashville club, women danced on the tables. Things like that happen whenever Mike plays. Because he uses girders for strings--they'd hold up a suspension bridge--he dispenses with the whammy apparatus. He sticks a non-tremolo Fender bridge on there to hold the guitar together. The way he has it set up, it's hard to think of a better sounding blues guitar--especially for slide.


Speaking of which, you play slide on "Donegan's Gone."
I used a black-and-white, single-pickup DC model Danelectro, which was a present from Mike. It's just the ticket for slide.


Did you use an open tuning?
Open E, though normally I use an open G tuning. When I started playing bottleneck at 16, I began doing Elmore James stuff in E. Later, when I became a fingerpicker, I was drawn to open G. I've never played much bottleneck on record. I really don't know why I haven't, because I love it.


What type of slide did you use?
My old dad used to play around with a lathe in his garage, and he turned two or three slides for me out of big chunks of brass.


How has your playing evolved over the years?
Ooh [pause]. I'm a bit rusty, because I tend to use the guitar more for songwriting. So rather than moving forward, I'm lurching backward. Now and again on the road I'll learn something from Richard, but, otherwise, my playing is the same old hodgepodge. I'm a guitar teacher's worst nightmare. What I need is someone who comes around and bangs on my door like a fitness instructor: "Get off the couch and give me a scale!"

...

For several solos on Shangri-La, Knopfler ran his '58 Les Paul through a Komet head designed by Ken Fischer of Trainwreck fame. Komet's Holger Notzel elaborates: "Mark plays a stock Komet 60 equipped with NOS tubes from Ken's personal collection. A high-gain, single-channel amp with no master volume or reverb, the 60 uses two EL34 output tubes, three 12AX7 preamp tubes, and a GZ34 rectifier. It features a Fast/Gradual switch to allow a choice of response, and Presence and Hi-Cut controls let the player shape the high end to match any guitar and style."

-AE


 
   
 
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