Learn to Play: Riffs in the Key of Mark Knopfler

It's Mark Knopfler's birthday tomorrow. To celebrate the Dire Straits frontman, we here at Reverb put together a couple of lessons that cover some of his most influential riffs, from "Southbound Again" to "Down to the Waterline" to "Once Upon a Time in the West."

Check out the videos below and read Joe's explanation to learn how you can play like one of the greats.

Sometimes you sit down to learn a riff and realize that you’re doing something wrong, but you can’t quite put your finger on it. You’ve got the fret numbers, you’ve got the string set, you can hear the rhythm. But something just isn’t clicking into place.

This is what the process of learning “Southbound Again” was like for me. I learned it three different times, making this an exercise in patience and adjusting as much as it was a riffs lesson. And what’s more, I’m still working to get it down.

The intricacies of Mark Knopfler’s technique are subtle — maybe even hidden — making this process equal parts exciting and frustrating. At a certain point, I arrive at this place of, “Only Knopfler can do it.” And while that may be true, we can still grab a few pieces, and that’s the exciting part.

For me, “grabbing a few pieces” meant two things: getting my right hand first finger to a place of higher confidence and training my thumb to slam those downbeats. I have a tendency to get a little too fancy with my thumb, and I try to pull off poly rhythms. There’s no place for that in “Southbound Again.”

Even though I don’t have the riff down completely, I have still benefited from the process of learning how to play it. My faculties have certainly improved.

The other two riffs in this lesson, “Once Upon A Time In The West” and “Down To The Waterline” offer a different narrative.

Knopfler’s pristine phrasing has a way of just bringing us right along. I think this is partly due to the way he navigates around chord tones. If we develop our chord theory, we can more effectively nail those sweet chord tones in our own phrasing.

Developing chord theory informs many facets of our musical communication. If you’re up on your chords, you're empowering yourself to be more effective in many ways, from improvisation to composition to arranging, and — in the case of this lesson — phrasing.

The way I look at this lesson, there are two main ideas to run with. The first one being Knopfler’s technique. And like I pointed out earlier, I’m still working on that. I mean, those perfect bends along with getting the proper snap from the fingerpicking hand? This stuff is not easy.

But the second major takeaway is something that is right in our grasp. Strengthen your chord theory. Spell them out loud, “Fmin7…F — Ab — C — Eb,” and so on.


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