It is notoriously difficult to use words to describe sounds. This is one of the reasons why onomatopoeia is such a useful invention. Without it, we would have no way to communicate the strange noise coming out from our car engine to the mechanic.
Instead, we tap into the hidden recesses of our throats to say, somewhat sheepishly, “Well, a few weeks ago it started randomly making this kind of… ‘blarguflubbfft’ sound, and now it’s doing it more often. Please help.”
Unfortunately, and somewhat ironically, the powers of sonic approximation that are so effective in diagnosing auto repairs are substantially more fraught in the rehearsal space, recording studio, and guitar shop. Just take the word “warm” as an example: A lot of people use it to describe the sound of a quality acoustic guitar recorded to tape, and a lot of people would agree that it is a good and useful word for that purpose, but odds are high that, if asked, ten people would give you ten different definitions of “warm”. And the same goes for other concepts of a guitar—what it means depends on who you ask.
So, when discussing the tone and playability of the brand that has set the standard for acoustic instruments everywhere, who better to ask than the player who has set the standard for creativity, tastefulness, and talent for guitarists for the past 40 years?
Since forming Dire Straits in 1977, four-time GRAMMY-winner Mark Knopfler has sold over 120 million records across a range of genres. He’s scored films like The Princess Bride and Wag the Dog, played with other luminaries from B.B. King to Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan to George Jones, and has not one but three honorary doctorates in music.
He also founded the venerable British Grove Studios and partnered with Martin to create two signature guitars: the HD-40MK and the 000-40MK. Of course, Knopfler’s knowledge of Martin guitars isn’t limited to his signature models.
Knopfler also owns a 1935 D-18—“probably the guitar I play more than anything, and [it] taught me a lot about the merits of mahogany,” he says—as well as “a lovely guitar that the company is making now called the OM-18 Authentic, which is, I think, just an exceptional instrument. It gives that lovely dry sound—there’s just something special about it.”
Knopfler also owns two Little Martins, and not just for traveling or messing around: “I actually use them a lot in the studio,” he says. And when it comes to traveling, Knopfler notes that “I always try to get a guitar in the hotel room, and it’s always a joy to discover that it’s a Martin because you’ll be OK for a week. It’s just the standards are really extraordinary, I think.”
While Knopfler notes that the time spent with his collection now allows him to “feel a bit more like an old hand,” he also points out that “I came to it pretty late, like I do most things” because “I always wanted a Martin, of course, but I couldn’t afford one.”
The success of Dire Straits naturally expanded his options, and quickly. Knopfler emerged as one of the preeminent guitarists of big-synth and big-hair 1980s, and he could have embraced whichever guitar he fancied most. It’s no surprise that his reasons for choosing Martin were as studied and mature as his playing. “Both in terms of tone and playability, and in terms of the build standard as well, for such a large company, the standards have been exceptional with Martin. That’s, I think, what makes them so distinctive because those kinds of standards are hard enough to achieve for a small-scale luthier, but that makes their achievement all the more admirable.”
This impression was further solidified when Knopfler started discussing the idea of a signature Dreadnought in the early 2000s. “When I first struck up a relationship with Dick Boak in Martin’s Artist Relations, it was no surprise to learn that he was a luthier himself. It seems that there’s a philosophy and feeling of authenticity that runs right through the entire company.” That relationship led to the production of the HD-40MK in 2002, which was designed to be more of a strumming guitar for those of us who can’t pull off Knopfler’s famous finger style playing, but Knopfler recalls being “amazed that I could finger-pick it and strum it—it all worked.” Sometimes, playability is a feeling of amazement that has to be experienced to be understood.
Knopfler has noted how the iconic Dire Straits song “Sultans of Swing” transformed once he started playing it on a Fender Stratocaster after originally composing it on an acoustic guitar because of differences in tone. For some, owning a well-equipped recording studio and an enviable collection of Martins could lead to endless experimentation and an anxiety-of-choice. While Knopfler embraces all the happy accidents that can happen in the studio, he doesn’t stress over the idea of infinite combinations.
“I might try a couple of guitars. I usually have an instinct about what is the guitar to use.” When it comes time to record, Knopfler similarly relies on his time-honed instincts. “I think that you have to listen to the little voice that’s telling you about the sound. I seem to be fortunate in that I always seem to know what I prefer, if there’s a choice.” So what is it about Martin guitars that has made them his choice live and in the studio for decades? “Basically, their philosophy is very similar to mine, which is that I think they are combining the best of the old with the best of the new.”