Sometimes great things happen by accident, as in the case of the world-famous guitar tone on the song “Money for Nothing” from Dire Straits’ record-breaking album “Brothers in Arms”. Longtime collaborator and producer on this very album, Neil Dorfsman, explains.
“A long while back, Mark Knopfler told me what the legendary producer/musician Chet Atkins once said to said to him: “Whenever I’m making a record and make a mistake, I leave it in – and after a while it starts to sound pretty good”. That theory kind of applies to the famous guitar sound of “Money for Nothing”.
Honestly, we began by basically going for the “Billy Gibbons sound”, even though we were pretty much in the dark about how he got his famous tones. We were recording at AIR Studio Montserrat late one night, and were using my then-standard set-up: 2 Shure 57s and one AKG 451, which I kind of got from the great Keith Olsen (a lot of “borrowing” going on here, you see)…
Mark was set up in the control room with a line-through to his new Laney Combo (2 x 12) out in the studio. We had been auditioning a few different guitars, but settled on a Les Paul Jr, with the amp mic’d by a single SM57. One key element was that Mark was playing through a Morely Wah Pedal which was partly open. We spent a good deal of time adjusting amount of wah filtering by “opening” the pedal in minute increments until it sounded great (I remember trying to unsuccessfully tape it in position so we couldn’t accidentally lose the setting!). When we thought we were sonically in the ballpark, we decided to stop and continue the next day.
At the start of the next session, Mark plugged in as I headed out to the main studio room to check everything, as I always do. What I saw was that the SM57 we were using had loosened from its stand, and was literally pointing straight down at the floor..maybe four inches away from the speaker. As I went to “fix” it, the control room talk-back basically yelled “don’t touch anything and come in and hear this!”. Well..that became the signature sound of the main guitar in “Money for Nothing”. The funny thing is, I meticulously documented everything with notes, settings, measurements etc, but when we tried four or five weeks later to recapture that sound while trying to add a rhythmic solo in New York, we could not get it. A totally different sound and character. I wish I could claim some credit, but thank you, Chet and Mark, for teaching me why it’s called a “happy accident”.