Q Magazine

Guest column - Why every guitar has it's own story

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New film Guitar Stories – which will be shown on Sky Arts on 16 October – has been made by Dire Straits bassist John Illsley who lookz at the unique, almost mystical property each instrument can have and how that influence songs and recordingz, let alone the guitar player themselves – something he also discusses in this exclusive guest column.

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What started out as a simple chat with a friend about guitarists and the choices they make on their musical journey has turned into Guitar Stories. Initially I was reluctant to be seen as an interviewer or presenter on the subject of guitars, as for most of my life I have had the pleasure of playing the instruments myself as bass player of Dire Straits. The production team however, had more faith and persuaded me to make it with my great mate, Mark Knopfler.

The guitar is probably the most played instrument in the world – no matter what level of ability anyone achieves with it, it will be a friend for life. Only a few players achieve greatness, as with all other artistic endeavours. It is an instrument that, in the right hands, can express a whole range of emotions, from anger as shown by the Sex Pistols, to the blues of BB King, to the delicate refrains of Segovia.

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I became fascinated by the choices that guitarists make – initially driven by financial constraints, but then as their musical style develops, will it be a Stratocaster? A Telecaster? Or a Les Paul? For example, I can’t imagine Bruce Springsteen without his Telecaster, or Pete Townsend without his S.G., or Eric Clapton without his signature Stratocaster. It is these choices that we set out to explore in Guitar Stories.

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Having spent many years with Mark, I could see his constant search for a sound or a texture that would suit the particular song he was writing. In a band the size of Dire Straits, it was difficult to keep up with all those choices either in the studio or on stage. Filming Guitar Stories gave me an opportunity to look at the relationship between Mark and his guitars more closely – it was fascinating and a lot of fun. In Guitar Stories, we follow Mark from his first guitar, the Hofner Super Solid (50 quid!) to the most recent, the Montelione Isabella (cost unknown!) and some beauties in between.

We see how each of Mark’s choices shaped songs like Romeo & Juliet, Sultans of Swing, Brothers In Arms and Calling Elvis. The choice of a particular guitar, by accident or design, significantly determines the outcome of a song; one can’t imagine Sultans without the Fender Stratocaster sound, or the unique sound of the National Steel on Romeo and Juliet. In the case of Dire Straits the guitar and the way Mark played gave direction to the other musicians how to play the song.

In the film we travel from Newcastle upon Tyne to New York to piece the journey together and along the way we chart the course taken by Dire Straits as a band and Mark as a guitar virtuoso.

John Illsley

Guitar Stories will premiere on Sky Arts and Sky Arts HD on the 16 October at 10pm (BST).


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