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My Mentoring Session with Mark Knopfler

I’ve just lived one of my wildest dreams for real: a one-to-one lesson with my hero, Mark Knopfler !!! And I still can’t realise what happened!

How could it be possible??? We’ve got to go back to July 2010 when I discovered a guitar competition while surfing on the net looking for news about Mark’s music. This comp was organised by PureSolo, and I visited their site to know exactly what it was about. PureSolo.com is a website where you can record yourself, voice or instrument, on a large amount of accompaniment tracks using their online program.

Mark Knopfler provided the site with 3 songs, “Sultans Of Swing”, “Calling Elvis” and “Speedway At Nazareth”, the original tracks without the lead guitar! Playing on the original backing tracks with Mark singing, a dream by itself! I used to play on playbacks recorded by other musicians that sound differently. So, that was great to record myself in the shoes of  Mark Knopfler! After a few trials, I realised how brilliant was his guitar playin’ on “Sultans Of Swing” and how precise he was. As soon as you play a note out of rhythm, even a single dead note, it sounds awful!!!

After organising my ideas and training a little bit on the original back tracks, I was ready to record Sultans live from the first note to the last one.

I’m not very familiar with music via computers. I only know how to plug my guitar in an amp. I just have a 6-year-old Dell laptop without knowing how to plug my guitar in! I also have a digital recording studio, a Boss BR-1200 CD, to create and record rough versions of my own songs. I plugged my Shure microphone into the Boss, and then connected the line out of the Boss into the line in of the computer. I don’t know whether the sound card is good or not, but it worked perfectly! Then I plugged my Fender Strat into my Hot Rod Deluxe amp with a delay pedal between, and placed my Shure microphone just in front of the amp. I recorded several versions of Sultans before being quite satisfied. Then a little bit of Room reverb from the PureSolo recording program and that was in.

After a while, like everyone participating to this comp I suppose, I listened sometimes to other entrants and was really impressed by several ones. There are very good guitarists out there and that was so enriching!!! I had the feeling you could guess the personality of people by the way they expressed themselves on those great songs. Unique experience!

And then, on the 6th September, I read congratulation messages posted on my page. I was one of the 5 finalists… My heart started to beat louder and louder! I was thrilled by the idea of being listened to by Mark Knopfler!!!

When my brain finally accepted this idea several days after, I received a mail from John, a co-founder of PureSolo, that I was the winner of that amazing comp!!! What to say… Unbelievable… I needed several weeks to understand what was going on!

After a few email exchanges, we arranged a meeting with Mark Knopfler. He’s a very busy person and his management asked for the days I was available. Every date was OK for me, the sooner, the better!!! Finally, my lesson with Mark was planned on November 9th, travelling to London on the 8th November, and flying back on the 10th November.

Two weeks before the meeting, my plane tickets and my hotel room were booked by the PureSolo team.

The D-day was approaching and I had difficulties not to be too excited! How can you prepare yourself to such a meeting??? I decided to take it easy and not to create useless pressure…

The 8th November, 10h55 local time, Bordeaux, France. I embarked on the plane to London. Then took the Gatwick Express train to the Victoria Station and a taxi to the Royal Garden Hotel, a wonderful 5-star hotel close to Hyde Park and not far away from the famous Royal Albert Hall where Mark played lots of times.

The 9th November, 07h45. As planned, I met David, co-founder of PureSolo.com, at the Starbucks just down the street of my hotel. We ordered 2 coffees and talked together. I was really nervous and he made me feel comfortable and relaxed. Then, we drove to the British Grove studio! I didn’t know how the studio looked like from the street. I only saw few pictures and films from the net or DVDs.

08h30. We arrived half an hour before the lesson. My head was empty and I floated on the pavement like in a dream. We were standing in front of this beautiful red house. You can’t imagine there’s one of the best studio in the world inside if you don’t know the place. We were standing on the other side of the street and took some pictures. A man walked along the street, took his keys out of his pockets and entered the studio. We waited a little bit before ringing the bell. The man welcomed us. We entered the magical place!!!

The walls are white and there’s lot of wooden parts and windows everywhere that make the place really welcoming. We took the stairs and entered a large windowed room with a huge table and lots of chairs around. To the left, an opened-modern-designed kitchen and to the right, a wonderful painting covering the wall, “Four Lambrettas and Three Portraits of Janet Churchman” by John Bratby, the one used on the cover of “Kill To Get Crimson” album. And to the far end of this huge room, there’s a relax place with sofas, a TV and a very modern firehouse. Two chairs were facing each other on a persian carpet with guitars on their stands waiting for us! I made few steps to approach the guitars. Surrounding one of the chairs, there was a MK signature strat plugged in an old vibrolux Fender amp, and a MK signature Martin!!! Another Martin was waiting on its stand close to the chair that I supposed would be mine in a few minutes!

Robyn, the Personal Assistant of Mark, entered the room and welcomed us after being introduced. We chat a little bit together and she made me feel so comfortable as the meeting approached! She informed us that the lesson would long one hour, as Mark had lots of commitments and an appointment at ten. She received a call from Mark that said he was coming. Wow…

David asked me how I felt at the moment. I can’t remember what I answered!


Mark Knopfler, CEO David Kaplan and competition winner, Christophe Leyssard

09h00. Mark entered the room, smiling as he stepped over to greet us, and congratulated me after being introduced. We talked a little bit together before sitting on our chairs and taking our guitars. He really made me feel immediately at ease.

He firstly asked me to play a G chord, that I did all along the fretboard. After awhile, He asked me to play something starting from a G. I improvised a few folk rhythms and arpeggios. He showed me how to simply sound well using Chet Atkin’s finger picking style, using your thumb alternatively on the 3 lower strings to play the 4 beats.

From then on, I had the history of rock music back from the old blues men releasing songs in the first part of the last century. He gave me names of musicians playin’ blues and explained what each of them brought to music, playing licks and rhythm parts at the same time. Blind Lemon Jefferson, Sonny Boy Williamson, Son House, Blind Willie McTell and Blind Blake with his piano-rag style who used rolls with his thumb. And everything became more complicated and sophisticated.

He told me listening to those great guitarists is the first thing to do to develop your own style. That means not to listen to one of their songs one time, but really to explore their guitar playin’ and feel their approach of music.

After, we took our electric guitars and we worked on vibratos, finger by finger and on one string, then several ones at the same time. He made few licks I tried to imitate to gain fluidity in my playing.

He told me that it’s very important to keep on playing acoustic guitars cause it’s more difficult to play them well. Then it’s far more easy to take your electric guitar after and play your stuff. Using a plectrum is also very important to practice cause there are parts where you need to use one. The sound is different and that’s the best amplifier ever. The signal is far better.

Then the lesson was over and Mark had to leave. I learnt more things in one hour than in 20 years of guitar playing.

After the lesson, we were invited to visit the whole studio with the manager of the place, David Steward, who participated to the technical designing of British Grove studio. We spent one hour and a half discovering a real museum. In fact, it has two studios that are really well designed and every detail was thought of. For example, the main recording room in studio 1 is made of a central area surrounded by several little rooms. As the walls are configurable, you can totally open the space to have a huge room, or to partially open them to create isolated recording rooms. Flaps high on the walls can also be extended to modify the sound. That’s incredible to see all that live. As we talked, we could appreciate the comfortable acoustic quality of the place.

Very old machines can be connected to brand new systems, enabling lots of different possibilities of recording. That’s a paradise for musicians. Every where you look, there’s a great machine, sometimes full of history. As far as I remember, there’s an old mixing tube desk used by the Beatles in the 60’s, a custom-made Neve console and a API Legacy to name a few. The control rooms are really large compared to most of other studios and are equipped in a 5.1 configuration with wonderful ATC monitors which can be positioned where you want as they are placed on an ingenious rail device. All this was built and designed with lots of cleverness. We also talked a little bit about the amazing cooling system. The problem is that the air becomes dry. So they developped a technology to control humidity in order to have the perfect air to preserve machines, instruments and, of course, musicians spending hours and hours in the studio. After this amazing visit, we left the place, our heads full of memories.

Well, there’s so much things to say about that morning and I feel really lucky to have had this unique opportunity. Before meeting Mark, after so many years listening to his music, you’ve got thousands of questions to ask and, at the end, you realise you asked none of them. And you also didn’t say things you wanted to say, cause you were so captivated by what was happening and his incredible power of story telling.

Now, I concentrate on rearranging and recording my own songs using all I learnt during that single enriching hour! I’ve just found a new band happy to play music inspired by the very fruitful Mark’s career, trying to explore that wonderful music (http://myspace.com/chrisleysmusic for curious people).

I fell in love with his music and his guitar playing 25 years ago and I realised why when I left the studio with David. The experience I had listening to all the guitarists on the site was just a clue. You can guess who the person is by the way he plays his instrument. And Mark is a great man, a gentleman that have many stories to tell and to share with people!

If you read those last lines, thank you for the time you’ve just spent here… and excuse my french!!!

I’d like to thank all the people who welcomed me at the studio,

Robyn, Mark’s Personal Assistant

Glenn, his guitar tech

David, his studio manager, and thank you to the PureSolo team, especially John, David and Stefanie who mailed me numerous times to make this meeting possible.

Thank you to all the people who posted so nice messages during and after the results of this comp and, of course, thank you to Mark Knopfler!!!

Christophe Leyssard