Sailing to Philadelphia – Mark Knopfler

Mark Knopfler

Good songs, like any works of art, are multi-dimensional. They have layers that don’t reveal themselves on a first listen. It’s only after repeated exposure that you even begin to glimpse a hint of the various parts and start to hear how they all work together. This is one reason why coming up with single guitar arrangements for songs is both frustrating and also immensely satisfying.

Sailing to Philadelphia, from the 2000 album of the same name by Mark Knopfler, could be a poster child for this philosophy. At a casual first listen, it’s a wonderful fingerstyle acoustic guitar song punctuated with some typically tasteful (and tasty) electric guitar fills and solos that Knopfler makes sound so easy. But, as you’ll see and hear, even the relatively straightforward sounding acoustic guitar part is an adventure in itself!

So let’s get started, shall we?

If you’ve never heard this song before, you should go look it up on YouTube and give it a listen. It’s a narrative between two people, Jeremiah Dixon and Charles Mason, surveyors from England who mapped out the Pennsylvania / Maryland border in the 1700’s. The original recording is done as a duet between Mark Knopfler (singing Dixon’s part) and James Taylor (who gets Mason’s lines).

Structurally speaking, Sailing to Philadelphia is a fairly standard song format. There’s a very short introduction of eight measures and then there’s a verse. Or two verses, if you prefer to think of it that way, since each vocalist gets an identical amount of time and space. Then there’s a chorus and a short solo over a repeat of the introduction chord progression. Then a second verse (or two verses) and chorus, although this second chorus is slightly elongated, and then the song fades out over an extended guitar solo played over repeated cycling of the introduction chord progression.

On the original recording, this song is in the key of A. And you’ll find this verified in that most of the Internet tabs you’ll find for it are like this one:

Takedown Notice

Some have taken the liberty of working it up in the key of G, putting a capo on the second fret in order to bring the chords back up to the original key of A:

And these chords whether in A or G work fine. But listening to the acoustic guitar you can hear that something is not quite spot on. There are additional notes added to these chords, slightly embellishing them. Listening carefully, I could hear that the highest strings never changed notes, creating a ringing and mesmerizing repeated use of B and C# (the B note played at the fourth fret of the G string because the B string was fretted at the second fret to produce C#) while the high E string rang open. So the actual notes and the chords, using the first four measures of the introduction as an example, were more like this:

At this point in the process, I was in a bit of a dilemma – thrilled at figuring out this much so far but more than a bit apprehensive that I’d run into a song I wasn’t going to be able to play. Using these chords in these fingerings was going to be awkward if not downright painful.

So I thought about using a capo and playing in G, but that created other issues:

Because the ringing notes in the G became A, B and D, it was impossible to get them all on adjoining strings in order to get that hypnotic effect the original recording had. Or at least it seemed impossible until I started to think about it some more. After all, someone else had done it on the original recording!

Getting ringing A and B notes in combination weren’t a problem. Getting B and D or A and D in combination also was simply a matter of playing at the right place. But getting all three notes required more than thought, it required retuning! By tuning my high E string down a full step to D (making the tuning, from low to high EADGBD), I could get all three notes ringing across the three high strings, just as I did in the key of A but without the contortionist chords. So the first four measures of the introduction could be played like this:

Definitely sounds like the original, no? But we’re still not totally out of the woods yet, as there are fingering issues that will have to be dealt with because of the new tuning, and I haven’t even mentioned the surprises coming up in the time signature (!), but I think we’re ready to go!

The Introduction

Truth be told, I could sit and play the first four bars of the introduction forever; it’s that captivating. There’s also a good reason to spend a lot of time on it right now – first, to work out how best to change between chords and second, to get comfortable with the finger picking pattern. It goes without saying that there are a lot of different ways to approach both of these and you may find solutions that work better for you than whatever I might suggest. So, bearing that in mind, here are some suggestions. First, concerning the actual picking, you might want to try the typical classical approach, using your thumb (labeled “T”) for the three low strings, your index finger (“i”) for the G string, your middle finger (“m”) for the B string and your ring finger (“a”) for the high E string, like this:

Again, I can’t stress enough that there are all sorts of ways of doing this. The most important thing is for you to be comfortable enough with whatever fingers you’re using so that you can get your picking as close to being on autopilot as possible. Other aspects of this song are going to be tricky enough and you want to have something you can easily use as a fallback point.

Concerning the fretboard fingering, and after more than (quite) a few runs through these chords, I decided to finger the Em11 with my index finger on the second fret of the G string and my middle finger on the second fret of the D string. Doing so (and I’m more than happy to admit this) feels more than a little awkward at first, but it also allows you to keep that finger in place throughout each chord change in the introduction. Speaking of which, here it is:

In all the Internet transcriptions or chord charts I saw on Sailing to Philadelphia, only three different chords are used in the introduction. But I kept hearing a fourth chord being used for the seventh measure, immediately before the E (or D if you’re using a capo) in the eighth. Using a Dadd9 seems to fit the bill. Also, you can finger it like a regular open position D chord in this tuning, which seems comforting somehow. Once there, adding the pinky to the fourth fret will get you the straight D chord.

I also want to note here that these two measures are the only place in the whole arrangement of the song that I’m still a little unhappy with. Repeated listening to the original recording convinces me that someone is playing what would be a low D note (actually E taking the capo into account) but there’s just no way of doing it without using “double Drop D” tuning, but then I have to have longer fingers than I do to make the other chords. But that’s okay.

Picking this section took a little getting used to as well. Essentially I switched to using only three fingers (thumb, index and middle) and then switched up a string halfway through the measure, like this:

Again, you may very well come up with other solutions for this section. Have fun and try out different ideas.

The Verse (or verses) and The Timing Quirks

The important thing, up to this point, is to have a basic picking pattern that you can fall back on. You don’t have to, and really, you shouldn’t feel compelled to play it exactly the same throughout the song. If you catch the high E string instead of the B string, for example, who’s going to know you didn’t mean to do that? All picking patterns should serve as a starting point and nothing more. In upcoming MP3 examples, you will hear me miss strings and catch others than what is written out in the tablature. That’s what makes playing organic.

And it becomes essential in Sailing to Philadelphia because the verses of the song go through multiple changes in time signature. I’ve written out the first half of the first verse with just the lyrics, chords and time signature changes for you:

You see that the verse starts with three full measures of Em11 and then switches to a measure of Gadd9 in 2 / 4 time signature. If you want to, think of it as a “half measure” of Gadd9. You certainly can pick it as such:

After this measure of 2 / 4 in Measure 4, you go into four pairs of measures that alternate between 4 / 4 and 3 / 4 time signatures. Measure 5 (C and Cmaj7 for two beats each) and Measure 6 (D6 for two beats and G for a single beat) are repeated twice:

The trickiest part of this is fingering the D6 chord at the start of Measure 6, but preparing for it in Measure 5 can make things easier. In Measure 5, you start with a C chord and then remove your index finger to make Cmaj7. You then slide your ring and middle fingers up two frets and place your index finger at the second fret of the G string to get the D6.

Some people will have trouble with this stretch, and there are other ways of trying to make this chord. First, and this requires a little bit of “re-thinking things,” you can make the initial C chord without the middle finger, using your pinky for the third fret of the A string and your ring finger for the second fret of the D string. This does take more thought than you might think because you’re just not used to making a C chord in this fashion. If you can get past that, then you should find sliding the pinky and ring finger up two frets and dropping the index finger onto the second fret of the G string won’t be as big a stretch to deal with.

Another option is to simply leave the G string open. This creates a D13 chord and will sound perfectly fine. And you can also use either the Dadd9 or the D that you learned in the Introduction as a viable substitute.

As mentioned earlier, and as I mention in the MP3 sound file, the main concern here is getting the changes in timing right, not on nailing every note in the picking pattern. Don’t hesitate to count out loud to help you get comfortable with the shifts in time signature.

The final change in time signature, another 4 / 4 to 3 / 4 shift in Measures 11 and 12 is much easier in terms of the chord change and is followed by the same Dadd9 to D that you learned in the last two measures of the Introduction:

Pardon the pun, but do take your time with this section. As discussed earlier, once you have the picking pattern in your fingers, it’s just a matter of changing it up according to both the chord changes and the time signatures involved. Here is a full run through the verse chords and timing:

Remember, too, that this is technically half a verse. You want to run through the whole thing twice – once for Dixon and once for Mason, or vice versa.

The Chorus

All your work on getting comfortable with the finger picking pays off in the chorus as the pattern holds constant throughout. In the first four measures, you have a chord change every two beats, but the majority of the changes involve fingerings that you should have no trouble with:

Using a different voicing of Bm7 (x20204) in the fifth measure bring out the melody line and brings some variety to your chord choices, but you can certainly stick with the first voicing (x20200) from the fourth measure if you find it easier to play.

The final C to D change, technically Cmaj7 to D13, uses the same slide of the fingers along the A and D strings from the 4 /4 to 3 / 4 measures of the verse. The second time the chorus is played, this ending is extended:

If you keep your ring finger set on the A string while playing this, you should find using your middle finger for the D string on the Cmaj7 and D13 chords and then changing to your index finger for the fifth fret of the D string on the Em7 chord relatively easy to do.

All right, then! Let’s put it all together, shall we?

This lesson on Sailing to Philadelphia is a little more involved than many of our Guitar Noise song lessons, but I hope that you make the time to try it out. It is a beautiful song and, once you have the picking and time signature changes down, will be a bit of music you will never grow tired of. And there are all sorts of experimenting and exploring you can do on your own to make it even more enjoyable!

And, as always, please feel free to post your questions and suggestions on the Guitar Noise Forum’s “Guitar Noise Lessons” page or email me directly at [email protected].

Until our next lesson…