Inside the Song: Mark Knopfler's Fingerstyle Mastery on 'Sultans of Swing'
Taking a deep dive into Dire Straits' timeless debut single and its legendary solo.
By Mike Duffy
As many accolades as Dire Straits have to their credit, perhaps the Mark Knopfler-led band’s most impressive accomplishment is the fact that their first single was “Sultans of Swing.”
Think about that for a second. The first time that a worldwide audience heard the British rockers was a timeless classic with one of the most iconic guitar solos ever.
Not a bad start.
That solo was a big reason “Sultans of Swing” earned its well-deserved iconic status. At the time of its release, the track as a whole hit No. 8 on the U.K. Singles Chart and No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100. Decades later, Guitar World placed it at No. 22 on their list of greatest guitar solos, and it sat at No. 32 on Rolling Stone’s solo rankings.
Using his 1961 Stratocaster, Knopfler first breaks off into solo territory with a half-minute of precise scales, comes out of the solo for another verse, and then returns for another 40 seconds of faster, more freewheeling arpeggios that take the song to the next level.
But had Knopfler never picked up his Strat, “Sultans” might have never reached those heights.
The fingerstyle master originally wrote it on a National Steel guitar in an open tuning, he once explained to Guitar World.
“I thought it was dull, but as soon as I bought my first Strat in 1977, the whole thing changed, though the lyrics remained the same,” he said. “It just came alive as soon as I played it on that ’61 Strat—which remained my main guitar for many years and was basically the only thing I played on the first album—and the new chord changes just presented themselves and fell into place.”
“Sultans of Swing” was initially recorded as a demo in 1977 and soon got some play at BBC Radio. A bidding war amongst record labels ensued, and Dire Straits signed a deal with Phonogram Records, who had them re-record it for their eponymous debut 1978 debut album. “Sultans of Swing” was officially released internationally as a single in January of 1979.
The song was bold for the times.
With a Dylan-esque delivery, Knopfler talk-sings about a jazz ensemble he saw performing earnestly in deserted pub; they called themselves the Sultans of Swing. The crowd might not have cared, but they were doing it for the love of the music. Knopfler honors a “Guitar George” who “knows all the chords” and a “Harry” who can play honky tonk like anything.”
The honest lyrics were a departure from the saccharine disco and angsty punk that was so prevalent in the late ‘70s. Knopfler’s clean Strat tone and economic, perfectly timed licks only added to that singularity.
Played live, “Sultans of Swing” regularly takes on new life, as Knopfler elevates the classic solo to lofty highs—the most famous of which is probably an 11-minute epic played with Eric Clapton at Nelson Mandela’s 70th Birthday Tribute concert in 1998.
To this day, Knopfler credits his first Stratocaster for inspiring a sound and vibe that would follow him throughout his storied career. Truly, it all started with a Strat and “Sultans of Swing.”
"It’s really a good example of how the music you make is shaped by what you play it on, and is a lesson for young players,” he told Guitar World. “If you feel that you’re not getting enough out of a song, change the instrument—go from an acoustic to an electric or vice versa, or try an open tuning. Do something to shake it up.
"As for the actual solo, it was just more or less what I played every night. It’s just a Fender Twin and the Strat, with its three-way selector switch jammed into a middle position. That gives the song its sound, and I think there were quite a few five-way switches installed as a result of that song.”