Watch Mark Knopfler Bring the House Down with His Epic “Sultans of Swing” Solo

Mark Knopfler performing with Dire Straits in 1978
Mark Knopfler performing with Dire Straits in 1978 (Image credit: Gie Knaeps/Getty Images)

Happy birthday to Mark Knopfler!

Multiple Grammy award-winner and one of the greatest guitarists of all time, Knopfler’s lengthy and prolific career includes recording no less than nine solo albums; the same number of soundtrack albums; collaborations with co-legends Chet Atkins and Emmylou Harris; and country rockers The Notting Hillbillies’ Missing...Presumed Having a Good Time long-player.

And that’s before we’ve even mentioned Dire Straits.

Recorded At SARM/Basing Street Studios in Notting Hill, London during early 1978 and released later that year, Dire Straits’ eponymous debut album along with its lead single, "Sultans of Swing" brought Knopfler’s superlative fingerstyle technique to the masses. It also made him an instant guitar hero to many, helping to repopularize the Fender Stratocaster in the process.

Dire Straits debut album cover artwork

Dire Straits' eponymous 1978 debut album (Image credit: Vertigo/Warner Bros./Mercury)

Composed on a National guitar, “Sultans of Swing” took a different course after Knopfler acquired his first Fender Stratocaster in 1977, the year Dire Straits formed in London. “It just came alive as soon as I played it on that ’61 Strat,” Knopfler once told Guitar World magazine, “which remained my main guitar for many years and was basically the only thing I played on the first album.”

On the subject of the song’s epic guitar solo, Knopfler comments, “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.”

Although Fender didn’t get round to installing the five-way switch as standard on Stratocasters until 1977 (replacing the model’s original three-way pickup selector), it was a popular mod for years prior, helping players achieve a further two pickup options. For many, these unique out-of-phase tones represent the quintessential Knopfler sound.

Guitarist Mark Knopfler and drummer Pick Withers, both later of Dire Straits, perform on stage with their eralier band Cafe Racers in a pub in Camden, London, United Kingdom, 1977.

Mark Knopfler performing with pre-Dire Straits band Café Racers in a pub in Camden, London in the mid-'70s (Image credit: Erica Echenberg/Redferns)

While the recording showcases a very pure electric guitar tone, by the early '80s Knopfler was using a bespoke-designed live rig masterminded by Pete Cornish (opens in new tab) – one of the best custom builders in the business and famous for designing similar systems for the likes of Eric Clapton and David Gilmour.

In this classic clip from 1984’s Alchemy: Dire Straits Live (recorded at London’s Hammersmith Odeon on July 22 and 23, 1983) Knopler’s astounding technique can be seen close up as they draw their monumental eight-month Love Over Gold Tour to a climax at home in England.

A masterclass in technique, composition, and style (headband included!) this is undoubtedly one of Knopfler’s greatest moments captured on film.

Alchemy: Dire Straits Live cover

(Image credit: Vertigo/Warner Bros.)

Get Alchemy: Dire Straits Live here (opens in new tab).

Rod Brakes is a music journalist with an expertise in guitars. Having spent many years at the coalface as a guitar dealer and tech, Rod's more recent work as a writer covering artists, industry pros and gear includes contributions for leading publications and websites such as GuitaristTotal Guitar, Guitar World (opens in new tab)Guitar Player (opens in new tab) and MusicRadar (opens in new tab) in addition to specialist music books, blogs and social media. He is also a lifelong musician.