Mark Knopfler Reveals the Story Behind His ’61 Strat and “Sultans of Swing”

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PHOTO: Miquel Benitez | Getty Images

Today marks the 67th birthday of Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler, and to celebrate we present his isolated guitar tracks from the group’s 1979 hit, “Sultans of Swing.”

Why this track? It’s not simply because “Sultans of Swing” was a huge hit—it’s because Knopfler’s playing on the song is monstrously good. Listen to the isolated guitar tracks below and see for yourself how his work on the song stands alone as a complete piece of music.

Many years ago, Knopfler revealed to our sister publication Guitar World that he wrote the song on a National Steel guitar in an open tuning.

“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.

In the recently shot video also included below, Knopfler and longtime Dire Straits bassist John Illsley shed even more light on the roots of “Sultans of Swing.” Best of all, we get to see Knopfler take his rosewood-kneck 1961 Strat out of its case and play along—for a few seconds, anyway—with the original demo. He also explains how the discovery of the Strat led him to exploit his finger vibrato, for which he now is so well known, and which is featured so heavily on “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 says. “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.”

At the 2:24 mark in the video, we cut to a recent live performance of the song, in which Knopfler might be playing the very same red Strat. His guitar solo starts at 3:10; at some point, during the solo’s middle section, he announces, “So I don’t know what any of this is gonna be,” indicating that he’s making it up as he goes along. Then, at 3:50, it’s pure classic “Sultans,” and the crowd goes wild.

Enjoy the videos.

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