Mark Knopfler Discusses His '61 Strat and "Sultans of Swing"

(Image credit: Neil Lupin/Getty Images)

“ ‘Sultans of Swing’ was originally written on a National Steel guitar in an open tuning, though I never performed it that way,” Dire Straits frontman Mark Knopfler told Guitar World several years ago.

“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. 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 [our] first album—and the new chord changes just presented themselves and fell into place."

In the recently shot video below, Knopfler and longtime Dire Straits bassist John Illsley shed even more light on the roots of "Sultans of Swing," the band's 1978 masterpiece. Best of all, we get to see Knopfler take his rosewood-kneck '61 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. 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 (but we're not making any claims to that effect). His guitar solo starts at 3:10; during the solo's winding 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 video below—plus (as a "Mark Knopfler birthday bonus") the isolated guitar track from "Sultans of Swing" (bottom video).

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Damian Fanelli
Editor-in-Chief, Guitar World

Damian is Editor-in-Chief of Guitar World magazine. In past lives, he was GW’s managing editor and online managing editor. He's written liner notes for major-label releases, including Stevie Ray Vaughan's 'The Complete Epic Recordings Collection' (Sony Legacy) and has interviewed everyone from Yngwie Malmsteen to Kevin Bacon (with a few memorable Eric Clapton chats thrown into the mix). Damian, a former member of Brooklyn's The Gas House Gorillas, was the sole guitarist in Mister Neutron, a trio that toured the U.S. and released three albums. He now plays in two NYC-area bands.