The Sultan Guitar Hero

By Paul Rigg

British singer-songwriter, and guitarist, Mark Knopfler (12 August 1949) was the lead guitarist and singer for Dire Straits, which he co-founded with his younger brother, David, in 1977. The band has sold well over 120 million records. 

Dire Straits recorded six albums, including Brothers in Arms (1985), one of the biggest selling records in history. The band ended in 1995, and Knopfler went on to record nine solo albums. Knopfler’s guitar playing has made him a legend, and as a result he has worked with the best, including B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan and James Taylor.

10)  In The Gallery (1978; Dire Straits)

Guitars Exchange’s
pick of Knopfler’s best solos starts with the classic image of the man himself playing his red and white Fender strat on the live version of In The Gallery, this time at Rockapalast in Cologne, Germany. Knopfler’s first solo starts at around 3’ 20 seconds while the second, heavily funked up version, begins at around 5’.

The back story to this song is that shortly after Knopfler moved from Leeds to London, and well before the release of Dire Straits first eponymous album, the front man went to a Shaftesbury Avenue art gallery and came away distinctly unimpressed. Reflecting on the death in 1976 of his artist friend Harry Philips, Knopfler furiously started writing the lyrics to a song that denounces all of “the phonies and fakes” in the art industry. Harry himself might have been ignored by “all the trendy boys in London and in Leeds”, but with his lyrics and guitar playing, Knopfler turned his friend’s story into a legend that the world will never forget.   


9) Down to the Waterline (1978; Dire Straits)

The song that starts with the immortal lines ‘Sweet surrender on the quayside’ was inspired by one of Knopfler’s early romantic encounters by the River Tyne. The band leader’s gentle and elegant finger picking solo kicks in at around 2 minutes 30 seconds and lasts almost a minute. The song
was included on the demo tape that the band sent to Charlie Gillett, which led to Dire Strait’s first recording contract; it is not difficult to see why it made an immediate impact.

8) Single Handed Sailor (1979; Communique)

Two in the morning dry-dock town, The river rolls in the night, Little gypsy moth she's all tied down, She quiver in the wind and the light. Yeah and a sailing ship is just held down in chains, From the lazy days of sail, She's just a lying there in silent pain, He leans on the tourist rail”

Fan favourite Single Handed Sailor is about the boat Gypsy Moth and the 20th century sailor Sir Francis Chichester, who was the first person to sail solo around the world from west to east. The song lasts 4’ 42” and Knopfler’s outstanding solo kicks in at around 2’48,” - and sails all the way through into the song’s sunset.


7)  Solid Rock (1980; Making Movies)

“Well now take a look at that
, I made a castle in the sand”

Solid Rock was never released as a single but was featured in all of Dire Straits’ live performances. The 3’ 20” tune features two Knopfler solos with the rocking first piece kicking off the song. The second solo starts at around 1’ 40” and only lasts around 15 seconds, but it lands perfectly and contributes to making the song unforgettable. 

6) Speedway at Nazareth (2000; Sailing to Philidelphia)

The lyrics initially seem to be about a racing season, possibly the Indy 500,  
but a closer listen reveals the song can be read as a metaphor for life. There are struggles and joys along the way but at the end “at the Speedway at Nazareth, I made no mistake...”  Knopfler’s solo starts at 3’, about half-way through the song, and sees it through, accompanied at times by a violin, until the end.

5) Brothers In Arms (1985; Brothers In Arms)

These mist covered mountains are a home now for me, But my home is the lowlands and always will be, Someday you'll return to your valleys and your farms and you'll no longer burn to be… Brothers in arms”

This moody and reflective song was written during the Falklands War, which was a controversial conflict between Argentina and Britain that led to hundreds of deaths and Britain regaining the islands. The song tells the story of one soldier slowly dying on the battlefield but being comforted by his ‘brothers in arms’. Knopfler’s melancholic solo starts at around 5’ and perfectly reflects the mood of the song.
In one of the live versions at Meistersaal, Berlin on 10th September 2007, Knopfler can be seen playing his 90 second solo on a Gibson Les Paul Standard.


4) It Never Rains (1982; Love Over Gold)

I hear the seven deadly sins
, And the terrible twins came to call on you, The bigger they are babe, The harder they fall on you,
And you you're always the same you persevere, On the same old pleasure ground,
Oh and it never rains around here, It just comes pouring down”

The 8 minute long song It Never Rains deals with romantic and financial problems. On the album version, Knopfler’s enormous solo enters to lift the song at around 4’ 45”, starts rocking, and never lets up.

3) Tunnel of Love (1980; Making Movies)  

This buzzy 8 minute plus song reportedly specifically refers to Knopfler’s visit to the fairground at Whitley Bay. The song was penned exclusively by the Dire Straits frontman whose first solo at 3’45” is followed by a lengthier and more sentimental piece at 6’. Despite the song’s apparent commercial appeal its single release surprisingly met with weak sales. 

2) Telegraph Road (1982; Love Over Gold)

Telegraph Road
is a major north-south 70 mile motorway in Michigan, and Knopfler’s 14 minute song reflects this journey, which he once made on the Dire Straits tour bus. Apart from the physical aspects of the trip, Knopfler uses the song to reflect on America’s journey, from the early pioneers who built the country through ‘churches and trains’, to a story about the unemployment and decline of one man. Knopfler’s first solo starts at around 6’ but the later epic from 9’ 40” has an almost cinematic quality. On one of Dire straits’ live versions of the song Knopfler can be seen playing his 1937 National Style O Resonator guitar.


Sultans of Swing (1978; Dire Straits)

Sultans of Swing
is an amazing song that also contains Knopfler’s most famous solo on his Fender Strat from around 3’ 20”, and then some outstanding finger picking from around 5’ until the fade. The song was inspired by a visit to a London pub in the mid 1970s where Knopfler saw a struggling band reportedly calling themselves “The Sultans Of Swing”. The fact is that financially challenged musicians, who are full of dreams but playing to pitifully small and often disinterested audiences is an experience many are able to strongly relate to. On one of the live versions Knopfler can be seen playing his signature Pensa Custom MKI; as with many of his solos he does not play at lightning speed, but he knows what to play, when to play it and how to beautifully communicate strong emotions. The song helped provoke a bidding war between different record labels, and became the band’s first single. The rest, as they say, is history.