When AG recently surveyed readers about what songs they’d like to learn, the most requested selection was “Sultans of Swing.” This came as a surprise, as the track, which the British rock band Dire Straits released in 1978, has not a lick of acoustic guitar in it. But ask and you shall receive, as they say.
Presenting “Sultans” in the magazine was a bit of a challenge, as the tune has sections of varying lengths—the verses are anywhere from 16 to 20 bars—precluding repeats, and making it prohibitively long to transcribe each and every note that guitarist Mark Knopfler played on the original recording. By my calculation, it would have taken up around 20 percent of the magazine. That said, I’ve notated the song’s meatiest parts—the intro, chorus riff, and first guitar solo, which translate nicely enough to the acoustic guitar.
There are two electric guitars on the studio version—one dedicated to lead and the other rhythm—and the intro notated here captures a little of both. This section is drawn from the D natural minor scale (D E F G A Bb C) and falls neatly under the fingers in fifth position. Starting in the fourth bar, stop the fifth-fret G with your third finger and then use that finger for all the other seventh-fret notes. Use your first, second, and fourth fingers, respectively, for notes at frets 5, 6, and 8.
In the chorus, Knopfler uses compact, three-note voicings on an inner string set, rather than more typical full voicings, to create a memorable riff. This part should be straightforward enough on the fretting fingers, but in case it’s not obvious from the notation, at the end of the second bar, make sure your first finger is barred across strings 2–5 at fret 5. That will set you up for the double pull-off at the top of the following measure.
Knopfler uses a handful of smart strategies in his 28-bar solo—outlining the chords, as in the third through fifth measures and elsewhere; deploying pentatonic lines, like seen in the 15th bar, and more. As with tackling any solo, it can be just as useful to go for the general spirit, rather than cop everything note-for-note. I’ve included all of Knopfler’s string bends. Depending on your instrument and string choice, you might be able to pull these off on an acoustic guitar (in preparing the notation I had no problem doing so on a Gibson L-50 with D’Addario NB 12s). But if the bends prove problematic, there are workarounds. You might try sliding up the indicated amount instead. For instance, at the top of the solo, pick the eighth-fret G, then slide up a whole step, to the tenth-fret A.
If Knopfler’s moves seem too challenging, you could just skip to page 59, where I’ve provided the lyrics and chord changes. Just strum using the five basic grips, noting the use of a fifth-position F chord, as opposed to the more typical first-fret barre grip. You can revisit the riffing and soloing bits whenever you’re ready.
Due to copyright restrictions, we are unable to post notation or tablature for this musical work. If you have a digital or physical copy of the November/December 2019 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine, you will find the music on page 56.