Sultans of swing is among the most known songs in rock ‘n’ roll history. The main riff, solo, chord progression, Mark Knopfler’s voice – there’s so much to it you instantly recognize.
If you’re a guitar player, you surely want to take a look at how it’s played. Is it hard to play?
Sultans of swing is not that hard to play, except for the second solo. However, it is hard to nail it perfectly if you want your guitar to sound exactly like the audio recording. That’s because Mark Knopfler is the guitarist with such a distinctive and unique playing style. It is hard to reach his sound and expression completely.
Sometimes, something that looks easy on a first sight is in fact not so easy. That’s the case with Sultans of Swing. Let’s analyze it thoroughly.
Basic Requirements For Playing
If you’re a beginner, maybe Sultans of Swing isn’t the best choice to go for. That’s why we’re gonna examine the techniques you have to master before attempting to learn this tune.
1. Basic Rhythm Strumming Patterns
Sultans of swing starts with a simple chord progression. It’s in D minor key, and the beginning progression is D minor, C, A# and A.
It’s in 4/4 rhythm and the chords are strummed in a simple classical way. Knowing the basic strumming patterns is necessary. Here you can see the tutorial for the beginning of the song.
2. Muting Strings
While strumming, it’s necessary to mute the strings from ringing. That you can do with your palm, or simply with the fingers on a fretboard muting the strings. Muting is necessary for playing the main progression right.
You can’t play Sultans of swing solo decently if you don’t do vibrato on strings. This song in particular uses a lot of vibrato in its solos.
Knowing how to vibrato on a string is what makes you a level higher from the beginner playing. Vibrato is what makes the difference. Vibrato gives you the expression. Without it, the sound just doesn’t sound good, it sounds robotic and numb.
Make sure you know how to do vibrato on a string before you attempt to learn a Sultans of swing solos.
5. Hammer On’s and Pull Off’s
Hammer on’s and pull off’s (or flick off’s) are used in most of rock songs. Needless to say, knowing them is one of the main precondition for playing Sultans of swings solos. There are two solos in the song. Both contain a lot of hammer on’s and pull off’s.
6. Bending Strings
Solos in this song have a lot of string bending. It’s the same story as it is with vibrato. Bending strings gives you an expression and life to your playing. It’s impossible to play Sultans of swing solo (first or second) without proper string bending.
As it’s been mentioned, Sultans of Swing is played with fingers. Basic knowledge of fingerstyle is needed for this tune. That brings us to the next issue.
Is It Played With a Pick?
Sultans of swing is not played with a pick. Mark Knopfler is known for using his fingers only. However, if you find it easier to play it with a pick, you can go for it. Just keep in mind that most likely you won’t get the same sound as is the sound coming from the Knopfler’s guitar.
Sultans of swing, played with a pick, may sound correct and fair enough. But it probably won’t have that soft, gentle, expressive tone that characterizes the song itself. If you plan to play it with a pick, keep in mind you’ll have to be soft on strings.
A Special Case of Fingerstyle – Claw Hammer Style
Fingerstyle technique used in Sultans of swing is by no means ordinary. Mark Knopfler here uses mostly his thumb and his index finger.
He also doesn’t pluck the strings in a usual way. This song is one of the great examples of claw hammer playing style. What is a claw hammer style?
It is a method of playing where you pluck the string with the nail of your index finger, or middle finger. That way you get the stronger and sharper sound, like with a pick. After using index or middle finger that way, a thumb comes in, plucking the string.
Playing a claw hammer style produces a sound that is a bit closer to the picking sound (due to a nail plucking a string), but still a softer that picking sound itself.
That’s one of the reasons why it’s hard to match the distinctive sound of Knopfler’s guitar. You have to get a slightly harder and twangier than fingers alone usually produce, and slightly softer sound than a flat pick usually produce.
Anyway, take a look at the claw hammer style tutorial video, just to get the idea.
You Must Match the Strength of Strumming and Plucking
Everyone can look up the tab for this song. But that’s not gonna automatically make you play it good. The main issue with this song is to match up the strength of strumming and plucking strings on a guitar.
If you’re using a flat pick, you risk sounding to harsh and aggressive. If you’re playing without fingers, as you should, again, you may sound too soft.
What you need is to play around with claw hammer technique. Eventually you’ll find the right amount of strength and you’ll hit the sound exactly as it is on the official audio recording.
Compression is the KEY!
Even if you know how to play all the parts of Sultans, you may still hear some unwanted things. For example, the sound of Mark Knopfler’s guitar is heavily compressed.
In order to bring a control to your playing tone, having some kind of a compressor is heavily advised. In my opinion, Wampler’s Ego Compressor is the best choice. While a lot of compressor pedals tend to change the color of the tone, as a side effect of compression, with Ego Compressor this is not the case.
Check it out on Amazon for more details.
Another thing worth mentioning is a reverb effect. Use a little reverb effect with low decay. For that, another pedal is worth mentioning. This one is, IMO, a great choice. Check it out on Amazon for more info.
That Famous Solos
Sultans of swing contains two recognizable solos.
Here, you can watch both solos played at slowed down speed.
First one is easier to learn, as you probably know it already. Second solo, however, is harder. Here’s how you can learn it the fastest way.
1. Listen & Watch
First of all, make sure to know the solo before you attempt to play it. If you came here for an advice on playing Sultans of swing, you probably have that checked.
Next thing; watch the performance of the solo. You can watch someone playing it on youtube, like the guy above. You can watch Mark Knopfler playing it. That way you’ll see an overall finger movements and placements on a fretboard.
With that done, you’re ready to start.
2. Use a Metronome
Of course you cannot play it on the normal speed at first. That’s why you need to slow it down. Metronome is a great helping tool. Slow down the rhythm, and play it on the speed you feel comfortable on.
3. Watch the Mistakes You Make
You’ll be making a lot of mistakes. That’s normal, it happens to everyone who tries learning new stuff. What particular mistake can you make?
It’s the sloppiness. This song does not forgive you any sloppiness, no matter how small it is. That’s because the sound of the song is a clean tone. You’ll probably mute some strings you don’t wanna mute, and let ring other strings you don’t wanna hear ringing.
Whenever you make a mistake, focus your attention on that detail. Try it again and again. Slow.
4. Take a Rest
There’s a limited amount of information your body can take at a time. The same goes for this song. You cannot expect yourself to play it perfectly after only one session of learning and playing.
Take a rest. Sometimes a 10 minute rest is enough. Sometimes a day is needed. That’s OK, just take your time, and soon you’ll notice how your playing becomes improved.
I hope this article provided you with a good information about playing the Sultans of Swing. As it’s been said already, the song itself is not that hard to play. However, playing the song correctly won’t make the playing good, alone. It’s the sound that this song posses that’s hard to nail.
Mark Knopfler is famous for his gentle, expressive tone. It is not easy to sound like him.
Anyway, thanks for reading about this. You can check some other interesting posts if you wish. For example…
Cheers, and rock on!