“Sultans of Swing” is a song by British rock band Dire Straits from their eponymous debut album, which band front man Mark Knopfler wrote and composed. Although it was first released in 1978, it was its 1979 re-release that caused it to become a hit in both the UK and U.S.
The song was recorded at Pathway Studios, North London, in July 1977 and quickly acquired a following after it was put on rotation at Radio London. Its popularity soon reached record executives, and Dire Straits were offered a contract with Phonogram Records. The song was then re-recorded in February 1978 at Basing Street Studios for the band’s debut album. The record company wanted a less-polished rock sound for the radio, so an alternative version was recorded at Pathway Studios in April 1978 and released as the single in some countries including the United Kingdom and Germany.
The music for “Sultans of Swing” was composed by Mark Knopfler on a National Steel guitar in an open tuning, though Knopfler did not think very highly of it at first. As he remembered, “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 the first album and the new chord changes just presented themselves and fell into place.”
Inspiration for the song came from witnessing a jazz band playing in the corner of a practically deserted pub in Deptford, South London. At the end of their performance, the lead singer announced that they were the “Sultans of Swing”, and Knopfler found the contrast between the group’s dowdy appearance and surroundings and their grandiose name amusing.
Folk singer and Columbia recording artist Bill Wilson (1947–1993) made the unsubstantiated claim that he had helped write some of the lyrics to the song while he and Knopfler were both studio musicians working a session in Nashville. Wilson did not get a songwriting credit on the release, but claimed to have received some monetary compensation for his input.
According to the sheet music published at Musicnotes.com by Sony/ATV Music Publishing, the song is set in the time signature of common time, with a tempo of 149 beats per minute. It is composed in the key of D minor with Knopfler’s vocal range spanning from G2 to D4. The song has a basic sequence of Dm–C–B♭–A as its chord progression for the verses, and F–C–B♭ for the choruses. The song’s riff makes use of triads, particularly second inversions. The song employs the Andalusian cadence or diatonic phrygian tetrachord. All of the chords are compatible with a D natural minor scale, except for the A major triad, which suggests a D harmonic minor scale. Knopfler would later use similar triads on “Lady Writer”.
Ken Tucker of Rolling Stone singled out “Sultans of Swing” as a highlight of the album for its “inescapable hook” and compared Knopfler’s vocal stylings to that of Bob Dylan. The New Rolling Stone Album Guide called the song “an insinuating bit of bar-band mythmaking” whose lyrics “paint a vivid picture of an overlooked and underappreciated pub combo”. The Spokane Chronicle‘s Jim Kershner wrote that “Sultans of Swing” is “remarkable, both for its lyrics that made fun of hip young Londoners and the phenomenal guitar sound of Knopfler”, which “sounded like no other guitar on radio”. Jon Marlowe of The Palm Beach Post called it “an infectious, sounds-damn-good-on-the-car-radio ode to every bar band who has ever done four sets a night, seven nights a week”.
Writing in 2013 on the impact of the song, Rick Moore of American Songwriter reflected:
With “Sultans of Swing” a breath of fresh air was exhaled into the airwaves in the late ’70s. Sure, Donald Fagen and Tom Waits were writing great lyrics about characters you’d love to meet and Jeff Beck and Eddie Van Halen were great guitar players. But Knopfler, he could do both things as well or better than anybody out there in his own way, and didn’t seem to have any obvious rock influences unless you try to include Dylan. Like his contemporary and future duet partner Sting, Knopfler’s ideas were intellectually and musically stimulating, but were also accessible to the average listener. It was almost like jazz for the layman. “Sultans of Swing” was a lesson in prosody and tasty guitar playing that has seldom been equaled since. If you aren’t familiar with “Sultans of Swing” or haven’t listened to it in a while, you should definitely check it out.
Record Mirror ranked the song tenth in its end-of-year countdown of the best songs of the year. In 1992, Life named “Sultans of Swing” one of the top five songs of 1979. In 1993, Paul Williams included “Sultans of Swing” in his book “Rock and Roll: The 100 Best Singles”. The song is on The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll list, Dire Straits’ only appearance. In 2006, Mojo included “Sultans of Swing” in its list of the 50 best British songs. The song’s guitar solo reached No. 22 on Guitar World‘s list of the greatest guitar solos and No. 32 on Rolling Stone‘s list of greatest guitar songs.