Mark Knopfler is more than just a great guitar player. He is a master musician, talented film composer, and keen sonic mind looking to stay on top of the newest technology. He was once even an MTV star, easily recognisable through his headband and pasty British appearance.
But now and until the end of time, Knopfler will best be remembered for his six-string skills. The former Dire Straits frontman was always a guitarist by trade, a singer and music video icon by circumstance, channelling his most potent emotions through his signature fingerpicking technique.
Whether it was through captivating bends, fuzz-filled rock and roll, or folky acoustic patterns, Knopfler always kept the guitar at the forefront of his singular compositions.
To celebrate the iconic axeman’s 72nd birthday, we’ve compiled five of the guitar solos that best exemplify the expressive power, uncompromising technique, and dynamic range of Knopfler’s guitar playing.
These are five solos that solidify Knopfler’s place among the guitar gods.
Mark Knopfler’s 5 best guitar solos
‘Sultans of Swing’
The solo that introduced the world to Mark Knopfler is also the one he will forever be remembered for. Everything about the fills and licks that were thrown into ‘Sultans of Swing’ positioned the Dire Straits leader as a master of the fretboard, but it’s the final solo that takes over in the song’s coda that made him an instant legend.
It’s all there: the fluidity of his fingerwork, the gradual increase in dynamics and intensity, the strong melodicism that carries through the entire piece. But it’s the bluegrass-style triplets right before the song’s fade-out that will forever be some of the most exciting and engaging guitar work ever put to tape.
Knopfler liked to stretch out the solo when performing live but always brought the house down with those stirring triplets.
Love Over Gold fully indulges Knopfler’s predilection towards long extended pieces that allow him to stretch out his guitar work to never-ending lengths. With only five songs, Dire Straits nevertheless barrel through forty minutes constantly ebbing and flowing musical drama.
Album opener ‘Telegraph Road’ is over 14 minutes long and goes through multiple passages, including a fair number of distinct guitar solos from Knopfler. Take your pick as to which one is your favourite, because they’re all quality. As ever, Knopfler gravitates more towards building tension and varying dynamics than flashy histrionics, letting his solos alternately cry solemnly and spit fire.
‘It Never Rains’
If album opener ‘Telegraph Road’ was as indulgent and progressive and Dire Straits could get, album closer ‘It Never Rains’ plays with the ideas of simplicity in composition and doing more with less. Knopfler takes the A major-E minor bridge progression and uses it to explore all kinds of theatrical lead lines.
Knopfler’s twangy and trebly lead lines take over in the song’s second half. They heighten the crumbling feelings of the song’s verses by translating all the heartbreak and frustration into a hair-raising rock and roll solo, complete with the bends and high notes that only Knopfler could pull off.
‘Brothers in Arms’
Fireworks were never really Knopfler’s thing. While he was fully capable of unleashing a flurry of notes when the mood suited him, Knopfler had the mind of an expert composer and arranger, dedicated more to the mood of a song than to shoehorning in his own virtuosity.
‘Brothers in Arms’ is the slow burn of all Dire Straits slow burns, and Knopfler’s solo is the closest he would ever get to absolute sonic perfection. Highlighting the profound power of the song as a whole, the solo in ‘Brothers in Arms’ doesn’t aim to blow you away but simply underscore the drama of the piece.
It still blows you aside anyway because Knopfler can’t help but produce a highly emotional performance.
‘Speedway to Nazareth’
Outside of his work with Dire Straits, Knopfler began focusing more on the interactions between instruments rather than the overpowering nature of his guitar solos. Whether it was through folk, country, or blues, Knopfler seemingly lost interest in the typical “verse-chorus-bridge-guitar solo” form that was his bread and butter for several years.
Just to illustrate his versatility and a newfound dedication to group composition, Knopfler plays his solo in ‘Speedway to Nazareth’ as a duet with violinist Aubrey Haynie, with the two trading lines before taking over for the song’s final minute. Even as he’s trying to blend in, Knopfler can’t help but stand out.