Dire Straits’ 10 greatest guitar moments, ranked

The finest guitar cuts from Mark Knopfler and co as they charted a course from pub band to stadium-selling rock superstars.

Dire Straits

Dire Straits. Image: Rob Verhorst / Redferns

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There’s something weirdly romantic about Dire Straits – a band that managed simultaneously to be among the biggest rock bands of all time, while at the same time not really being a rock band at all. The wonderful thing about Dire Straits is that they were born from the pub scene – in many ways Sultans Of Swing could be autobiographical. For a while, they were the band blowing dixie and doing alright thank you very much, the band who were too sensible to be rock stars, the band with a council worker on lead and a former timber sales exec on bass.

And yet they were also the band that sold 100 million records and produced one of the great live albums ever made. It’s that tension of bombast and unassuming humility that make Dire Straits special… that and the fact that Mark Knopfler is one of the most important, unique and influential guitar players of all time.

Here are the best guitar cuts from the Sultans’ enviable back catalogue

Sultans Of Swing (Dire Straits, 1978)

That driving chord progression, that clucky Strat tone. This is the song that put Dire Straits on the map, their manifesto, and in truth nothing they wrote afterwards touched it. This might be the quintessential Mark Knopfler guitar display, adorning the song with his trademark licks through the verses and providing two rollicking solos with that fingerpicked tone no one has ever quite replicated.

Did you know?

Knopfler originally wrote Sultans on an acoustic guitar with a different melody but changed it up when he got hold of a Strat and found that he could bend three strings at once.

Money For Nothing (Brothers In Arms, 1985)

TikTok has recently claimed this track as the ultimate score, something that improves any video clip. You can hear why. The throaty, wah’d Les Paul tones crunch through after those ethereal opening vocals from Sting, making this the Dire Straits song with the most attitude. Mark Knopfler singing “hoover mover” with such feeling is one of the best ad libs of all time.

Did you know?

Sting’s iconic opening vocal on the song was included largely by accident. The band were recording in Montserrat when the Police frontman, enjoying a windsurfing holiday, came to visit. They showed him Money For Nothing, and he was such a fan they persuaded him to feature on it.

Romeo And Juliet (Making Movies, 1980)

Alternative tunings are a pain, but when done well they can be spectacular. This is Knopfler fingerpicking in a more conventional way, plucking a hopeful tune from his trusty National in open G and singing a romantic if cheesy vocal over the top. There’s not an awful lot going on compared to other songs on this list, but it is quite lovely.

Did you know?

In the cult classic Edgar Wright film Hot Fuzz, Romeo And Juliet is played on Timothy Dalton’s car radio when he drives past the site of the death of a pair of thespians who had portrayed the star-crossed lovers in an am-dram production the previous night.

Brothers In Arms (Brothers In Arms, 1985)

The song starts with storms and thunder in the soundscape, and the tone feels so natural it’s like another elemental force coming into the song. The star here is the tone. Volume control, subtle drive and even subtler delay eek out riffs that sit elegantly in the mix. The way Knopfler toys with a lick and brings it up again and again throughout a song is demonstrated beautifully here.

Did you know?

Its often forgotten that Dire Straits were at the forefront of technology in the 1980s. They were among the first bands to appear on MTV Europe and created the first computer generated music video. Brothers In Arms was another breakthrough: it was the first song to be released on CD.

Down To The Waterline (Dire Straits, 1978)

The first track on the first Dire Straits album. This list is not short of great Strat tones and great intros. The first riff here though, breaking through after 20 seconds of atmospheric fog, is guitar music at its most dramatic and its most expressive. Knopfler talked so much better with his Strat than he ever did with his mouth. It’s the subtlety that does it, a few notes here, a hint of delay over the cymbals and then we’re away. In truth, the song dies away here as the verse starts and it falls into a pleasant but forgettable ballad. It’s Sultans without the urgency. There are lovely flourishes and quick fingerpicking throughout, but the intro is the undoubted highlight.

Did you know?

The waterline in question was the bank of the Tyne where a teenaged Knopfler walked with his then girlfriend. Despite making his name with the band in Deptford, the guitarist’s work has always been filled with nostalgia for his native North East.

Telegraph Road (Love Over Gold, 1982)

There’s something fantastic about the scale of Dire Straits’ fourth studio album Love Over Gold. Its full of marathon songs that meander, and you feel the band is creating the music they want to make, rather than aiming for commercial success. They are choosing love over gold, if you will. Telegraph Road is the 14-minute centre piece of the album and features enough tones and licks from Knopfler to fill a song twice its length.

Did you know?

There is a real Telegraph Road. It’s a 70-mile stretch of highway in Detroit named after the wires that run down each side, some of the first telegraph wires in the world. Knopfler thought up the song from the bus while touring America. The first solo sounds like classic, Sultans Knopfler with its characterful bends and clean highs, but by the end of the guitar snarls and bites like on Money For Nothing.

Private Investigations (Love Over Gold, 1982)

This song is the best of the band as storytellers. It’s less a song and more a radio play, Knopfler’s raspy, spoken vocal dovetailing with a classical guitar that moves between mournful and tense as the narrator’s mind wanders. There’s also a generous helping of synth to remind us we’re in 1982. It feels like the songwriter is laying the foundation for his thoughtful, narrative solo work.

Did you know?

According to folk (rock) lore, Bob Dylan called the rhyme “Confidential information, it’s in a diary / This is my investigation, it’s not a public inquiry” one of the best of all time. We’ll have to take his word for it, but it is a very Dylan-esque song, and Dylan and Knopfler have worked together on occasion.

Once Upon A Time In The West (Communiqué, 1979)

What an intro. That riff creates tension and drama worthy of the films that inspired it. It’s Shadows-y but with a bit more grit, like if Hank Marvin turned his amp up and lost his plectrum. The lyrics aren’t great and it feels at times like the song isn’t really going anywhere, but who wants to go when there’s so much Knopfler Stratocaster goodness on show here?

Did you know?

This song works fine as a studio track, but the 13-minute live version on live album Alchemy is something else. The whole album is brilliant, but the tone on OATINW is one of the greats. Go to 6.30 for a minute and a half of reverby, second-position goodness.

Going Home: Theme Of The Local Hero (Local Hero, 1983)

Anoraks may tell you this isn’t a Dire Straits song- it was written for the Local Hero soundtrack and released on a solo album for Knopfler. We would counter the anoraks by saying a live version was a suitably guitar heroic climax to the legendary Alchemy Dire Straits live album. So there. This song is the undisputed sound of Newcastle – so much so that it’s still played before Newcastle United games at St James’ Park to this day. It’s a wonderful tune of rising hope and a melancholy that slowly falls away as the song builds. Knopfler has always understood the importance of drama and tension in his songs, and this song is one of the greatest examples of that. The live version comes with a roaring French crowd, giving the slow riff a Hendrix-at-Woodstock kind of feel.

Did you know?

Knopfler was nominated for a BAFTA for the Local Hero score, and Going Home has caught on in the sporting world even beyond his native Newcastle – Aberdeen, Tranmere Rovers and Burton Albion have all used it at games.

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