Which strings for the Sultans of Swing sound? – Comparing 010 and 009 strings

Listening to Sultans of Swing in 1979 was one of the reasons I started to learn the guitar. From this time on I wanted to get that magic guitar sound. One major component for a guitar sound is the right string gauge. I guess you all have heard about using heavier strings to get a fuller sound. On the other hand thinner strings are easier to play, and they give you a different kind of attack which can be nice as well.

For most of the big guitarists we know which brand and gauge they played during the different stages in their career. Of course we know a lot about Mark Knopfler’s strings, too, but unfortunately there is almost no information about his strings during the time of the original Dire Straits setup. And the guitar sounds of the first two albums are still the holy grail for many of us. Check this blog post for the earliest info we have, including the possibility that Mark played 008 strings.

I personally change string gauge periodically. After playing thin strings for some time I start to miss something and sooner or later I change to heavier strings, and with heavier strings the same is true so that I go back for thinner strings again.

This is why I recorded a video today in which I play the first Sultans solo with heavier and thinner strings for a side by side comparision.

I used a 1983 Japanese Squier Strat on which I installed the Sultans pickguard with the VFS-1 pickups. It seems Mark played a DiMarzio FS-1 (13k!) in the middle position of one of his two Strats  in early 1978, combined with a normal Fender pickup at the bridge. With the ‘Sultans’ pickguard I can switch each of the three VFS-1 pickups individually to the DiMarzio or Fender sound. This is great as with a DiMarzio in the middle I would get new sounds but at the same time would lose not only the normal middle pickup sound but also certain flavours of  the traditional bridge & middle sound. The same is true for a DiMarzio in the neck position – this is where Mark’s DiMarzio went to in October 1978. With the Sultans pickguard I have all these combinations, all normal Strat sounds plus any DiMarzio/DiMarzio or DiMarzio/Fender combination. 26 different sounds!

I put new Fender ‘regular’ nickel strings (010 -013-017-026-036-046) on the guitar and recorded the solo over the backing track. Then I changed the three unwound strings to 009-011-015 and recorded it again (with some subtle volume and EQ adjustments to match the differences). I left the bass strings so that I do not have to adjust the trussrod on the guitar and do a complete new setup. I did not try with 08 strings (008-011-014) as these should be similar to the 009s. If the 009s sound clearly better, I thought to examine the difference between a 008 and a 009 and a 014 vs. a 015 later.

I recorded the guitar straight through a treble booster into the mixing desk. You normally need a trebly amp setup (e.g. a vintage  Fender or a Jazz Chorus) with a lot of reverb for this sound, plus a little bit of chorus. I added these ingredients in the recording software, just for convenience. Of course I cannot get the original sound 100% this way, as it requires a tube amp, some good microphones, a great recording room,  a 1961 Strat, and more, but I was hoping to get something close enough to judge the strings.

So which string gauge sounds closer to the original sound? – I must admit I am lost a bit here. I first recorded with the 010 strings and felt that something was missing. With the 009 strings I felt it was better during recording. However, when I listen to what I recorded later I am not sure anymore…

Maybe you should judge for yourself. You can let us all know which you think is better with the poll below, or use the comment option below this blog post to share your thoughts.

Which strings sound more like the original - 010 or 009?

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7 thoughts on “Which strings for the Sultans of Swing sound? – Comparing 010 and 009 strings

  1. Ingo, please come and visit me in Australia one day. I’d love to just hang out and play rhythm while you play what your heart tells you! I love his blog!

    1. 🙂
      It is really nice to have people who read and like my blog, and who you sometimes actually meet for a chat or a jam one day.

      1. Hey mate never doubt the people that love what you do. It’s worldwide and we REALLY appreciate the authenticity you promote, rather than just ‘fan love’.
        I was a champion to get this website linked on AMIT, but it’s not for my benefit, it for the people who want a true appreciation of the MK genius. That’s the work you do. Thanks Ingo.

  2. Hi There!

    The 009 gauge sounds better in this case.
    I Believe that MK plays 009 strings during that time. That “thin” sound, in my opinion, came from 009 strings.

    I play Sultans with 011s and using only the middle pickup. I have an “copy” of the Mark’s Black Pensa with Emg pickups but this pickups are not real fat, so the 011 gauge give me an “extra punch”.

    Keep the excellent work!


  3. Hi Ingo,

    thanks a lot for this (as usual) excellent blog post! Much appreciated.

    I cannot decide which string set sounds better.
    The sound of the 010 strings is rather full … more than the 009 strings.
    The 009 strings however are definitely more “singing”, which reflects Mark’s style of these days very much.

    If just a combination of both of these aspects would be possible …

    But I think, concentrating on those two aspects, I would prefer (just a really, tiny little bit!) the singing 009 strings …


  4. Been playing guitar myself since the late 70s. And this is a song that has also inspired me. Most of my 40+ years of playing I’ve used 9s on my guitars (12s on acoustic). For a brief time I did use 10s. 10s are noticeably harder to play but they do have a bit more body and sustain. Mostly due to the overall higher tension of the strings.

    However I would like to point out that there were 2 versions of the song “Sultans Of Swing”. The original single released to radio (here in Australia anyway) had Mark using both the bridge and middle pickup for his lead playing. The single also omitted the “Then a crowd of young boys” verse as the song was too long for radio play. But occasionally they did play the full version of the song with all verses included.

    The version you’re referring to is the album version. Why he used the middle pickup only when he re-recorded his lead parts for the album version is beyond me. Personally, I like the middle and bridge pickup combo better.

    By the way, great job on the sound you got for both gauges of strings! And without an amp too. Most regular folk would not be able to tell the difference in my opinion as it’s so minute. If the sound is close enough, and you capture all the nuances (of Knopler’s style)  with your playing, then I think you should be happy with it.

    One last thing. I have searched myself over the years as to what gauge strings Mr Knophler uses. And I was surprised to find out that apparently he used 8s on all his guitars until he switched to 9s in the 90s when he went solo.

    1. Only twice I used his surname in reference in my last post. And both times I got it wrong!
      Sorry Mr Knopfler…

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