“I don’t come on stage to pose and play some pyrotechnic scales. It’s to kick some serious ass. I rip my guts out when I play. My fingers hurt so bad when I’m pulling on the strings, but I do it because that’s where the sound comes from. No pain, no gain.”
So proclaimed Dick Dale, best known as the King of the Surf Guitar and, alternately, the Father of Heavy Metal. The legendary musician and inventor passed away on March 16 at the age of 81 at California’s Loma Linda Medical Center. While the cause of death was listed as heart failure, for many years Dale had been experiencing a multitude of health problems, including renal failure, rectal cancer, diabetes and a damaged vertebra. His battle with cancer required him to have part of his stomach and intestines removed, and, subsequently, to wear a colostomy bag under his pants. He dealt with all this while touring at an advanced age to raise $3,000 each month for medical supplies not covered by insurance. (In an all-too-familiar scenario, his widow, Lana, revealed that the guitarist received no assistance from anyone in the music industry. After his death, a GoFundMe page had to be created to cover his funeral costs.)
Dale literally played for his life. Fittingly, it was a life that, from the beginning, was filled with music.
He was born Richard Anthony Monsour in Boston on May 4, 1937, to a mother from Eastern Europe and a father of Lebanese descent. He played a variety of instruments in his youth, including piano, trumpet, ukulele and traditional Middle Eastern instruments like the oud and the tarabaki “goblet drum.” In the beginning, he was inspired by big-band acts, as well as traditional Lebanese music, but rock and roll eventually made an impact on him. When Richard was in his teens, his family had moved to El Segundo, California, and at the age of 17 he took up surfing.
By then, he had settled on the guitar as the instrument with which he’d build his career. A lefty, he slung a right-handed gold Stratocaster (dubbed the Beast) that he played flipped over, with the low strings on the bottom. This unusual approach led to him at times playing with his fingers reaching over, rather than under, the fretboard. Early on, he played local country joints, where a performer by the name of Texas Tiny suggested he change his name to the more American-sounding Dick Dale.
In 1958, backed by his band, the Del-Tones, Dale began to release vocal-led singles on his own Deltone label. Stylistically similar to popular teen music of the time, the records made little impact. It wasn’t until he released his guitar-instrumental debut, “Let’s Go Trippin’,” that Dale found chart success. The song is widely considered the first surf-rock instrumental and is credited with launching the early 1960s surf-rock music craze.
But it was Dale’s 1962 single “Misirlou” that put him and his guitar sound on the map. His unorthodox take-no-prisoners style of performing incorporated rapid-fire alternate-picking, often on the low strings. Amplified and treated with heavy reverb, the technique would become not only his signature sound but also the defining sound of surf rock. The surprise success of his 1962 debut album, Surfer’s Choice, led to a contract with Capitol Records in 1963. Dale’s influence on rock and roll came to the forefront that year, undoubtedly inspiring such classics as the Surfaris’ “Wipe Out,” the Chantays’ “Pipeline” and the surf instrumentals of the Ventures. The Beach Boys, who had opened for Dale when they were still unknown, covered both “Misirlou” and “Let’s Go Trippin’” on their Surfin’ U.S.A. album in 1963, with 16-year-old Carl Wilson replicating Dale’s blistering guitar leads.
But it all came crashing down the following year when the British Invasion arrived on U.S. shores. Capitol’s newest signing, the Beatles, were dominating the charts, and in early 1965, Dale was told his services were no longer needed.
Although Dick Dale never became a household name, he’s an acknowledged influence on the likes of Eddie Van Halen, Johnny Ramone and Jack White, and is revered in guitar circles for his pioneering work with Leo Fender on the Stratocaster guitar and Dual Showman amplifier. His popularity got a boost in 1987 when he teamed with Stevie Ray Vaughan on a newly recorded version of “Pipeline” for the movie Back to the Beach. Seven years later, Dale’s profile reached new heights when filmmaker Quentin Tarantino included “Misirlou” on the soundtrack of Pulp Fiction.
“Quentin came to me and said, ‘I’ve been listening to your music all my life,’” Dale recalled. “‘From the power that you play, I see a movie. I don’t make a movie first and then put the music in. I make a movie from what I hear.’ So when he invited me to watch an advance screening of the movie with executives from Universal Studios, while the credits were rolling, my guitar was blasting away.”
As with his initial surf-rock recordings of the early ’60s, Dale’s renewed popularity was once again short lived. He recorded only three more studio albums, the last one being Spacial Disorientation, released in 2001. Through it all, Dale kept touring, playing mostly small clubs to appreciative fans. Even when he was in ill health at his last show in January, Lana said, “He came out onstage as usual, blasting away.”
Idiosyncratic in his music and lifestyle — at one point he kept 48 species of wild animals, including lions and tigers — Dale was proud of his legacy and complained that journalists twisted his stories. “I know what we did, and a lot of these so-called writers weren’t even born when Dick Dale was doing what he was doing,” he said. “Were they in the room when me and Leo and Freddie Tavares were creating what we were creating?”
I had the opportunity to speak with Dale in 2017. In this interview, the man himself has the final word about his remarkable journey.
What initially attracted you to music?
When I was very young, I would play drums on my mother’s flower cans. Then, a little later, I picked up my first ukulele.
When did the big-band influence come in?
Very early as a teenager. I first picked up a trumpet because I wanted to sound like Louie Armstrong and Harry James, but, more importantly, I wanted the picking of my guitar to sound like Gene Krupa’s rhythm on his drums. So once I achieved that type of picking, I wanted it to come out of a speaker, but in those days they didn’t have speakers that could reproduce that sound. What was needed was something more powerful, but at that time, the output transformers were only 10 to 15 watts at best, with speakers that were about nine or 10 inches maximum.
How did you first meet Leo Fender?
It was out in California in 1955. I was only 18, Leo took a liking to me and became like a second father. He was a very quiet man. He was really a genius, an Einstein, but he was very unpretentious and also didn’t like gimmicks. He hated stereo. At that time, the Stratocaster was only about one year old. I told him, “I’m a surfer. I got no money, but I can help you with the guitar,” and he said, “Okay, take this guitar, beat it to death, and then tell me what you think of it.” So I became the testing machine, not only for the Strat but for other instruments he was working on.
What was the local music scene like when you started performing?
There was a place called the Rendezvous Ballroom in Orange County. The first night I played there, it was just 17 surfer friends of mine in a hall that held 4,000 people. After a while, through word of mouth, I started filling the place. People used to line up on the sidewalks to try to get in. Leo would say to me, “Why do you have to play so loud?” and I’d say, “Well, when the first 500 people come in, their bodies start soaking up the sound.” Also, don’t forget, besides only using little amps without any microphones in front of them, there were no real stage monitors in those days. So the first time Leo came to see me play, after standing in the middle of 4,000 people, he finally said, “Dick, now I understand what you’ve been trying to tell me. Back to the drawing board!”
That’s when you and Leo started working on something that radically changed the way rock guitarists could be heard.
Yes. Together we created the very first transformers that went up to 100 watts, peaking at 180 watts. It was like going from a Volkswagen to a Testarossa. [This ultimately led to the creation of the Fender Dual Showman.] Before that, transformers in those days only favored either the highs, middles or lows. This was the first time we made one that could reproduce all three.
The steel-guitar ace Freddie Tavares was also a big help to what you and Leo were creating. He had a hand in the Stratocaster and Bassman amp designs.
Freddie was a popular Hawaiian steel guitar player who recorded some of the most famous Hawaiian songs. Leo hired him to take all the bugs out of the Telecaster, and while I was helping to perfect the Strat, I put in the Dick Dale five-position switch. [Dale, along with Buddy Guy and Otis Rush, was an early proponent of using the in-between switch settings of the Stratocaster’s three-position pickup selector. The company didn’t actually place the five-position switch on the model until 1977.]
And you and Leo also increased the thickness of the Strat.
Yes, because we figured out, the thicker the wood, the fatter the sound. If you could put strings and a pickup on a telephone pole, you’d have the purest sound in the world. Also, most guitarists back then were playing on light-gauge strings, so they could bend them, like James Burton was doing.
But you never relied on them.
No, and I was using .016-, .018-, .020-, .039-, .049- and .060-gauge strings. The thicker the string, the fatter the sound. So it was a culmination of the transformer to the speaker to the new three-feet-high [speaker] cabinets we made, plus the thickness of the guitar and strings, that gave me that big fat sound that replicated the sound of Gene Krupa’s drums. Then, I just imitated the sounds of my lions, my tigers, all my jaguars, hawks, eagles… When my lions would roar, I would just imitate that on my strings.
You were probably the first rock guitarist to use a lot of volume onstage.
People like Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly were playing through little tiny amps. Link Wray wasn’t playing loud. He didn’t have the power. Duane Eddy didn’t have the power. None of these people played loud. So who created the Dual Showman amp? Dick Dale. That’s history. When I would be playing fairs, the Ventures would open for me, and they asked me to promote their Mosrite guitars.
How did your trademark reverb sound come about?
I was singing Hank Williams songs in a rockabilly style, and my voice did not have a natural vibrato. I needed something to sustain my voice like a piano, which is my favorite instrument. So Leo and I made all kinds of things, like [tape delays], but nothing worked.
What happened was, I had a Hammond organ in the house, and there was a button that [was labeled] Hammond Reverb. I took the organ apart, gave that part to Leo, and said, “Leo, this is it!” We made a separate tank with three tubes in it, and when I plugged in my Shure [Model 55] dynamic birdcage microphone, which was the same as Frank Sinatra used, I sounded just like Dean Martin. Then after two weeks, I wondered what it would sound like if I plugged my guitar into the tank, and that’s how it started.
When did you start recording with reverb?
The surfing sound of Dick Dale in the beginning, was a heavy, machine-gun, staccato sound, which had no reverb till we stole the idea from the Hammond. My first album, Surfer’s Choice, which sold over 80,000 copies — that would be like 4 million today — had absolutely no reverb on it. Period. The heavy pounding you heard was from the heavy-gauge guitar strings.
Les Paul, of course, was Leo’s main competitor, but I understand it was really a friendly rivalry.
Les actually gave Leo a great help, a push, the whole works. Les and I were great friends. We used to play the big guitar conventions. He and Mary Ford made beautiful music together, and like Leo, he was a creator and an innovator of music, but his music was never really an influence on me.
What memories do you have of Jimi Hendrix?
Jimi said he patterned his style after Dick Dale, same as Stevie Ray Vaughan. When I first met Hendrix, he was just a wide-eyed kid, very soft spoken, very humble, a really nice person with a good soul. But then he got into drugs and all the peer crap around him. I wish I could have been around to straighten him out.
I’m sure when Hendrix released the song “Third Stone From The Sun” on the first Experience album in ’67, many people probably interpreted the line, “Never hear surf music again” as a putdown of the Beach Boys and that type of music. But according to you, that was not the case.
It was back when I was first diagnosed with cancer, and for first time I had to cancel a show and was given three months to live. At one of Jimi’s recording sessions, one of his musicians told him he heard that I was dying, and that’s what Jimi’s statement was referring to. [Dale was diagnosed with terminal rectal cancer in 1965 and underwent successful, but aggressive surgery. His weight reportedly dropped from 158 pounds to 98.]
You’ve been very critical of musicians in some of your past statements. Any particular reason?
I don’t like most musicians, and I don’t hang with them because most of them have an attitude. They act like jerks onstage and don’t give young people a good path to follow. I tell kids, “When you start getting good on an instrument, and this group comes along and wants you to work with them, you think, Wow! I’m gonna be a star. You start riding with them on tour, and they’re all doing coke, smoking marijuana and all that crap, and you start thinking, I guess I should start doing that with them, because if I don’t they’ll fire me.”
It’s easy to get coerced into that way of life. My wife, Lana, and I have never used drugs. We don’t eat red meat. We don’t smoke. I have a T-shirt that says, “Your body follows your mind.” Don’t be so weak in the mind that you’re gonna put something in it that will kill you.
There must be musicians you’ve worked with or met that you admire.
I like people who are professionals and show up on time. I used to use people like Glen Campbell, [guitarist] Rene Hall, [saxophonist] Plas Johnson and [drummer] Hal Blaine on my sessions. Fats Domino used to come see me play in the early days. I’d play him some blues on the guitar, and he’d look at me and say, “Dick Dale. You sure got some black blood in you, boy!” [laughs] Ritchie Valens was a really nice kid. We were doing a concert at the old Long Beach Arena, and he had just finished his big hit “La Bamba.” The kids were just thrilled with him, and he goes, “Dick, what do I do now?” I pushed him back onto the stage and said, “Go back out and do the same song again!” and he was great.
Any contemporaries of yours that you consider special?
Charlie Daniels is, to me, the greatest, greatest soul. I get chills just talking about him, and he can play everything. I was sitting with Charlie during an induction ceremony at the Musicians Hall of Fame Museum in Nashville, where you have to be voted in by your peers. They were also inducting Chet Atkins, and his son was accepting the award. I said, “Charlie, what in the hell am I doing here?” And he taps me on the shoulder and says, “Son, most people can’t do what you do, so just keep doing it.” [laughs]
How do you feel about being known as the King of the Surf Guitar?
I used to make fun of being called that, but some writers like yourself would say to me, “Don’t knock it, Dick! There are not too many people that can claim to be the king of something. Elvis is the King of Rock and Roll, and you’re the King of the Surf Guitar.” All right, that’s fine, but in Spain, where they have me on the cover of all these heavy metal magazines, they call me the Father of Heavy Metal, or the Father of Loud. They say that I was louder than Motörhead. So what would you call that, except heavy metal?
But do you think those titles have typecast you when your musical influences are so diverse?
Well, let me give you an example. In business, that can really hurt you. Right after so many people heard my music in Pulp Fiction, I did a concert in New York, and the place was packed. Then, six months later, I came back to the same place with a different broker, and it was only half full. I said, “What’s going on?” and one of the guys working for the theater said, “Dick, come outside.” He showed me a poster that said, “Dick Dale King of the Surf Guitar.” So now we just advertise “Guitar Legend Dick Dale,” and we attract all kinds of people. Now I can play songs like “Esperanza,” which I wrote. I love Latino music. I used to sing Freddy Fender’s songs, like “Before the Next Teardrop Falls.” I’ll do Ella Fitzgerald, “Fever.” If I see someone with a cowboy hat, I’ll do something by Hank Williams. I do Deep Purple [sings the riff to “Smoke on the Water”]. So how can you call all of that surf music? If you want to encompass everything, just say, “Dick Dale. He’s a man who can play every kind of music on his guitar.”
How do you rate yourself as a guitar player?
I’d say, “Dick Dale is an entertainer.” I’m not a guitarist. I don’t know the first things about an augmented 9th or 13th. I just manipulate a guitar. But I do it with power — with “romanticity.”
What comes to mind when you think about your own mortality?
Everybody dies. It’s how you live that’s important, that you helped someone who needed help. [quotes] “I had the blues because I had no shoes, till I met a man who had no feet.” There’s always someone who has it worse, so I’m not going to feel sorry for myself. I just live for the moment, and when I die, it’s not gonna be in some rocking chair, with a big beer belly. It’s gonna be in one big explosion of body parts. One critic said, “The way he plays, he’ll probably take half the audience with him!”