Play Like Dick Dale

LONG HAILED AS THE INDISPUTable King of Surf Guitar and the Father of Loud, living legend and American icon Dick Dale never actually set out to define a genre—that was left to the throngs devotees who followed in his wake.
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Long hailed as the indisputable King of Surf Guitar and the Father of Loud, living legend and American icon Dick Dale never actually set out to define a genre—that was left to the throngs devotees who followed in his wake. A true individualist who claims Hank Williams as his only musical idol, Dick Dale simply played what he heard in his head, and when his proximity and connection to the California beach scene put him in exactly the right place at exactly the right time, Dick Dale’s bigger-than-life guitar sound became the model for hordes of imitators.

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The King set the record straight in the September, 1994 issue of GP: “Dick Dale created the surfing sound. Others played surfing songs. Often, my songs had nothing to do with surfing, but they had the surfing sound the way I played it. The guitar was the surfing sound. I played every song I could get my hands on, every kind of music, because I was an entertainer. I performed what the people wanted to hear. I didn’t realize that I was creating a sound. I played the way I felt. I called it surf music at the time because that’s the feeling I had when a wave came crashing down on me. Now, I think more of animals when I play. Like the power of my tiger, or the whine of my mountain lion, or the rage of an elephant.”

Besides singing up a storm, teaching himself to play piano, drums, trumpet, sax, and harmonica, as well as fomenting a musical movement that still resonates today, the short list of Dick Dale’s accomplishments, credits, and antics over the last half century (!) includes crazy, early-’60s co-billings such as the time he appeared as the first rocker to play live on The Ed Sullivan Show along with singer Kate Smith, heavyweight champ Sonny Liston and the Three Stooges. Add to that a string of trendsetting records, features in Life and Newsweek, an endearing penchant for speaking of himself in the third person (as in “Dick Dale is the father of loud!”), and the habit of introducing himself by asking, “What did Roy Rogers do?”

Essential listening entails a good chunk of Dick Dale’s early catalog, including Surfer’s Choice (1962), King of the Surf Guitar and Checkered Flag (both 1963), Mr. Eliminator and Summer Surf (both 1964), and Rock Out with Dick Dale and his Del-Tones: Live at Ciro’s (1965), but newcomers can find many key tracks compiled on Dick Dale: Greatest Hits 1961-1976, which contains re-recordings of many of his early standards.

Following the demise of the surf craze in the mid ’60s—the Beatles took care of that in short order—Dick Dale slipped out of the limelight for the next 15 years. He began performing again during the early ’80s, and subsequently released another critically acclaimed string of albums, including Tribal Thunder (1993), Unknown Territory (1994), Calling Up Spirits (1996), and Spacial Disorientation (2001). Dick Dale’s music has also been featured in such films as 1987’s Back to the Beach, in which he appeared onscreen playing “Pipeline” with Stevie Ray Vaughan, and the 1994 blockbuster Pulp Fiction, which reintroduced “Miserlou,” an early hit, to a new generation. Dick Dale continues to perform with his son, Jimmy, who acts as both band member and opening act. His super-clean, familyoriented lifestyle, which embraces a vegetarian diet, yoga, and surfi ng, has certainly contributed to his longevity.

Like another King named Albert (see GP 511), Dick Dale plays left-handed without reversing his strings, so once again, most of us mere mortals must adapt this alien, flipped-over technique to our common righty world. Just remember that Dick Dale played all of the following rhythm figures, riffs, and licks upside-down—his low-E downstrokes are the equivalent of our right-handed upstrokes! So if you’ve ever considered Dick Dale’s music simplistic, you’re in for a big surprise. It takes a ton of technique and stamina, as well as specific gear guidelines, to emulate Dick Dale’s often imitated but never equaled style. It sure as hell ain’t easy, but that’s what we’re here for. First, you’ve gotta...


Dick Dale’s tools of the trade have remained consistent for more than fifty years, so there truly is only one way to authentically recreate—or at least come close to recreating—his monster tones: “The Dick Dale sound is achieved only by using a Stratocaster guitar with gauges .016, .018, .020, .038, .048, and .058 to .060, and a heavy pick,” professed Dick Dale in 1994. His revelations date back even further: “I’m an old fart about my equipment— I’ve had all of it since about ’57” (from GP 781). “All of it” includes “The Beast,” his famous, gold-sparkle Fender Stratocaster (which was replicated in the ’90s by the Fender Custom Shop), and a newer model nicknamed “The Beauty,” run through a Fender Dual Showman amplifier and outboard Fender Reverb unit, both of which Dick Dale helped foment. Dick Dale also modifies his Showman cabs with what he calls the “Dick Dale Kit,” which essentially involves retrofitting his vintage 15" JBL D-130F speakers with larger magnets, a larger voice coil, thicker wires, aluminum dust covers, and rubberized front rims. Of course, copping 100 percent of the Dick Dale vibe is nearly impossible, but we can sure have fun trying! Let’s hit the beach and...


Recorded by his band the Del-Tones in 1961, Dick Dale’s earliest signature instrumental “Let’s Go Trippin’” is widely considered the first surf-rock song. While it contained none of his soon-to-be trademark tremolo picking style (more on that in a minute), the song resonated with the California beach crowd and climbed the charts to #4 regionally, setting in motion a monster wave of spin offs. The tune is built on the reverb-drenched, all-downstroked intro figure illustrated in Ex. 1a, where Dick Dale alternates at first straight, and then syncopated roots and 5’s (E’s and B’s) with high-register E-chord stabs played on the backbeats, before launching the main I-chord riff.

Ex. 1a

Dick Dale adapts this simple, but highly effective raked E pentatonic lick to both the IV and V chords (A and B) over the course of a standard 12-bar bluesrock progression. The twangy, minor-second dissonances that follow the Illinois-Jacquet-meets-Chuck- Berry-style syncopations in Ex. 1b provide a great example of how Dick Dale spiced up his E-pentatonic-minor licks early on. Play this four-bar excerpt, inspired by “Surf Beat” (from Surfer’s Choice), as a breakdown punctuated only by rhythm section hits on the downbeats of bars 1 and 3, and use all downstrokes. Cowabunga!

Ex. 1b


Of course, Dick Dale’s most recognizable musical trait has always been his relentlessly rapid tremolo picking, a mandolin-style technique that involves, depending on the tempo-of-the- moment, dividing each beat into four, six, or eight alternate-picked repetitions of the same note. Dick Dale generally employs the technique as a way of sustaining notes, but he also uses it to create signature sound effects reminiscent of crashing waves or roaring race cars. Ex. 2a shows the three most common tremolo rhythms, so begin by getting a handle on each one using the recommended range of tempos. Notes don’t really matter at this point, but try starting with any frettednote on the low E string. Grip your heavy-gauge pick firmly and generate the alternate pick strokes from your wrist. Harder than it looks, isn’t it? (Tip: You may find it necessary to adjust your standard grip on the pick.)

Ex. 2a

Next, Ex. 2b depicts a half dozen rhythmic variations found throughout the Dick Dale catalog. Explore the application of each one to a twelfth-fret E as shown before incorporating other notes on different strings.

Ex. 2b

Finally, Ex. 2c shows two different ways to accent the same measure of straight sixteenth- notes, first with a 4x4 grouping, and then with a 6+6+4 configuration.

Ex. 2c

Study all of the above well, because any of these trem-picking patterns can come into play when it’s time to....


Conceptually, there’s another kind of “Dick Dale Kit” that can be applied to trem-picked melodic lines and riffs. In this case, we’re going to take the simple melody in Ex. 3a (Tip: think “Born to Be Wild”) and customize it with two different tremolo treatments.

Ex. 3a

For Ex. 3b, we apply trem-picking to only the first two beats in each measure,

while Ex. 3c features full-on, non-stop sixteenths. Be sure to explore all three tremolo rhythms at various tempos.

The “stop-and-go” picking in Ex. 3b is an important technique that dates all the way back to “Surf Beat.” Notice how the low-register riff in Ex. 3d utilizes trem-picking only for the quarter-notes; all eighth-notes are down-picked (as always) and receive their full value.

You can construct a reasonable facsimile of the entire 12-bar song form by playing Ex. 3d as written for bars 1-4, adapting it to the IV chord (A) by moving the same riff up one string for bars 5 and 6, repeating Ex. 3d for bars 7 and 8, and then inserting Ex. 3e’s V-IV (B-A) riff into bars 9 and 10 before wrapping it up with another single pass through Ex. 3d. Now, you’re ready to...


Dick Dale’s own terminology for his machine-gun tremolo picking (he even titled a song on 1994’s Unknown Territory after it) certainly lives up to its name. Dick Dale’s single most famous signature move has to be his semi-muted, trem-picked even glissandi up or down the low E string. To illustrate, try using Ex. 4a as either a one-bar pickup, or dropping it into the last bar of a song’s progression, which essentially creates the same effect. Next, Ex. 4b’s Terra Dicktyl intro riff comes on strong with non-tremmed, descending chromatic eighth-notes on beats one and three of each measure interspersed with trem-picked, open-E dotted quarters acting as pedal points.

When you hit bar 3, just keep the same pattern going for three measures, and then continue as written. Moving on, the two-bar C-minor-based melody in Ex. 4c combines syncopated “stop-and-go” trem picking in bar 1 with none at all in bar 2 for a cowboy vibe. (Tip: Move it up a string set to cover Fm, the IV minor chord.). Finally, in Ex. 4d, Dick Dale creates
exotic tensions over a loping Bo Diddley beat by sustaining a trem-picked F (note that thirtysecond- note tremolo rhythm) that rubs against the lick’s E root for seven beats. Trem-o-licious!


So far, we’ve concentrated mostly on Dick Dale’s lowregister riffage, but many of these moves can also be applied to the upper strings. (Tip: You can play any of the previous low-E string riffs on the high E using the same fingering.) Case in point: Ex. 5a transforms the trem-picked gliss from Ex. 4a into a screaming banshee wail simply by exchanging the sixth-string E with a nineteenth-position, double-stopped fourth interval, and adding a slide into beat one to enhance the overall effect. Ex. 5b resembles Ex. 4b, but here we’re descending chromatically on the first string while trem-picking two sixteenths per eighthnote and pedaling the open E (shades of Blackmore!). Dick Dale often sweetens his upper-register lines with diatonic harmonies, such as the south-of-the-border thirds applied to the IV-V (G-A) progression in Ex. 5c. Tremendous!


Much of Dick Dale’s repertory draws from out-of-theordinary exotic scales, and key among these would be the Phrygian mode (Ex. 6a), the Hungarian Gypsy scale (a.k.a. Byzantine or Double Harmonic; Ex. 6b), and the Spanish Gypsy scale (a.k.a. Phrygian Dominant; Ex. 6c). Here, we’ve illustrated each scale and its formula on the sixth string. Why only one string? As you’ll soon discover, Dick Dale often played exotic melodies on a single string (and sometimes over the top of the neck!), perhaps in order to maintain momentum at fast tremolo tempos. Note that while all three scales contain a b2, E Phrygian has a b3, and the other two have natural 3s. Play all three scales, with and without trem-picking, on both E strings in ascending and descending order, sequenced in thirds, and then improvise melodic lines of your own design. It’ll all come in handy in a few minutes. But first, you’ve gotta...


Named after the notorious Newport Beach, California, surf spot, “The Wedge” is a signature Dick Dale instrumental that features killer stop-and-go trem picking and shifting time signatures. The version transcribed in Ex. 7 comes from 1963’s Checkered Flag, and features a short, trem-gliss pickup before settling into a spaghetti-western-tinged melody derived from the A minor scale. Take note of the rests between the non-tremmed and trem-picked notes in bars 1 and 2, and the furious, single-note phrasing during the pairs of 64 and 44 measures that follow, including the ascending fourth-string gliss in the last bar. Drill the riff until you can run it without wiping out, but wait—you’re not done yet. You’ve still gotta...


“The Wedge” also presents a perfect opportunity to examine how Dick Dale changes things up on his numerous re-recordings of the same song. Contrast Ex. 7a’s version with the faster tempo, full-measure gliss pickup, absence of rests, ringy broken E5 chords, and double-stopped, upper-register tremolo gliss in Ex. 8 (from Greatest Hits 1961-1976), and it quickly becomes apparent that both versions are equally definitive.


If there’s one Dick Dale riff you’ve gotta know, it’s his rapid-fire take on “Miserlou,” an exotic song reportedly of Greek origin that dates back to the 1930s. With no less than four Dick Dale versions of the song available, we’re going with the one from Greatest Hits 1961-1976. The song illustrates the E Hungarian Gypsy scale in all its glory with a melody that utilizes every note. Ex. 9a details the opening phrase, which is played twice. (Tip: Try prefacing Ex. 8a with Ex. 4b or Ex. 5b, followed by Ex. 4a or 5a.) To complete the entire 16-bar melody, trem-pick this descending sequence of second intervals—C, B-C, B, A-B, A, G#-A, G#, F, E—set to three pairs of quarter-plus-eighth-note groupings, followed by two more quarters and two bars of trem-picked whole notes. Apply the same rhythmic and picking schemes to B, A-B, A, G#-A, G#, F-G#, F, F, and E, and it’s a done deal. Ex. 9b is an Am-G-F-Ebased breakdown figure framed by single rhythm section hits on the downbeat of each measure. Use the 6+6+4 tremolo accents from Ex. 2c (these become obvious in bars 5 and 6) for the entire riff, with the exception of the last bar. (Tip: Go back and apply these accents to the whole-notes in Ex. 7.) Finally, let’s solve the why-playit- all-on-one-string mystery: Once you’ve got “Miserlou” down pat, you can “hang five” and fret the whole deal over the top of the neck. Long live the King!