Dick Dale - King of the Surf Guitar
Created | Updated Mar 26, 2009
Dick Dale was born Richard Monsour on 4 May, 1937, in Boston, Massachusetts1. Considering that Dale is the son of a Lebanese father and a Polish mother, it might seem strange that this guy from the East Coast USA would some day be known as the 'King of the Surf Guitar', and generally be credited for creating a style of guitar-playing so unique and original that it defined its own musical genre. Surf music (particularly the instrumental kind played by Dick Dale) inspired the invention of a type of guitar amplification and sound that thousands of rock bands were influenced by. If it wasn't for Dick Dale, guitars would have probably never become as loud as they have, and air-guitarists would be relegated to playing the air-sousaphone instead.
Whether or not you know who Dick Dale is, chances are you've heard him play. If you've ever seen Quentin Tarantino's film, Pulp Fiction, you may not have realised that the opening track is none other than one of Dick Dale's more popular and recognisable surf guitar tunes, called 'Miserlou'. People like Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan were fans of Dale, and were influenced by his style. To understand why Dale's playing is so unique and catchy, why he was so well known then all but forgotten until the 1990s, and why his hardcore fans relish in using the moniker 'Dickheads' to describe themselves2, it is necessary to go back to where Dick himself went, way back in 1954 to El Segundo, California.
But before all that, way back in Massachusetts, Dick had sold Noxema brand skin cream door-to-door in order to earn enough to pay for a ukulele he'd seen advertised on the back of a Superman comic book. When he succeeded, it turned out the product was a complete piece of junk, which Dick smashed up. Undaunted by that fiasco, he gathered up soft drink bottles to take to a local store where he sold them back. Using this money he bought a much better ukulele, and learned music by Hank Williams3 and developed a Gene Krupa-style of strumming4. That is part of what made Dick's style so original, the combination of old country and western music with folkish ukulele playing. Another big part of it was the fact that Dick was born left-handed - not knowing what else to do, Dick learned to play the ukulele upside down, without changing the strings around! This might not sound too hard for a ukulele player, since ukuleles usually only have four strings, but when Dick finally bought his first 6-string guitar (an acoustic at this time), he was baffled by the extra two strings. Sticking with what he knew, he played ukulele chords and muffled the bottom two strings. By teaching himself to play other instruments (like the trumpet, which he plays on 'Miserlou' as well as others), Dale was free to develop his own methods and style, which obviously lends a great deal of originality to his work.
Dale's musical career started out with his winning an Elvis Presley sound-alike contest in downtown Los Angeles. In the mid 1950s, Los Angeles was just starting to experience some massive changes that would dominate the growth and attitude of the area for years to come - cars were very much in fashion, and everyone was driving in to burger joints in the day, and out to concerts at night. Surfing was just starting to catch on, too. It was around then that Dick (who'd never had any formal musical training) became interested in the electric guitar.
It might seem strange then, that arguably the most original guitarist of the 1950s and 1960s got his start by imitating what was surely the world's best-known popular musician at the peak of his career. After that success, Dale's father thought it was time for his son to take his playing seriously and encouraged him to record in a studio. Dale recorded a Rockabilly song for his dad's record label, Del-Tone Records. This effort garnered modest interest, but was still not quite what Dale had set his heart on.
The Invention of Surf Guitar
Dale was under the influence of Southern California - or perhaps more accurately, he was spending time surfing the waves at the SoCal beaches. While all this recording was going on, Dale began to attempt to re-create on the guitar the incredible feel - both physical and emotional - of riding waves. His surfing buddies took notice of this, and being equally impressed with his surfing abilities as his guitar playing abilities, they dubbed him 'King of the Surf Guitar'. This name was not given to him by record companies to market him - there was no such thing as 'surf guitar' or even 'surf music' before Dale5.
Dick had, by now, gained a huge amount of fans, particularly among the rapidly growing clan of Southern California surfers. On a fateful trip to Balboa - a Southern California surfing area just south of Huntington and Newport beaches - Dale discovered the Rendezvous Ballroom. This was a massive ballroom that had recently been driven out of business by the decline in popularity of ballroom dancing and so it was now being rented out for events. This presented the perfect opportunity for Dale to get his music 'out there'.
The Legend of the First Guitar to Go to 11
After a few rough starts and some opposition about the dangers of 'devil music' and of kids dancing to music without wearing ties and long skirts, things eventually worked out between the surf-rockers and the community and Dale was soon playing to 4000 people a night, an unheard-of figure at the time. Several of Dale's early surf guitar instrumentals were inspired by the people who came to his shows, from how they danced ('Shake-n-Stomp') to how they talked ('Let's Go Trippin'). Some other well-known bands used to attend Dale's shows, such as The Beach Boys (before they created their own brand of surf music), The Ventures, The Righteous Brothers, and even guitar legend Jimi Hendrix6. Hendrix spent some time after one of Dale's shows asking a few questions and talking about guitar stuff; perhaps it was this that started influencing Hendrix's own style of playing with extreme volume, as both Dale and Hendrix shared the characteristic of playing incredibly loud for their time.
A Need for Noise
By now Dale was playing to large crowds but he had a real problem getting heard! Guitar amps at the time were very low-powered by today's standards. About 20 - 30 watts was usually more than enough to be heard in a crowded bar, and guitarists at the time rarely turned volume knobs above three or four in order to avoid distortion; a concept that may seem completely foreign by today's rock guitar standards. Dick Dale ran those poor little amps up to 10, which would melt them, and still wanted more power. Around this time, Dale turned to his friend, the legendary Leo Fender.
Dale presented Fender with his problem; he was attempting to perform to thousands of people and was routinely blasting his amp to hell. He'd fry amps and speakers both, often to the point that they'd catch on fire. Fender was amazed at this (not to mention that Dale was playing his Stratocaster so well upside down!) and developed the largest transformer ever used (until some years later) in a guitar amplifier. Dale's specially-designed amp was packing 85 watts (100W peak, which is about where Dale played it all the time) but created a new problem; they now needed a speaker that could handle all that power. Fender and Dale went to the James B Lansing speaker company (aka the JBL company) to design a speaker that could harness this extra power. A 15" speaker was given to Dale, and the Fender 'Single Showman Amp' was born. Eventually, this became the Dual Showman (or Twin Reverb as the new 're-issue' amplifier looks like today), a two-speaker amplifier. This amplifier had an even larger transformer developed by the genius Fender, an incredibly powerful 100-watt 4-ohm transformer that peaked at 180 watts, which is very powerful even by today's standards. The Fender Dual Showman is perhaps one of the best and most well-known hard-rock guitar amps in history, and even though CBS bought the Fender Company in 1964, the new corporation did not obtain the secret behind this output transformer - Leo Fender took it to his grave, never selling it to CBS.
Back in Southern California, Dale was a legend. By the early 1960s, his national popularity began to rise, and by 1962, with a hit on the Billboard Top 100, he was truly the King of Surf Guitar. Dale single-handedly inspired an entire genre of music based on his own style of rapid strumming, musical keys and styles that were blends of popular Middle Eastern keys and Country and Western (though it's sometimes hard to hear this influence with modern country music in our ears), and very loud guitars drenched in reverb. Although a heavy, wet reverbed guitar sound is a large part of what many associate with surf guitar, it wasn't part of the style until later. Dick Dale actually started using lots of reverb to help out his voice; Dale had very little vibrato in his natural singing voice, so he sang with a birdcage microphone through a reverb box and suddenly had tons of vibrato. Not long after that, he got the idea to plug his guitar through the reverb box, thus introducing an unforgettable demension to the whole surf guitar genre and put the final touch onto what defines the sound of surf guitar today.
The British Invasion Puts Surf Rock on the Rocks
It was 1964 when Dale's career took a major blow (nationally speaking) due to the arrival of British groups such as The Beatles. But Southern California fans were not as fickle as the rest of the nation as a whole, and Dale continued to enjoy popularity alongside the music of the rockers from across the pond. Over the years, many things happened in Dick Dale's life, including a bout with colon cancer which prompted him to quit smoking and gain a whole new outlook on life. Dale became an outspoken activist for clean oceans, and continued to tour relentlessly. Eventually, Dale's career began to climb back into the limelight, and in 1987 with the recording (done with the late, great Stevie Ray Vaughan) of an old Chantay's surf instrumental called 'Pipeline' for a the film Back to the Beach, Dale seemed to be slowly regaining some of his old glory. The latest confirmation that his career is coming back around is his recent contract with Hightone Records, and particularly 'Miserlou' being included in Pulp Fiction. Tarantino was himself a 'Dickhead', and is said to have been inspired by some of Dale's work to write the award- winning script.
Today, Dale is still touring, enjoying life, and acting like he's 30 years younger than he really is. He puts on one of the best, most fun, and still one of the loudest shows around. Dale's young son even tours with his dad, playing the drums as if he was born to, which he probably was. Dale's bloodline seems destined for musical talent. It is strongly recommended that if you lives anywhere where Dale's playing, there should be no hesitation in deciding to drop everything and 'go trippin' down to see him - he's that good. To see some tour dates, check out the Official Dick Dale Website.