Surf guitar patriarch Dick Dale returns to Harrisburg’s Abbey Bar at Appalachian Brewing Co. tomorrow night. This interview with Dale ran in the July 2012 issue of Fly Magazine.
Few musicians – if any – have played the guitar faster, louder or longer than Dick Dale. “The King of the Surf Guitar” forged new musical paths in the 1960s with his fast-paced strumming and surf rock sound.
He has played and worked with some of rock’s biggest icons, including Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash and Leo Fender. Yet to date, he’s not a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The omission doesn’t completely bother Dale, however, who says it’s “12 people sitting around a table” making the decision of who’s in and who’s not.
But to label Dale simply as an amazing guitarist is to discount the 75-year-old’s lifetime of other accomplishments. He’s an entrepreneur, a surfer, a cancer survivor, an amateur architect (he designed his parents’ former home, where he now resides), an Air Force veteran and a pilot (he even has his own airport).
Today, when he’s not on the road, Dale lives a quiet life on his 100-acre ranch in the desert of California, surrounded by open space and wild animals. He still follows the same philosophy and life regimen he’s adhered to for most of his life – practicing martial arts and completely shunning drugs, alcohol and red meat.
Dale is also a man who doesn’t mince words. He typically avoids interviews because he says writers like to create their own mythology and language pertaining to his life. But he does love to tell his own story.
“People say, ‘When Dick Dale’s talking, he talks forever,’” he says from his home in Twentynine Palms, CA (our phone interview lasted for more than an hour and a half). “Yeah, ask me what time it is and I’ll tell you how to build a clock. One day I’m going to write a book and say, ‘This is the way it really was, stupid.’”
Many of the current rock history books list Dale as being born in Beirut, Lebanon (having a parent of Lebanese descent), when in fact he was born in South Boston on May 4, 1937. He was the first rock guitarist to ever appear on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1963 – well before The Beatles’ legendary performance. He helped pioneer new technologies in music, including the Fender Stratocaster and some of the most powerful amps of the time.
Dale experienced a re-emergence of popularity when his version of the song “Miserlou” was featured in the classic 1994 film Pulp Fiction. Today, he still puts on the same full-energy show that he did when he was playing to sold-out audiences in the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, CA, in the ’60s. Dale says every night is a different show. He never uses a set list and will often insert songs into other songs to keep audiences on their toes.
To create the sound he envisioned back in the ’60s, Dale enlisteded the help of a musical innovator – Leo Fender, founder of Fender Musical Instruments and maker of some of the world’s most reknowned guitars. Dale and his father tracked Fender down one day in the late ’50s and knocked on the door of his California home.
“I said, ‘Leo Fender, my name is Dick Dale. I’m a surfer. I’ve got no money. Can you help me?’” he says. “He took one look at me and said, ‘Here, take this guitar and tell me what you think of it. I just made it.’ That was the world-famous Stratocaster.”
Because Dale was left-handed, he picked up the guitar and started playing it upside down, and Fender started laughing. That was the beginning of a relationship that would last for decades, as Dale’s unorthodox playing style and passion for music impressed Fender.
Sounding more like a mechanical engineer than a guitar player, Dale is quick to rattle off the technical details of the equipment he was using at the time. Fender went to work designing special speakers and amplifiers that could handle the intensity of Dale’s loud rock sound, including the first 85 watt transformer.
In the early days, Dale blew out more than 50 amplifiers, burning them on stage by running them loud and hot. “I smoked up so many speakers, it’s ridiculous,” Dale says. He even burned up the monitor speakers at the Royal Albert Hall in London when he played there in the early ’60s.
“Leo had an old saying – ‘When it can withstand the barrage of punishment of Dick Dale, it’s fit for human consumption,’” he says with a laugh.
Meanwhile, Dale was doing some experimentation with instruments on his own – even putting piano strings on his guitar to get a fatter sound.
The guitar, however, was not Dale’s first instrument. He first learned to play a ukulele that he bought after saving up money from selling jars of Noxzema skin cream door to door in Quincy, MA.
He got the ukulele in the mail, and it turned out to be a piece of junk made out of pressed cardboard. He smashed it in frustration, and decided to cash in soda bottles to buy a plastic ukulele for $6. The first song he learned was “Tennessee Waltz.”
When he was 11 years old, Dale moved with his family to California, where he immediately took up surfing. He also honed his musical talents, playing the guitar, drums, trumpet and other instruments.
By the late ’50s, Dale landed a gig on a popular TV program, “Town Hall Party,” where he played with some of the biggest country stars of the time, including Lefty Frizzell, Gene Autry and a young Johnny Cash. Eventually, Dale traded in his love for country for the sounds of rock and roll, pioneering the surf rock sound emulated by the likes of the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean.
In the early ’60s, he found another young musician playing bass with Little Richard in a bar in Pasadena. That musician turned out to be Jimi Hendrix, and the two guitarists built a friendship, with Dale showing Hendrix some of his slide guitar techniques.
Hendrix’s former drummer, Buddy Miles, used to open for Dale on tour dates. “Buddy would get on stage and tell the people, ‘There wasn’t a day that went by that Jimi didn’t say he got his best shit from Dick Dale,’” Dale says.
Hendrix even partially dedicated his song, “Third Stone From the Sun,” to Dale when he learned Dale was battling cancer for the first time in the ’60s. Hendrix wrote the line,“You’ll never hear surf music again,” in his honor. Dale still covers the song at his shows today.
More than three decades after meeting Hendrix, Dale came across another cultural icon – director Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino met up with Dale after a show, telling him he had been listening to his music for years and was inspired by his song “Miserlou.” At the time, he was starting to work on a new film, Pulp Fiction, and wanted to use the song as the main theme. The song became synonymous with the movie.
When young guitarists come to him for advice on playing, Dale takes a very Zen approach: “Thoughts become words, words become actions, actions become habits, habits become your character, and your character becomes your destiny,” he says. “Figure that out.”
Catch Dick Dale at the Abbey Bar (50 N. Cameron St., Harrisburg) on Friday, July 25. 7 p.m. doors. $25/$30. 21+. Advance tix here.