Atilla Sulker | United States
On Saturday, March 16th, the world lost an incredible guitar hero and an incredible man who would inspire generations of guitar players, both directly and indirectly. Born Richard Anthony Monsour, Dick Dale, commonly referred to as the “King of the Surf Guitar”, would end up carrying the torch in pioneering the grinding genre of surf rock that became a groundswell in the early 1960s. Dale not only pioneered this new genre, but also the equipment that set the proper conditions for the genre to come about. Among these included the Fender Stratocaster and the very first 100-watt amplifier. Conventional amps at the time could not handle Dale’s thunderous signature style. He went through a multitude of blown up amplifiers before finally pioneering the more powerful amplifiers with music entrepreneur Leo Fender, eventually leading him to the Fender Showman amplifier.
Dale’s signature “surf” sound was a result of his use of heavy reverberation and oddly thick strings, along with very rapid tremolo picking. His strings were many gauges above those of the conventional guitar player and were strung upside down. The lowest pitch string would be at the bottom of the guitar neck, and the highest pitch at the top.
Dale also unleashed the fury of middle eastern and Spanish scales into the late 50’s/ early 60’s rock “n” roll centered America. Among those injecting the spirit of rock “n” roll into the music scene included Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Out of nowhere came this young Lebanese descent guitar player, juxtaposing both the edgy inclinations of rock and roll and the exotic sounds of the Arabian dunes. This juxtaposition captured the essence of surf rock, the music of the sea. Somehow the reverberated sounds of Dale’s strings constituted the slippery tides of the surf.
Dick Dale’s Lebanese descent, coupled with his uncle’s musical influence on him, who taught him how to play various middle eastern instruments, would lead Dale to explore the world in search of new, bewitching sounds. Dale’s Pulp Fiction classic Misirlou is actually an old Mediterranean tune dating back decades before Dale released his version. Dale transformed what was originally a very slow song, into a sonic boom. Dale’s songs Esperanza and Fish Taco, on the other hand, embody a strong Latin American sound. Dale has also recorded his own blistering renditions of such classics as Hava Nagila and Ghost Riders in the Sky.
A devastating cancer diagnosis, coupled with the coming British Invasion, put Dale’s career to a halt in the mid-’60s. Jimi Hendrix famously alluded to Dale’s deadly cancer in his song Third Stone from the Sun, saying “And you’ll never hear surf music again”. Dale’s surf rock career would revitalize in the ’90s, with the release of skull crushing albums “Tribal Thunder” and “Unknown Territory”. Dale released one final album in 2001, titled “Spacial Disorientation”. This may well be the best material he has produced to date, featuring punching tracks such as 3013DD and HMFIC, along with tear-jerking ballads such as Oasis of Mara and Belo Horizonte. It contains a lot of Dale’s beautiful acoustic guitar work as well.
While Dick Dale was the first to pioneer his craft, his particular take on surf rock was persistently the most developed and powerful. Many other surf rockers would go on to lead the genre towards slow and relaxed tendencies, quieting down the guitars and making the music ever so elegant. They would bring in tremolo bars to enhance the surf sound. Dale refused to let go of his animalistic tendencies. His raging guitar sound would not only be distinctive to his genre, but to his playing. No other surf rocker came close to the sound which Dick Dale harnessed. It was an uncompromising sound, ferocious and bitter, yet hauntingly captivating. He would need no tremolo bar. Dale referred to his playing in the early 2000s, saying “When I play the guitar, I do not play it like, so eloquently like Steve Vai, or Segovia, or Clapton, with their fingers. I play it like I’m chopping down a tree”. This was, of course, a reference to Dale’s loud and slightly out of tune sound, which would become his signature trademark. His intonation being off would also capture the microtonal nature of middle eastern music. Dale has said in the past that his wailing guitar sound was inspired by the roars of wild animals and the crash of waves at sea. He was an avid animal lover and owned everything from tigers to mountain lions.
Interestingly, Dale’s roots were in Hank Williams and country music. He acquainted with such country legends as Johnny Cash and Joe Maphis. Maphis himself was a “country shredder”, being able to run up and down the fretboard at lightning fast speeds which seemed unnatural for his genre. Dale would learn to play a variety of instruments besides guitar, including ukulele, drums, and trumpet. Despite being displaced in the mid-’60s by such giants as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix, Dale’s sound continued to remain on par with the sound of his new contemporaries in terms of loudness and force, in fact, he often surpassed their sound. Dale’s rapid tremolo picking and thick strings made him the earliest pioneer of shred and heavy metal. While it took nearly a decade for Tony Iommi to meld the devil’s interval with the hiss of his guitar, creating the heavy metal sound as we know it today, Dale laid the groundwork. From this foundation, many other genres would be derived besides shred and metal, including punk. While only other surf rockers can say they have been directly influenced by the King of the Surf Guitar, nearly every guitar player that followed him would receive at least a slight bit of indirect influence, whether this is embodied in the loudness and ferocity of their guitars, or in the exotic scales and lightning fast speed employed.
In late 2017, I had the chance to ask (30:45 in the video) legendary virtuoso guitar player Joe Satriani about his thoughts on Dick Dale and surf music. Satriani cited his indirect influence, as he would hear surf music on the radio as a young kid. He stated that there were particular songs which he really enjoyed. These songs “would stir something in me, and because I was so young, I wouldn’t really understand it”. He concluded his remarks saying, “they paved the way..”, a likely reference to the fact that Dale’s sound pioneered shred and loudness.
Among other things, The King of the Surf Guitar was a philosopher and a truly great human being. He was open about his health problems and wanted to connect to people who were dealing with similar issues through his music and concerts. He was relentlessly against the use of drugs and alcohol, and never smoked or drank in his life. His mastery of martial arts was a coping method for the pain he endured through his endless health problems. He would share little stories on stage about various moral lessons- work hard, help old ladies cross the street, etc. He would tell his band not to play to musicians, but to play to people.
There was just something about Dale that one picks up on through watching his concerts and interviews. There was a great deal of legitimacy in his character. We gain an instant connection with him. He was no Ozzy Osbourne or David Lee Roth, and never signed to a major label in an attempt to “boost sales”. In fact, he abhorred the idea of signing to big labels and believed in teaching oneself how to market. In regards to adhering to this philosophy, Dale said: “and that’s the reason why the system hates Dick Dale”.
Dick Dale was an everyday Joe who embodied the old American spirit of work hard, play hard. A man who held pride in the fact that he built his success like a business, slowly, step-by-step. Dale could have easily sold himself to corporate executives running music labels, but he refused to. He gave up a potentially lavish life in a successful attempt to keep his dignity. When the temptations are ever so strong, keeping a grip on one’s honor becomes tough, but Dale did not give in. He fought like a warrior until the end. And if there is one thing everyone reading should get out of this, it ought to be understanding Dale’s character and persistence in keeping it.
Dick Dale’s Legacy
We should all set him as a role model, whether we are musicians or not, whether we enjoy surf rock or not. He was a daring pioneer, a man who truly enjoyed nature and life, and a man who had been through the wood chipper. Dale went through multiple occurrences of cancer, among other life-threatening health issues, yet he still loved living. If we ever feel like we are in a deep hole, or something is just not going right in our lives, we ought to reflect back upon the life of Dick Dale. Fight till the end! Be an innovator! Don’t give in! With that being said, I hope The King of the Surf Guitar is rockin’ up in guitar heaven, along with Ronnie James Dio, Jon Lord, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Lemmy!
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