Dick Dale, “the King of the Surf Guitar,” has died at the age of 81.
California Rocker first reported that Dale died Sunday. His bassist Sam Bolle confirmed Dale’s death to the Guardian. No cause of death was revealed, but the guitarist suffered from health issues in recent years. In 2010, Dale said he was battling rectal cancer, and in an interview that went viral, Dale said in 2015 that “I can’t stop touring because I will die” due to medical expenses stemming from cancer treatment, diabetes and renal failure. “I have to raise $3,000 every month to pay for the medical supplies I need to stay alive, and that’s on top of the insurance that I pay for,” Dale said at the time.
As the progenitor of the surf rock genre and an innovator who helped stretch the possibilities of the electric guitar, Dale inspired musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, Ry Cooder and the Beach Boys. Dale’s “Miserlou” also notably featured in the opening credits sequence of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.
Born Richard Monsour in Boston in 1937, Dale first played ukulele and then guitar as a child; Dale’s father, with Lebanese roots, taught his son the Middle Eastern scales that would later form the backbone of surf music.
After moving to Southern California as a senior in high school in 1954, Dale developed an obsession of surfing, ultimately combining his two passions and teaming with the Del-Tones to create tracks like 1961’s “Let’s Go Trippin’,” considered the first surf rock song, and the following year’s “Miserlou,” Dale’s take on an Eastern Mediterranean song; the Beach Boys would cover “Let’s Go Trippin’” two years later on their 1963 LP Surfin’ U.S.A.
Dale defined surf music as “that rumbling and all that stuff like that they associated the heavy Dick Dale staccato… it sounded like the barrel of a goddamn wave” in an interview with Surfer.
Dale was also recruited by the Fender company to test drive and help improve their instruments and amps; thanks to its association with Dale, the Fender Stratocaster became the go-to guitar for surf rock, with Dale’s signature golden Stratocaster dubbed “the Beast” a gift from Leo Fender, who custom-made the guitar for maximum volume.
“Nobody played loud, because there was no reason for them to play loud, so Leo [Fender] gave me one of his amps and told me, ‘You go beat it to death, and tell me what you think of it.’ And I started blowing them up, and they would catch on fire. I blew up over 50 of his amps,” Dale told Surfer in 2010. “He would say, “Why do you have to play so loud?” but when I put it on stage, the people’s bodies would soak up the sound because I wanted my guitar to sound like Gene Krupa’s drums.”
Jimi Hendrix, like Dale, would play his Stratocaster left-handed. Eddie Van Halen would later cite Dale and surf music as one of his prime inspirations, with the Van Halen guitarist modeling his method on Dale’s quick-picking. Stevie Ray Vaughan, another disciple, would team with Dale on a cover of the Chantays’ surf classic “Pipeline” in 1986; the rendition would be nominated for Best Rock Instrumental Performance at the 1987 Grammys.
Dick Dale, Surf Guitar Legend, Dead At 81~ NPR
Dick Dale, the surf rock pioneer who took reverb to new levels, died on Saturday night. He was 81. The guitarist’s health had declined over the past 20 years due to a number of illnesses, including diabetes, kidney disease and rectal cancer. The news was confirmed to NPR by Dusty Watson, a drummer who worked and toured with Dale between 1995 and 2006, who says he spoke with Dale’s wife, Lana Dale. No cause was given.
Dale, born Richard Anthony Monsour in 1937, changed the sound of rock and roll in the early 1960s when he upped the reverb on his guitar and applied the Arabic scales of his father’s native Lebanon. Born and originally raised in Massachusetts, he found his aesthetic when his family moved to Orange County, California in 1954 — where he took up surfing.
His high-energy interpretation of an old song from Asia Minor, “Misirlou” (Egyptian Girl), became the most famous song of surf rock: He had learned the tune from his Lebanese uncles, who played it on the oud.
“I started playing it,” Dale, who had started out as a drummer, told NPR in a 2010 interview, “and I said, ‘Oh no, that’s too slow.’ And I thought of Gene Krupa’s drumming, his staccato drumming… When we went to California, I got my first guitar, but I was using this rocket-attack, Gene Krupa rhythm on the guitar.”
Dale’s collaborations with guitar inventor Leo Fender also made sonic history. “I met a man called Leo Fender,” he told NPR, “who is the Einstein of the guitar and the amplifiers. He says, ‘Here, I just made a guitar, it’s a Stratocaster. You just beat it to death and tell me what you think. So when I started playing on that thing, I wanted to get it to be as loud as I could, like Gene Krupa drums. And as I was surfing, when the waves picked me up and took me through the tubes, I would get that rumble sound.”
Fender and Dale also worked together on amplifiers, Dale told Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross in 1993. “I wanted to get a fat, thick, deep sound,” Dale remarked.
Fender kept trying options, but Dale still wasn’t satisfied. “We kept on making all these adjustments with output transformers, with speakers,” Dale told Fresh Air, “and that’s how I blew up over 48 speakers and amplifiers. They’d catch on fire, the speakers would freeze, the speakers would tear from the coils … So he went back to the drawing board came up and invented the Dick Dale Showman amplifier, and the dual Showman amplifier with the 15 inch Lansing speaker. That was the end result … along with the creations that we did on the Stratocaster guitar, making it a real thick body because the thicker the wood, the purer the sound.”