King of Surf Guitar: Dick Dale

| posted on May 19, 2010

Dick Dale's iconic album Surfers' Choice. According to Dale, the cover of this album was shot at the San Clemente Pier by SURFER Founder John Severson.

Dick Dale's iconic album Surfers' Choice. According to Dale, the cover of this album was shot at the San Clemente Pier by SURFER Founder John Severson.

“You’ll Never Hear Surf Music Again. That’s a Big Lie” – Jimi Hendrix

Surf music. The concept is quite a paradox, no? Especially in contemporary terms where many professional surfers have record contracts and therefore must inherently be creating surf music, right? While that might be debatable, less debatable is the origin of “surf guitar” – the staccato pulse of a 60-gauge nickel wound E string creeping around double harmonic scales – the kind of quickening that kicks off Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 cult classic Pulp Fiction (Misirlou) and inspires a new genre of music: surf guitar.

We caught up with Dick Dale, the now 73-year-old cancer survivor and peer-appointed King of Surf Guitar, to hear stories from the battlefield. And remember the Hendrix quote, “You’ll never hear surf music again?” Well, according to Dick Dale, “That’s a big lie.”

When you first picked up a guitar what did you want to sound like?

Hank Williams.

I actually first picked up an ukulele before I picked up a guitar. I was reading a magazine when I was a little kid, probably about twelve years old, and an ad said that if you sell so many jars of Noxzema skin cream we’ll sell you a ukulele. So I went out and banged on doors in the snow in Quincy, Massachusetts where I was raised and I sold the skin cream. I saved up the money and sent it in and waited about four months until I got it, and it was made of compressed sawdust. It was horrible. I got so frustrated I threw it in the garbage can.

You were stamped with the title, King of Surf Guitar. What do you think “surf music” is?

Well, what it is, is the meaning of the sounds of the waves – like the echo and the sounds of the tube when my finger would be in the wall and I could hear it go, “Chhhhhhhhhhh!” And I’d take my strings and go, “Weeeeeeer!” And then you get that rumble just before you’re going to be flung over – you know – right before you’re going to go over the fucking falls and get slammed down. That rumbling and all that stuff like that they associated the heavy Dick Dale staccato picking tk-tk-tk-tk-tkt on those strings – it sounded like the barrel of a goddamn wave.

Surfers were the ones who named all my songs. They’d yell out the names, and we just kept ’em. “Let’s go trippin’, man.” Let’s go trippin’ down to see Dick Dale. That’s what that meant. “Surf beat.” That’s the beating of the surf. When my guitar was growling playing surf beat, you could hear it; you could feel it. And that’s what caused surfers to call me King of the Surf Guitar, because they felt that what they were hearing, what I was playing it related to the ocean.

Where did you first start surfing? Where was your spot?

When I was 18 at the Santa Ana River Jetty is where I put my first board in the water that I ever got from Joe Quigg. I was just riding the whitewater in and I was just in heaven. I became addicted to the point where I would be out there from sun up to sundown. I wouldn’t do anything else.

Leo Fender helped specifically design amplifiers with you to accommodate your style and sound. Apparently, you kept blowing them up. That had to be a good feeling: blowing up amplifiers.

Nobody played loud, because there was no reason for them to play loud, so Leo 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 fifty of his amps. 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.

So [after coming to one of my shows and figuring out what I was talking about] Leo stayed up all night and created what he called the Dick Dale output transformer, the first transformer that peaked at 100 watts, and he called the amp the Showman.

I’ve read that you have never used alcohol or drugs, which certainly defies the public’s perception of surfer stereotypes.

Like I give a shit what they think. Everyone has their opinions and everyone would say to me, “I can’t believe you went through the whole hippy scene and all that stuff without taking drugs.” Alright, I smoked cigarettes, and then I quit smoking when I couldn’t talk properly anymore and my lungs filled up and they sounded like a fucking ocean. So I quit smoking, and when I quit smoking I stopped hacking immediately. I just quit cold turkey, and then it took about three or four months for my lungs to clear. For your record, my dad never drank and was very strict. He’d kick the shit out of me if I did something wrong.

I read that when Jimi Hendrix said, “You’ll never hear Surf music again,” that was in reference to your battle with cancer. Is that true?

You know what’s so funny? Why didn’t they say the rest of his sentence? Do you know what the rest of the sentence is?

No, I have no idea. What is it?

I had never missed a gig in my life, and I had a temperature of 104, and I couldn’t even talk…and had got hit real bad with rectal cancer. Jimi was recording in the studio and said, “I heard Dale did a no-show. That’s not like him. You know?”

His guitar player said, “No man, he’s dying.”

They had given me three months to live.

Then Jimi said, “You’ll never hear surf music again.” And then he said, “I bet that’s a big lie. Let’s pack up, boys, and go home.”

That was the full f–king sentence.

So what’s next for Dick Dale?

As I say, I’m dealing with the cancer thing and I don’t give a shit what cancer thinks. I’m going to play my goddamn guitar and that’s all there is to it. I’m going to make people happy. I’m going to make them forget about their cancer. I’m going to make them forget about their diabetes. I’m going to make them forget about all their pains and all their bullshit.

That’s what my music does for me. It makes people happy. When I play I thank the Lord I’ve never seen someone walk away from a Dick Dale dance not having a good time. That’s what it’s all about.

Any parting words of wisdom?

What is really is powerful that came from the monks is this:

Thoughts become words. Now, a monk never allows a thought to become a word – that’s why they live in silence, because the word that destroys everybody is perceivablitiy. What we perceive things to be when they come out of our mouth is not what the listener perceives it to be. They think it differently. They’re not your blood. They’re not your mind. You get in an argument. But that’s the earthling for you. So you have to walk this earth on that little brick road and pick the bricks you want to walk on. But to the earthling, thoughts become words, so be careful. Words become actions, be careful. Actions become habits. Oh, what a shame! Habits become character. That’s a bigger shame, and your character becomes your destiny.

  • whamo

    God bless Dick Dale, the Surfer’s Choice, everybody had that album back in the day.

  • Berkley

    Dick Dale is amazing. I just saw him in Phoenix last month and it was the greatest show I had ever seen. Period. If you have never seen him live, run to his next show. You won’t be disappointed. He does things with a guitar I didn’t even think were possible.

  • revolutionsurfer

    I own that LP.

  • Fred Rawlins

    This man really cooks and he can surf! One day in the 70’s I played music with him at the El Capitan Beach Sate Park in Santa Barbara County; after surfing there all day. My best friend at the time, guitarist and surfer Rick Gregory knew him. We three jammed in BATHROOM BUILDING RIGHT ABOVE THE TIDELINE, BECASUE OF THE ACUSITCS, FOR ABOUT AN HOUR. WE CAME OUT TO A GOOD SIZED AUDIENCE OF MAYBE 50 PEOPLE AS IT WAS SUMMER. HE WAS A HUGE STAR THEN and STILL A REALLY FUN AND FRIENDLY GYE! His son Prince SHREDS and DICK’S is amazing on the guitar! Great video clip I remember it cause I’m 56, I was 12 then and it’s right when I started playing the guitar. My latest trip to a studio, less than a week ago, at Did I also mention he’s a good influence in some ways! The statement about character is dead on.

  • MIk

    A free spirit amongst free spirits. Thnx Dick. Wise comments too……….. Klassik.

  • Zach

    Dick Dale is the man! He’s part of the heart and soul of my band, The NoSeRidErS! Check it out here!

  • http://google sue

    Wow!!! What memories this has brought back through the “clouds of smoke”!! I worked at the Rendezvous back in the early ’60s….Dick Dale, The Righteous Brothers, The Ventures to name a few. Dick Dale rocked the house!!! He could take you on a big wave with his guitar sounds, and stoked-ed-ness!!! Thank you to the king of surf music for allowing me to return to the (good ‘ol days in my head). I feel very blessed to have lived in Newport Beach back in the day. BTW-was unable to get out to Cali for Rick and Ann Chatillion’s premiere of “Living it Forever” at the NBFF. Am holding my breath, as if just taking off on one of the “Wedge’s” 18’ waves and tuck and rolling out of the breaking into 6″ of water, for the flick to come out on DVD. On my knees, and bowing- Amen, Mr Dale!!!

  • Dave

    I had the pleasure of seeing Dick Dale (with and without the Del-Tones) many times since the late 70’s). Most memorable was at Trancas in. My now ex-wife was about 6 mo’s pregnant with my older daughter (rockin’ in the womb). Dick had the full band, female back-up singers and horn section, even joined by Brian Wilson. During a break we went over to his table to get an album signed, he had us all sit down and hang out just BSing about life. Thanks for the best advice Dick, buy real estate, it served me well. Oh, and my older daughter now 19, has the T-Shirt in 80’s day glo from that night.

  • John Oxarart

    This past January I ran into Dick at the NAMM (music) Show in Anaheim.We talked for quite a while,and towards the end of our conversation he was telling me about what he’d been going through (cancer treatment, and it didn’t sound like much fun). His head seemed to be in a really good place. He told the doctors ” I’m gonna play my guitar–let me know when I’m gonna die”. I like his attitude–great guy! J.O.

  • george wiliams

    god love you Dick Dale,you’ve brought so much jot in my life with your music!!




    I saw in at the Trade Winds in Wagonwheel in the mid 70’s. the dude made the palm’s sway.

  • dick dale

    Thank you Zach and Surfer Magazine for taking the time sharing my life’s bits and pieces with old and the new.

    Yes, they are my Medicine and they are my Family…. always will be…. Surfs Up…. dick dale

  • seasidetiki

    Dick, see you in Solana Beach for the Fiesta in a few weeks. Good to have you back.

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    I smoked for a long time and stopping was literally impossible. I used all of the quitting gadgets but not one worked for me. Then I saw the electronic cigarette. The electric cigarette uses a nicotine juice that has nothing but nicotine. No smelly smoke at all. They have actually saved my life.

  • Gina Gunzelman Hawkins

    Hi, Dick:

    Welcome to Gainesville next week! My dad shaped and sold boards in his Gunzi Surf Shop in Ocean City Maryland in the early 60s. He was born in 1928 and passed away in 1974. Last year he was inducted posthumously into the Surfrider Foundation Surfing Hall of Fame. We felt privileged by the recognition of “Papa Gunzi” as he was one of Hap Jacobs (Jacobs surfboards of California) contemporaries and sold Jacobs surfboards along with my dad’s custom-made surf and skateboards in our shop. And you know we were listening to Dick Dale and his Del-Tones in O.C. Also, surf movies EVERY night in the summer and watching my parents dance at The Beachcomber Lodge. 🙂

    See you at the Double Down for your concert on April 19 in Gainesville. We have a couple of friends, Don David and Friends band, that play an awesome version of Pipeline (they even played it at a friend’s wedding in the 70s). They play that night at Sandy’s Place and probably can’t make the concert. Too bad. Excellent guitarists, probably the best Gainesville has to offer now that Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench left with Tom Petty.

    Warm regards,
    a.k.a. Little Surfer Girl (or wahini)

    P.S. Surf’s Up! exhibit of the early years of MD and DE surfing begins at O.C. Museum on June 20, 2012. We donated a longboard and a bunch of photos. Great nostalgia.


    Any one know what happened to Rick Gregory surfer gutarest?

  • getreal

    I’m interested to know who was Hendrix’s guitar player? Sounds like a lot of has been crock to me,Dick!