King of Surf Guitar: Dick Dale
“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?
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.