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October 26, 2021

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What Dick Dale Did

This article first appeared on Dec. 1, 1995.

Dick Dale has a professional history that spans thirty years, one that continues to bloom as his composition "Miserlou" becomes a modern classic, fueled by a prized spot in Quentin Tarantino's Oscar-winning crime epic "Pulp Fiction". Talking to the undisputed King of the Surf Guitar is much like listening to his music: both are irresistible forces, not to be restrained or regulated. Here, in his own words and delivered in the classic third person narrative, is what Dick Dale wants you to know about Dick Dale.

"Let me tell you what Dick Dale did to change the history of Rock and Roll. He came to California in 1954, met Leo Fender in 1955. The Stratocaster [guitar] had been out for about a year; the Telecaster had finally been perfected, after it had been out for few years, by a man called Freddy Tavares.

Leo was like an Einstein. He was a man who stayed up literally around the clock, trying to perfect something...that's the kind of man he was. And I've always been that way, looking at things, the way that they're built. I came up to him and said 'I'm Dick Dale, I've got no money, I've got no guitar' or something. He took a liking to me like another son, and he was like a second father to me. And he said, 'Here, take this guitar, it's been out a year-beat it to death and tell me what you think of it. Here's an amplifier to go with it.' That's the beginning, right there.

When I picked up the guitar and held it upside-down-backwards, and started playing it left-handed, he just about hit the floor. 'How do you do that? Why are you doing it that way?' I said, 'I started learning to play on a ukulele, and I get all me rhythm from Gene Krupa, the tribal sound of the drums of the natives of Africa. I developed all my rhythm in my left hand, and the book didn't tell me 'Turn the ukelele the other way, stupid, you're left-handed.' I just kept on stretching my fingers and couldn't figure out why my fingers wouldn't go that way, but they went that way, finally, and I've been playing like that.' [Krupa] got the biggest kick out of that...

"In [the Fifties], everyone was limited to the technology. On a scale of one-to-ten, no matter how hard you hit your instrument, or how loud you turned up the volume, you could only go to five on the Richter scale. The country players were playing very subdued, very sweet and nice and quiet, even the Les Pauls and everybody else. They could only play so loud, and we used to call them 'sit-down jobs,' where they just stood there, plunked, and did their thing. Nobody tried to blow down walls. So Dick Dale, being not a musician in the first place, tried to get the biggest, fat tribal sound...

"To make a long story short, he blew up over 48 amplifiers and speakers. So Leo stood in the middle of one of my concerts with Freddy Tavares and four thousand people and said, 'Now I know what Dick Dale's trying to tell me; back to the drawing board.' And he went back and created an output transformer that favored the highest mids and lows. It gave Dick Dale that warm sound he wanted to achieve. That's what I'm still playing through today. And that's how Dick Dale changed the face of Rock and Roll.

"Later on came Hendrix, to go into the feedback situation...but Dick Dale was the first to take quiet Rock and Roll and make it loud Rock and Roll. That's why Guitar Player magazine said, 'Take the King of the Surf Guitar title away from Dick Dale and you have the Father of Heavy Metal.' And now he's back.

"Dick Dale has never toured in his life, never cared about touring. Never mixed in with the world of musicians, 'cause he can't stand musicians. I like professionals; there's a difference. The thing is, I don't play to musicians, I play to the people; the grass-roots people. Grass-roots people made Dick Dale from the beginning, and they're making him again. Dick Dale is the oldest creature in history ever to be number one on KUSF San Francisco, the alternative grunge-rock station! [laughs]. They go 'Here's our top-hundred chart,' and I've never heard of one band on it, and Dick Dale's number one! And on top of that, Tarantino goes and takes 'Miserlou,' [Pulp Fiction] does over 100 million dollars, and we get a platinum album for a song I recorded in the fifties!

"Dick Dale was the first power-rock guitarist to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show; he was the first power-rock guitarist to sell out the Sports Arena in Los Angeles to fifteen thousand people. All these things have happened, and I've never toured in my life! I could care less! I just surfed all day long and lived with my lions and tigers, trying to preserve the breeds. I used to raise them, and all the different animals I could get, to protect them from poachers so our children could see them today.

"Groups like White Fang-is it White Fang?-uh, White Zombie...see, I don't know any of these things, don't know who these people are... My wife is 28, I'm 58; she keeps me from getting old-fashioned. So she knows all these groups, you know, the Ramones-Johnny Ramone has come to see Dick Dale play-Woody Harrelson...Dennis was really neat, all these groups coming to pay homage or say something. So, now I'm getting educated about what I should have known when I was eighteen: music is an attitude.

"Whether you're a writer or you're a performer or a photographer or whatever you are, you can either create with it or you can destroy with it. The average person doesn't know what an augmented ninth is, and neither do I, and I don't give a shit! I can't even play the scale, and that's that!"