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The wisdom of Dick Dale


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  • Dick on 41 Flathead

It’s been ten years since I started playing guitar with instrumental surf rockers The Madeira, and we’re hopeful that all the amazing experiences we’ve had so far have adequately prepared us for the big day. The day we will be opening for our biggest influence, the man who started the surf party in the first place: Dick Dale.

I recently had the privilege of conducting a phone interview with him, a stream-of-conscious conversation that sprawled in many unexpected directions. The first thing I realized during the two-hour conversation was that a conventional-style Q&A was never going to happen. Our exchange ebbed and flowed through a variety of moods, with topics of discussion ranging from his stint in the Air Force to bouts with cancer, the discipline of martial arts to his lifelong love of surfing. He gave marriage advice, mused on the existence of the paranormal, and explained why it’s better to be a jack of all trades than a master of one.

Despite his name being synonymous with the title ‘King of Surf Guitar,’ Dick Dale prefers not to talk about the genre (“No, not ‘surf music’ - ‘Dick Dale music,’” he balked upon first mention of it). He had nothing to say about the inclusion of “Misirlou” in ‘Pulp Fiction’ or the British Invasion that swept surf music out of the mainstream in the mid-'60s. At 77, he prefers to be home at his ranch in Twentynine Palms, California with his wife, Lana, and their exotic animals, than out on tour. Suffice it to say Dick Dale is a living legend whose watershed days developing a unique guitar sound and style defined what is now a time-tested, though perennially underrated, genre of music. What follows is a heavily condensed account of our conversation. 

Patrick: I appreciate your taking the time to talk. We’re really looking forward to seeing you in Indianapolis on July 22. My band, the Madeira, will be opening the show for you.

Dick: Oh, great! Hopefully I’ll be able to see you.

Dick and Elsa, his pet lioness - SUBMITTED PHOTO
  • Submitted Photo
  • Dick and Elsa, his pet lioness

Patrick: How did your signature sound - the sound of surf music - originate?

Dick: When you say “surf music,” here’s how it came to be in the beginning... I first was given a trumpet when I was in seventh grade. I listened to people like Louis Armstrong and Harry James. Gene Krupa was my hero, and that’s why I started playing drums on my mother’s flour cans and sugar cans with eating knives. My father would kick me in the butt and say “Don’t scratch your mother’s flour cans and sugar cans,” because I’d be listening to Gene Krupa, Glen Miller, and all those people on the 78 records. I learned those rhythms that Krupa had learned from the indigenous tribes. He would play those rhythms that tribes would bump their spears on the ground to, always on the “one.” That’s how I learned to play drums. And then I took that same rhythm and applied it to my guitar, where I would strum the same way. So the people would feel that rhythm that I was playing. Because musicians play to other musicians; the grassroots people who tap their feet on the “one” don’t know what’s going on, so they don’t clap the way the musicians play. I play directly to the people. And on any instrument I have ever picked up, I’ve played by ear. I went and played the same rhythms that Gene Krupa played.

I always loved animals, and I had over 40 different species of animals – lions, tigers, leopards, jags, eagles, hawks. You name it, I had it. I was raising them to protect them from being killed by poachers. These animals would call to me when they would see me coming home. I never just put them in little cages, they would run as they were in the wild. I would even have them in my house, my African lioness in the front living room. And I wouldn’t suggest people doing that, cause you’ll get eaten. [laughs] But they would call to me. I would hand feed them all. So I would do this with my elephants and my African lion every day. So with all the sounds of my animals, I would make it sound like that on my guitar. And it would sound like the scream of a Pterodactyl or a Tyrannosaurus. So that would be number two, where my sound came from.

Number three would be the ocean. When I moved to California I became a surfer, and then I went to Hawaii and stayed there for many months when I was performing. I would be in the water from sun-up to sundown. Even in the night I was surfing. I would only come out of that water once, to go get a root beer float.

So, when the waves would take me or when I’d bodysurf, the waves would just pick me up, chew me up, and spit me out. And I’d be unconscious, because when we would land, it’s only 6” of water of sandy beach in Hawaii. I’d wash up on the shore like a beached whale. But that sound is what I incorporated also. So when I had my first concert with Leo Fender, I went to Balboa, California, and then I started surfing. So when we opened up the ballroom at Stan Kenton that was the last act that was there, and they were going to tear it down, and I got permits to open it with my dad. It held 4,000 people. The stage was humongous and there were giant red curtains. I told the surfers I was surfing with, we had a club called the 5th Street Crew, and I told the guys I was going to be playing at a place called the Rendezvous, 'cause we had no money to promote. And the first group of people that came there were these surfers, about 17 of them. And they’re standing in front of me while I’m playing this guitar.

  • Submitted Photo
  • Dick Dale

Patrick: Almost synonymous with surf music is the name Leo Fender and the Fender Showman amplifier, which many of us still use today. Could you tell me more about your work with Fender?

Dick: I had heard about Leo Fender. I met him and he took a liking to me, like a son. Leo and I used to sit in this front living room on the floor listening to Marty Robbins on a little 8” speaker, it was just monaural. And that’s when we started designing the first output transformers that went from 10-15 watts to 180 watts. The JBL Lansing 15” D-130 speakers, I blew over 50 of his amplifiers, and he’d say “Dick, why do you have to play so loud?” And then we finally brought him down to the Rendezvous Ballroom. And by word of mouth, we had 4,000 a night.

Patrick: And then he understood what you needed.

Dick:He had Freddy Tavares from Hawaii, and he was his number one tester. He took all the bugs out of the Telecaster guitar. And when I met him, he said “Here, I just made this. It’s a Stratocaster. Take it and tell me what you think of it.” I held it upside down backwards and started playing it, and he never laughed. He looked like Einstein and was very serious.

Patrick: We’re both left-handed, but I play guitar in the traditional right-handed way. From what I understand, when you were learning to play, you didn’t restring the guitar for a left-handed player, in effect, learning to play upside down.

Dick: What happened was, as a child back in Massachusetts, I was reading a Superman magazine, and in the back there was an ad to sell so many jars of Noxzema skin cream, and we’ll send you this ukulele. I went out every night in the damn snowstorms; the snow would be so high you couldn’t go outside the front door. They’d say “Dickie is supposed to be in school.” And I says “Please buy my Noxzema skin cream.” And so I sold it, and I sent it in, and I had to wait about four months…

Patrick: And you finally got your ukulele.

Dick:And I finally got a ukulele. It just had holes with pegs in it and sawdust. And I just smashed it, I was so upset. So I took my little red wagon and a whole bunch of Pepsi bottles and went in and traded it, and I got $6. And for $5.95, I bought my first plastic brown and cream ukulele. It had screws holding the pegs in. They used to just fall out. And then I got this book and couldn’t figure out why my fingers wouldn’t go where the book said for them to go. And the first song that I ever learned was “Tennessee Waltz.” It was because my left hand had all the rhythm, playing the knives on my mother’s flower cans to Gene Krupa. And all the rhythm was in my left hand. So I just went and started taping my fingers where they were supposed to go, and I’d go to sleep at night thinking the fairy godmother would come along and make my fingers go there like they’re supposed to. And I learned those three chords.

Patrick: I picked up the ukulele a few years ago too, and it’s a lot of fun. When did you pick up the guitar?

Dick:I would go out picking swamp berries in Whitman, Massachusetts, where my grandma and grandpa lived, and one day my buddy and I were walking through the back swamp woods; it was like ‘Deliverance.’ We heard this noise and saw this old house. We stepped up on the porch and the front step collapsed. There was about five guys inside…and they were selling hollow-bodied guitars. And I said, “Wow, look at those guitars! How much?” And then he said “eight bucks.” At that time, I was working for five cents an hour at a bakery making bread. I says “Can I make payments?” and tried to get him down to 25 cents a week. He says, “No, 50.” I had 50 cents, gave it to him, and then he gave me the guitar. On the last payment, he saw me on the street and grabbed me by feet and held me upside down and shook. And he shook out whatever money came out of my pants (laughs). It was enough for the last payment, and I got that guitar, and it was an Ethel guitar. And then I had to hold it upside down, backwards, the way I would make the chords. And then I started strumming country songs, Hank Williams stuff.


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