From country to punk, from rockabilly to blues, from pioneering some of the most important sounds and modes on the most influential instrument of the last century, Dick Dale was a guitar god, a cultural icon, the soundtrack to generations of fans, and a forger of the future of all American music art forms. And now the “King of the Surf Guitar” is gone. Dick Dale passed away on Saturday, March 16th at the age of 81.
Richard Anthony Monsour was born in Boston, Massachusetts on May 4th, 1937 to parents of both Lebanese and Polish descent—a fact that would later go on to influence his music. After moving to Quicy, Massachusetts, he learned how to play piano at the age of 9. But his first significant music influence was Hank Williams. Dale he saved up returnable Coke bottles to buy a ukulele and pursued becoming a cowboy singer, with the first song he ever learned on the uke being “Tennessee Waltz.”
Later Dick Dale began to learn to play guitar in both lead and rhythm rolls to make up for not having drums to accompany him, which would go on to influence his later style, as would his exposure to Arabic music through his family heritage, including the tarabaki drumming style that would influence his rhythmic, alternative picking technique. In eleventh grade, Dale’s father took a job working for Hughes Aircraft, and he moved with his family to El Segundo, California. At the age of 17, Dale learn to surf while also pursuing guitar, and soon all of the influences were meshing together to make the future “King of the Surf Guitar.”
Playing locally, Dick met an entertainer named Texas Tiny, who convinced him to change his stage name to Dick Dale, because it sounded like a country singer’s name. Singing wasn’t what Dick Dale would become famous for though. He was arguably the first to ever bring non-Western guitar scales to the electric version of the instrument. Dick Dale was the first to employ reverb into his tone which would later become the industry standard. Being left handed also made him a unique player that would go on to influence Jimi Hendrix and other silly siders, and his propensity to blow up guitar amplifiers necessitated Leo Fender to start manufacturing 100-watt amps to keep up with the power and innovation Dick Dale was forging as a pioneer of the instrument.
Dick Dale’s residency at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, CA beginning in July of 1961 is given credit by rock and roll historians as the period when surf guitar was born through the fingers of Dick Dale. His song “Let’s Go Trippin'” is considered to be the first ever surf guitar song. After becoming a cultural phenomenon, his recordings were picked up by Capitol Records, he appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. He formed his backing band called the Del-Tones, and though Dale never became a superstar, he influenced most all of the superstars of the generation, and for generations to come.
Soon The Beach Boys, The Ventures, many of the bands in the British Rock invasion, and Jimi Hendrix were citing Dick Dale as a direct influence. His signature style creeped into rockabilly and country, and would go on to greatly influence the West Coast and Baskersfield sounds of country, born off the power of the electric lead. Dale’s signature song “Misirlou” because synonymous with Quentin Tarantino’s magnum opus, Pulp Fiction. And even today you would be hard pressed to find a guitar player without some Dick Dale somewhere in their sound.
Dick Dale never earned any major hit records or singles, but much of the sound of American music would shatter without his influence. In 2009, he was inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville, but an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has alluded him. Later in life and in ailing health, Dick Dale was forced to tour to survive, and skirted by through earning royalties off of use of his songs in movies, commercials, TV shows, and video games, all which sought out the iconic sound of Dick Dale, and the immediate visceral reaction they garnered in listeners and viewers.
Dale professed to never drink alcohol or use drugs except for medical reasons, never ate red meat, and studied martial arts. However in 2008 he contracted rectal Cancer, and had been suffering from failing health in recent years, falling behind on medical bills.