Classic Rock Corner

Dick Dale Still Riding The Wild Surf At 74

Wednesday's show moved from 2016 Mainstage to Continental Club

At 74, California surf guitar god Dick Dale has just about seen it all. He was in on the ground floor of the development of the Fender product line, the invention of the 15" JBL speaker, the Showman and Dual Showman amplifiers, the Fender reverb, and the guinea pig for much of the technology that goes into the modern guitar string. Dale has been there, done that.

He can rattle off part numbers, wattages, amperages and serial numbers at the same machine gun speed he plays guitar. Yet he is hardly a one dimensional character, as our wide ranging interview with him yesterday reveals.

Rocks Off: Along with yourself, who else would call the earliest people who figured out the signature surf-guitar sound?

Dick Dale: No one. It was like splitting the atom. I was surfing a lot, but I also played guitar. And I met Leo Fender around 1954. He was like Einstein. He handed me a Stratocaster - he'd just finished inventing the Telecaster - and said, 'here, see if you can tear this up." And I did. So I was his lab rat. And Leo's philosophy on everything he built became "If Dick Dale can't tear it up, then it's ready for the public."

RO: So no one else, just Dick Dale?

DD: Honestly, yes. No one else. I was surfing and I was playing electric guitar. I was actually doing country songs mostly at that time. I even did a television show with Johnny Cash before he became the Man in Black.

RO: So what was the breakthrough for you in arriving at the sounds on that first album?

DD: I was first of all a drummer and very early, around when I was ten years old, I thought Gene Krupa was the top guy, and I studied him. It finally dawned on me that he always played on the one beat. And as I got older, I realized that this is pretty much universal in the music of indigenous peoples around the world, whether it's a tribal war dance in Africa or a fertility dance of the aboriginals in Australia, the beat is on the one.

And when I began to play guitar and strum, that is where my strumming technique came from: Gene Krupa's tom tom style. My strumming came from that. I was playing country music and I played all the songs on the one. I was calling what I was doing rocking-billy.

Two other important elements came into play. The sounds that I wanted to play come from the sounds you hear when you're surfing. There's a whoosh as you try to catch a big wave, and I wanted to imitate that sound. And there's a different sound when you go inside the curl. I wanted that too.

The other element was that, in my leads, I was just imitating the sounds of wild animals. I've worked with animal rescue almost all my adult life, rescuing elephants, lions, mountain lions. And I worked my approximation of their roars and cries into my lead playing.

RO: What was the beginning of the surf-music scene like?

DD: I got a gig at the Rendevous Ballroom, and I think maybe 17 people showed up at the first gig. But within a very short time span, we were playing to 3-4,000 people on the weekends. And that was when Leo and other people who were into the engineering aspects of sound started to get very interested. Four thousand bodies soak up a lot of sound, so we were constantly trying to play louder and at the same time clearer.

That's really the reason that Leo eventually forced JBL to invent the 15" speaker. And to me, if you're talking about surf music and surf guitar, if you weren't 1) using a Stratocaster, 2) a Fender Showman with 15" JBL speakers, and 3) heavy-gauge strings, you weren't playing surf guitar.

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William Michael Smith