March 19, 2019
We lost guitarist Dick Dale this past weekend, passing at the age of 81. A guitar icon, he almost single-handedly created the sound that would become equated with the surfer craze of the early 1960s. Born in southern California to a musical family, Dick Dale changed the Rock guitar landscape with his reverb-laced staccato style of rhythm playing and along with his middle-eastern influenced solos, creating a whole new subgenre of Rock – Surf Guitar. If you’ve ever watched the surf movies from the early to mid-sixties, no doubt you’ve heard the influence of Dick Dale and his band, the Del-Tones. His influences were felt everywhere in musical circles for years; from The Beach Boys and The Ventures to Van Halen and beyond.
I had the great pleasure of seeing Dick in concert a few years ago. From the minute Dale came out on stage he had the crowd eating out of his hand. Playing his classic gold metal flaked- finished Fender Stratocaster, he gave energetic renditions of his songs such as “Miserlou” and “Nitro” as well as numbers by Link Wray, The Ventures, Johnny Cash, Deep Purple and more than I can recall here. Having heard of him and his songs before but never actually having seen him, I never realized what a showman he was. Between songs and even during them he would start telling stories or recollections or make fun of his aging memory. He told the story of how he actually got started playing music with a ukulele, not a guitar and how he grew up listening to country music until he first heard an electric guitar in the fifties and was hooked from that point on. He also talked about why he played it strung upside down – nobody told him it was strung differently for left-handers.
While not having a predefined set list, he worked almost entirely off the cuff – his band members having only a general idea of what he was going to play. He frequently directed the bass player and drummer to play a beat or a line he’d thought of in his head at that moment. Though everyone knew him primarily as a guitar player, he also played harmonica. He was every bit as good or better at it than the guitar (mocking blues players who called it a “harp.”) At one point in the show, he even grabbed a pair of drumsticks and played this fierce tribal-sounding drumbeat alongside the drummer. He was truly multi-talented if, not a little bit eccentric but it was all in good fun. To think he’d been playing this kind of music since 1955 was mind-boggling. After the show he would sign whatever merchandise you purchased (except t-shirts) and would talk with you briefly before moving on to the next buyer. He was a people’s artist and a real class act.
I can’t help but feel that I got to see one of the greats before we lost him and now that he’s gone I’ll always remember that night. Hopefully, he’s up there in Rock and Roll Heaven, jamming with Stevie Ray Vaughan as they once did here on earth with their Grammy-winning rendition of “Pipeline.”
RIP Dick Dale.
What’s your favorite song by Dick Dale?