King of Surf Guitar
March 17, 2019 7:44 PM   Subscribe

Dick Dale, godfather of surf guitar, dies aged 81. (Guardian) Richard Anthony Monsour, better known by his stage name Dick Dale, was an American rock guitarist, known as The King of the Surf Guitar. He pioneered and created what many call the surf music style, drawing on Middle-Eastern music scales and experimenting with reverberation. He worked closely with Fender to produce custom made amplifiers, including the first-ever 100-watt guitar amplifier.

As the progenitor of the surf rock genre and an innovator who helped stretch the possibilities of the electric guitar, Dale inspired musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, Ry Cooder and the Beach Boys. Dale’s “Miserlou” also notably featured in the opening credits sequence of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. (Rolling Stone)
posted by valkane (83 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
posted by cmfletcher at 7:46 PM on March 17

A reverberating . that cannot possibly be interpreted as loudly as it should
posted by delfin at 7:48 PM on March 17 [11 favorites]

posted by Gelatin at 7:53 PM on March 17 [1 favorite]

Damn. I saw dick dale play at the Dallas Hard Rock Cafe in 1991 and it was incredible. Glad I got to see the legend up close.
posted by nikaspark at 7:58 PM on March 17 [3 favorites]

Well that is just a lotta whoa. Audio goodness starts at 1:15.
posted by buzzman at 7:58 PM on March 17 [2 favorites]

I saw Dick Dale a couple of times in the late '90s, early 00s and he was great. Somewhere around here I have an autographed t-shirt I never wore that says "I'm a Dickhead."

posted by lordrunningclam at 8:04 PM on March 17 [3 favorites]

So to you I shall put an end
And you'll never hear surf music again ...
That sounds like a lie to me
Come on man, let's go home
(Jimi Hendrix, “Third stone from the sun”)

posted by sudogeek at 8:07 PM on March 17 [8 favorites]

posted by Faint of Butt at 8:13 PM on March 17

drawing on Middle-Eastern music scales

Playing styles too. The lead guitar on Miserlou is clearly trying to be an oud.
posted by flabdablet at 8:17 PM on March 17 [8 favorites]

[A nice article about Dale I remember from 21 years ago: "The Sultan of Surf."]
posted by LeLiLo at 8:18 PM on March 17 [3 favorites]

posted by mosk at 8:18 PM on March 17

..................................... (to the tune of miserlou)
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:20 PM on March 17 [1 favorite]

One of a few previouslies.
posted by davidmsc at 8:25 PM on March 17

posted by clavdivs at 8:30 PM on March 17 [9 favorites]

posted by ducky l'orange at 8:32 PM on March 17

posted by mmoncur at 8:32 PM on March 17

Certainly a groundbreaking man. Keep on trippin', Mr Dale.
posted by ashbury at 8:35 PM on March 17

posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 8:39 PM on March 17

He played the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach when I lived there (so sometime between '88 and '92) and I hung around outside, watching through the big front window until he finally came on. Was very surprised that he opened his set with "Rumble" -- a Link Wray song! I was expecting some lighter surf music, but I guess he got tired of that stuff a long time ago.
posted by Rash at 8:54 PM on March 17

Upside down and backwards

posted by Johnny Wallflower at 8:59 PM on March 17

posted by Silverstone at 9:09 PM on March 17

I knew "Misirlu" as a tune they played for circle dancing at Armenian church picnics before I ever heard Dick Dale's version, and I have to say, it completely blew my young mind the first time I heard it. There was precious little intersection between Armenian-American diaspora culture and broader American pop culture when I was a kid (not all that much more now, I guess) and to hear this blazingly American while still proudly Middle Eastern sound blasting from the radio meant a lot.

posted by potrzebie at 9:12 PM on March 17 [26 favorites]

My wife and I saw Mr. Dale and his band at a small club in Cambridge several years ago (I can't find the ticket, unfortunately) and waited after the show to meet him. He came out to talk to the fans and sign autographs and was incredibly gracious and pleasant. He did, however, decline to sign my wife's hand-made Route 66 jacket because, he said, it was "too cool".

., with a shimmy that sounds like the whole ocean falling onto itself, only played on a single guitar
posted by yhbc at 9:21 PM on March 17 [6 favorites]

I have been listening to him all day and didn't know until a weird frisson went through my body and Spotify died. Then I came on here and saw this. Gosh gosh gosh.

posted by Hermione Granger at 9:21 PM on March 17 [2 favorites]

posted by riverlife at 9:31 PM on March 17

posted by q*ben at 9:40 PM on March 17

My ex worked on a music festival years ago and among all the big names who were in the line-up, Dick Dale was the only one who went out of his way to remember all the festival coordinators by their name. I think that speaks really highly of what kind of person he was.
posted by cazoo at 9:52 PM on March 17 [10 favorites]

I'd never heard "Miserlou" before the opening credits of Pulp Fiction, which I saw when it first came out. The instant the music started I knew the movie would be awesome.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:56 PM on March 17 [4 favorites]

I, too, remember seeing Dale (in Detroit) during the early 90s surf revival. He put on a great show and then stuck around to sign autographs and hang with the "Dickheads", as he referred to his fans. I was not familiar with the usage and was halfway along towards taking umbrage before I realized it was a joke based on a parallel formation with "Deadheads".

At that time he seemed to enjoy touring and really appreciate that people were coming out to enjoy his music -- or at least he gave every impression of that on the night I saw him. I was immensely saddened to read stories about his nightmarish experience with having to tour incessantly towards the end of his life simply to afford the medical care which was keeping him alive. He deserved so much better (and for that matter, to a first approximation I'm pretty comfortable saying that everybody deserves better than that.)

Here's my favorite track from the album he was touring to support at the time:
Dick Dale - Speardance
posted by Nerd of the North at 10:09 PM on March 17 [6 favorites]

∿ 🎸
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:12 PM on March 17

posted by bryon at 10:18 PM on March 17

posted by Ten Cold Hot Dogs at 10:22 PM on March 17 [2 favorites]

• this was really a bummer. Especially learning he had to keep touring to pay for his care. Just a rotten shame! He was a good person and we will never see his like again.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 10:32 PM on March 17 [2 favorites]

posted by Joey Michaels at 11:03 PM on March 17

posted by vorpal bunny at 11:43 PM on March 17

Dick told me once that even though pulp fiction revived his touring career, he didn't see a dime of royalties. Don't have cite, just the man's word.

posted by j_curiouser at 11:44 PM on March 17 [4 favorites]


Somehow in some strange way surf music was an important strand of the local music community in which I grew up, in the landlocked and xenophobic midwest. Dale's tunes were touchstones that seemed sourceless until you understood that they came from him, and that through him, an entire mediterranean musical tradition had entered our cornfed ears and hearts.

I have the first string he broke during the first US show of his return to long-haul touring, around 1992-1993, which was at a closed club up in Ballard called the Backstage. It was his high-E, natch. He had this string changing shtick he would do where he kept playing the song while he changed the string, amazing.

At some point I learned he was of Lebanese descent (I have no citation to support this) and suddenly so much about his music clicked into place. One of my favorite lifetime music conversations was shortly after this show.

I (and my friend Chuck) and either all three Sun City Girls or maybe just Alan and Charlie were headed to Tacoma for some cryptotourism, with Alan as the guide. Rick is a high-level surf guitarist and I had seen them open for and then play in JFA at Ricky's Canteena in Bloomington IN, in 1984. I did not know a lot about SCG's music, we were social friends after they moved here, to Seattle, from Phoenix.

So I was raving about this Dick Dale show that I had just seen and we started talking about surf music, which is how I learned that Alan and Rick are ALSO of Lebanese descent. Super fascinating day.
posted by mwhybark at 12:28 AM on March 18 [8 favorites]

posted by edithkeeler at 1:52 AM on March 18

"Dick Dale had to keep touring until he died because he couldn't afford all the medical expenses he had otherwise."

Damn. Touring at 80. With a colostomy. That you have to keep touring to pay for. That sounds......well, difficult.
posted by thelonius at 1:59 AM on March 18 [4 favorites]

posted by drworm at 2:26 AM on March 18

The lead guitar on Miserlou is clearly trying to be an oud.

--Makes saving throw against taking out credit card and buying oud--
posted by thelonius at 2:30 AM on March 18 [2 favorites]

posted by filtergik at 3:16 AM on March 18

I knew "Misirlu" as a tune they played for circle dancing at Armenian church picnics

Like this?
posted by D.C. at 3:35 AM on March 18 [4 favorites]

A lot of my teen record collection was Dick Dale & the Del-tones. There is video of him playing Pipeline with Stevie Ray Vaughan. The only version I could make work was laid on clips from one of those stupid beach movies, but I know there is a straight concert video of it.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:59 AM on March 18

This is incredibly sad. Dick Dale is one of my all-time heroes. Just an amazing musician. Surf music is what really got me into playing guitar, and he absolutely was the king. The only reason we never covered any of his stuff in the surf band is that his playing is beyond me.

This is my favourite of his songs. An energy that nobody else can quite match.
posted by Dysk at 4:00 AM on March 18 [5 favorites]

posted by condour75 at 4:12 AM on March 18

posted by MrGuilt at 4:14 AM on March 18

dysk's comment reminded me that Dick Dale did a number of tracks the soundtrack to the video game Rocket Jockey (which is a whole lotta great surf guitar)
posted by kokaku at 4:17 AM on March 18

He had this string changing shtick he would do where he kept playing the song while he changed the string, amazing.

I have always been impressed by his playing; that just took it to 11.

I hope he had some good times playing out on the road, even if it wasn’t entirely voluntary.
posted by TedW at 4:30 AM on March 18 [3 favorites]

posted by drnick at 5:07 AM on March 18

posted by briank at 5:29 AM on March 18

But also: "Dick Dale had to keep touring until he died because he couldn't afford all the medical expenses he had otherwise." Aaaarrggggg this fucking country

People older than me might correct me, but musicians having to tour to stay alive, or having to hold fund raisers from their fans, was a lot less common when their primary source of income was from selling mass-produced-but-scarce physical tokens holding their work.
posted by ocschwar at 5:40 AM on March 18 [3 favorites]

It wasn't unheard of then. Managers and record companies ended up pocketing most to all of a lot of artists' royalties in many cases. Touring revenue is the one thing you can easily assert independent control over (or was - the internet makes ditching record labels more feasible for a lot of musicians if your new recorded output is still selling).

Free public healthcare makes and made this a lot less common in all eras, in countries where that's a thing.
posted by Dysk at 5:50 AM on March 18 [6 favorites]

A . for Mr Dale.
A fuck the fuck off forever for Tarantino
posted by scruss at 6:08 AM on March 18 [4 favorites]


I went to Memphis 4 or 5 years ago and went to Sun Studios to take the tour. While we were waiting for the tour to start I overheard the tour guide talking with a couple - it was Dick Dale and his wife! I took a picture of him, but didn’t approach him as I didn’t want to disturb him. It was really coo! And so was the tour - if you are in Memphis and inclined, it’s definately worth the price of admission. And Staxx records is close by as well.

Interestingly, I was just talking about him in the last week, as Hal Blaine had passed, and one of Hal's creidts listed some things he did with Dick Dale.

Ye shall be missed, Mr. Dale...
posted by kabong the wiser at 6:28 AM on March 18 [5 favorites]

posted by mikelieman at 7:33 AM on March 18

I found out a few years ago that I work really well to surf rock. In addition to enjoying listening to it, it boost my productivity. I was kind of aware of who Dick Dale was before then, but over the past five years I've been consuming as much of his music as I could get my hands on easily. I wish I'd been able to see him perform, but he got me through more projects at work than I can count.

posted by Hactar at 8:05 AM on March 18 [1 favorite]

posted by gauche at 8:29 AM on March 18

posted by mdoar at 8:42 AM on March 18

posted by acb at 8:43 AM on March 18

The lead guitar on Miserlou is clearly trying to be an oud.

According to this interview, that's exactly where he got the idea for it:
And some little kid about 9 years old. And he sat at the edge of the stage and looked up at me, and he goes, God you're really neat, you're really neat. He says, can you play ah, a song on one string. Now, I never heard of that in my life. I said, what am I going to play on one string. You know I was always doing the, Dick Dale strumming, that pumping strumming. And I said, and this is where that heavy staccato thing started. There was a song called Miserlou, that back in Boston, Massachusetts, on my father's side of the family, because they, they were born in this country, but they were of descent of, from Lebanon, where the Arabic music came from. And then my mother's side, they were born in Poland. And my mother was born in Massachusetts also, and ah they had the polka. So I was learning all this music, but I remember a song called Miserlou and a man playing on a ma-, on an instrument called an Oud, with a chicken quill and it was going, like that, and the song Miserlou kind of went like this to start with, it went, it, it was real slow, it goes, the beat was, like that, it went like [guitar], that kind of a beat. And then the song would go [guitar sound], like that, and then it would go [guitar] that’s the beat.
posted by asterix at 9:13 AM on March 18 [6 favorites]

posted by mstokes650 at 9:52 AM on March 18

posted by oneironaut at 9:56 AM on March 18

posted by the sobsister at 10:11 AM on March 18

posted by evilDoug at 10:14 AM on March 18

posted by Barack Spinoza at 10:28 AM on March 18

What a legend.

My dad was a good guitarist, and I have fond memories of him showing me scales and various riffs. But every time I pick up an electric guitar, I'm transported to an empty auditorium in Wyoming and this older kid showing me how to play the opening riff to "Pipeline," which got me to purchase my first Dick Dale CD.
posted by aspersioncast at 10:45 AM on March 18 [1 favorite]

posted by tommasz at 10:58 AM on March 18

posted by Sphinx at 10:58 AM on March 18

I had the pleasure of seeing Dick Dale perform about a year and a half ago, and despite his pain and suffering, played one of the best shows I'd ever seen in my life. It's a terrible loss for music, and for his family, but I'm glad he's at peace.

posted by SansPoint at 11:21 AM on March 18 [2 favorites]

posted by Lynsey at 11:26 AM on March 18

Post-Pulp Fiction when Dick Dale was running around taking advantage of the new found interest, I saw him at the Middle East in Cambridge (95ish?). If you've ever seen a show at the Middle East, at least back in the day, it's a big concrete basement. Dick Dale didn't care - he had a massive stack of amps, cranked to 500 blasting out massive sonic power all through the relatively tiny space. I ended up standing about 10-15 feet from one stack and got my hearing blasted. Didn't matter - face melted - hearing gone - loudest show ever - as awesome as you can imagine it being for a 21 year old.

I'm surprised I didn't damage my hearing from now until the end of time with that show - but that man could blow up a space.

posted by drewbage1847 at 12:10 PM on March 18 [2 favorites]

Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei. Requiescat in pace.

“In Memoriam: Dick Dale,” Patrick Robbins, Cover Me, 17 March 2019
posted by ob1quixote at 1:14 PM on March 18

I saw him at Slim's maybe 15 years ago. He was AMAZING, best show I ever saw, not only as a musician but as an entertainer who cared about his fans.

He had this wireless setup for his guitar so he was running all around the stage, at one point he starts to walk off at stage left down the stairs while still play. I was stage right so all I could see was the Slim's security guy walking backward with his mag-light high to shine on Dick whose form was lost to the crowd. The guard then proceeds to walk across the floor and out the front door. A friend who was in the back told Dick goes outside to the sidewalk playing, crosses the street dodging cars and goes into the liquor store, say something to the guy at the counter, say something to the security guy who shrugs, leaves, braves traffic to come back in and (remember he's still playing, we can hear him on the PA) gets back up on stage while, walks to the mic and says,

"I went to go buy a Fudgesicle but I didn't have a dollar." *boom* a solo.

At the end of the show he told the crowd if they wanted chat or have him sign something just come to the stage, he flopped down there and spokes to fans for at least 30 or 40 minutes. Absolute class act.
posted by MiltonRandKalman at 1:41 PM on March 18 [6 favorites]

You couldn't sum up Dick Dale with one word, but I think maybe one number does it: 0.016
posted by Wolfdog at 5:24 PM on March 18 [1 favorite]

that's a bit cryptic, so I am going to explain it for anyone who hates that sort of thing:

Dale’s battle-worn gold Stratocaster, nicknamed “the Beast”, was outfitted to be played loud, as it boasted massive .016-, .018- and .020-gauge unwound strings and .039-, .049- and .060-gauge wound strings that produce tremendous tension.

most guitarists use .010 sets, although .009 and .011 are also popular
posted by thelonius at 6:13 PM on March 18 [2 favorites]

BTW I made a donation to Sweet Relief today in memory of Dick Dale hoping to save another musician from having to tour to live. In the absence of a safety net I guess this is what we have to do. Consider giving if it really pisses you off that this is how Dick Dale spent his last years on this planet.
posted by potrzebie at 7:36 PM on March 18 [5 favorites]

The other end of the spectrum being Tony Iommi, who allegedly plays .08s or .09s tuned down to C#.

(Most people who use super heavy strings these days do so because they're using a lowered tuning and want to keep up normal tension. But I think .016 for the high E is rare even then).
posted by atoxyl at 7:37 PM on March 18 [1 favorite]

posted by I'm always feeling, Blue at 8:38 PM on March 18

posted by dogstoevski at 8:56 PM on March 18

Billy Gibbons also plays very light gauge strings, I think.
posted by thelonius at 1:47 AM on March 19

posted by ZeusHumms at 11:45 AM on March 19

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