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Awesome Men Throughout History: Dick Dale

Any Pulp Fiction fans in my readership will be familiar with the song “Misirlou,” a badass piece of surf-rock that plays toward the beginning of the movie. Unfortunately, they might not be as familiar with Dick Dale, the Awesome Man who made that song famous. That’s a pity, because Dale’s style and onstage persona influenced guys like Jimi Hendrix (a big admirer of Dale’s) and Eddie Van Halen, as well as countless heavy metal and punk rock guitarists.

He also pretty much invented surf rock, which is kind of a big deal too.

Dick Dale was born in Boston, but his family moved to Orange County, California when he was a teenager. Dale fell in love with music—along with the guitar, he played piano, ukelele, accordion, and drums—and California’s surf culture, and he wanted his music to capture not just the sound of the waves rolling and breaking, but the rush that came with it.

After he was shown how to adjust his Stratocaster’s pickup settings, he combined that knowledge with heavy reverb effects and rapid-fire, staccato picking to create a “wet” sound. He also drew from Middle Eastern music (Dale has Lebanese ancestry and his uncle was a talented oud player), and was one of the first electric guitarists to import non-Western scales into his compositions. “The Victor” is a really good example of this.

Along with being a talented and groundbreaking guitarist, Dale’s act was the loudest and wildest around for quite a while. He played a left-handed guitar upside-down and strung with heavy strings (ranging from 16p to 58w), and blew out amps so regularly that Fender started building custom rigs for him, almost daring him to send them back to the drawing board.

Dale performed regularly at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa during the early 1960s, usually to 3,000+ fans, and was almost chased out of town until he and the Rendezvous’ management agreed to implement a dress code for his performances and not sell liquor.

Paul Johnson, guitarist for The Belairs, remembers Dale’s live show as “a powerful experience; his music was incredibly dynamic…the energy between The Del-Tones and all of those surfers stomping on the hardwood floor in their sandals was extremely intense. The tone of Dale’s guitar was bigger than any I had ever heard, and his blazing technique was something to behold.”

Unfortunately, Dale’s time in the sun was cut short by cancer and the British Invasion, but he survived both, and his career picked up in the 1980s, fully revitalizing with the success of Pulp Fiction. Still, for all that, he should be more widely known than he is. I’ll end with my favorite Dick Dale song, “Surfin’ Drums.”

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.

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