Legendary guitarist Dick Dale

Dick Dale: Reflecting on the Life and Legacy of a Guitar Icon

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Musician's Friend reflects on the passing of the iconic guitarist.

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

It is with great sadness that we observe the passing of surf guitar pioneer Dick Dale, which was announced on March 18, 2019. His indomitable spirit and fierce joy in music, music making and guitar, as well as his contributions to the evolution of guitar playing, will be sorely missed.

Born Richard Monsour on May 4, 1937, he learned to play ukulele and guitar as a child. His family moved from Boston to Southern California when he was 18, and he changed his name to Dick Dale, initially pursuing a career as a country-western player. After he discovered the local surfing scene, his trajectory changed. Wanting to capture the sound and feel of crashing waves and booming surf, he developed a highly individual style that used tremolo picking, heavy reverb and sheer volume (clean, never distorted). The 1962 release of the singles “Let’s Go Tripping” and “Miserlou,” a tune he adapted from a traditional Middle-Eastern melody he’d learned from his Lebanese father, established, not just Dale’s career but the birth of a whole new musical style. For many, Dale was the original and all other surf guitarists were considered mere imitators. Those first two singles helped take the surf sound beyond being a regional favorite to a nationwide craze.

Many local guitarists who went on to be influential in their own right, like Larry Carlton and Lee Ritenour, started off playing in surf bands, attempting to capture the sheer, raw energy that Dale brought to the stage. Though not often thought of as strictly surf music, The Beach Boys were early disciples of his sound, covering his instrumentals in their live shows, as well as including their own version of Dale’s “Miserlou” on their 1963 Surfin’ USA album. Lead guitarist Carl Wilson specifically modeled his early playing and equipment choices on Dale’s.

Becoming known as “The King of Surf Guitar,” Dale toured and performed relentlessly over the decades, remaining a compelling performer and a larger-than-life figure. Always flamboyant and assertive onstage, in interviews and in other public appearances, he was also known as a big believer in “playing it forward,” frequently having local teenagers hanging out at this studio, where he would give informal lessons and encourage them to play. Onstage, the physical effort he put out was prodigious, as he sought to recreate the sound and fury of nature itself. His tremolo picking was so powerful that he routinely shredded picks against the heavy gauge strings he used on his reverse-strung, left-handed Stratocaster. As he told Guitar Player Magazine in a 1994 interview, “I played the way I felt. I called it surf music at the time because that’s the feeling I had when a wave came crashing down on me. Now, I think more of animals when I play. Like the power of my tiger, or the whine of my mountain lion, or the rage of an elephant.”

Dale continued to tour, despite multiple medical problems, including a 10-year battle with cancer. He lived to play, and played to live, keeping his schedule full, despite his physical problems. When he passed away on March 15, 2019, he had a full schedule of gigs ahead of him for the year, never having slowed down, despite his approaching 82nd birthday.

Dale’s many contributions to music, guitar and music gear are astounding in scope and number. Among non-surf guitarists who have cited him as influences are such luminaries as Stevie Ray Vaughan (with whom he recorded a version of his signature “Miserlou” in 1986) and Eddie Van Halen. Music writer Barney Hoskyns, in his book Waiting for the Sun, wrote that Jimi Hendrix had been strongly affected by a Dick Dale and the Del-Tones show he’d seen in the early 1960s. Dale’s long association with Leo Fender also helped create many iconic products for Fender’s company, including the Dual Showman amp, the stand-alone Fender Reverb unit and many others.

Few musicians leave as broad a legacy or have as much long-term impact as Dick Dale leaves behind. We mourn his loss and celebrate his life and contributions.

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