The King of surf guitar

By Sergio Ariza

If someone is called, deservedly, the king of surf music and the father of heavy metal it is because that someone is very important when we ‘talk guitars’. Dick Dale got his iconic sound, creating surf music on the way, by making his guitar sound like two of his passions - Gene Krupa's drums and the roar of the waves when he surfed them on his board. But his mark goes beyond his influential music, and in his search for ‘that sound’ he allied with Leo Fender to produce an amplifier capable of withstanding the tremendous power of his touch and, thanks to this, the first amplifiers of 100 watts appeared; making him the father of the heaviest rock.    

Dale was given the name of Richard Anthony Mansour in Boston, Massachusetts, on May 4, 1937. Son of a Lebanese father and a Polish mother, the man who made him a music lover was Hank Williams - but he never forgot his Arab roots. When he was 9 years old he started to play the piano but soon he learned the ukulele, in order to play the songs of his hero on his own. But he also developed an appreciation for arab music, thanks to his uncle who taught him to play the tarabaki, a percussion instrument, and the oud, a stringed instrument that is played by striking the strings several times per note. Both would be very important in the development of his own style. After a while he switched to guitar and at age 17 he managed to get into a Big Band, where he could barely be heard. Around the same time, in 1954, his father received a job offer in California and the whole family moved there.


The young man would find paradise on Earth in sunny California and discover the two things that would become religion for him, surf and rock & roll. In the ‘sport of the waves’ he would find tremendous inspiration and would spend his whole career trying to bring that excitement to his way of playing, and in rock he would find the perfect way to express it. His first heroes were the guitarists Duane Eddy and
Link Wray, and he followed their style, but when he got a contract with the company Deltone, his first recording, Ooh-Whee-Marie from 1958, was pure rockabilly of the time, with Dale singing and playing the guitar. Stop teasin ', released the following year, has quite an interesting solo; although he had not yet found ‘that sound’ that would make him famous. Even so, Dale was gaining an audience of his own in California, near Newport Beach, where there were mainly fellow surfers. His fame had earned him a nickname, 'the King of the surf guitar', and among the many curious in the area who came to see him was one of the most important people in the history of the electric guitar, Leo Fender.

The man who gave his name to some of the most iconic guitars in history was delighted with the energy of that young man and decided to make him his official tester. Dale told him he surfed and played the guitar and that he did not have enough money to buy a decent guitar. Fender gave him a Stratocaster and Dale began to play it as he had always done. In that moment Fender began to laugh when he saw that left-handed boy play his guitar wonderfully upside down, with the lowest string below. One of Fender’s first gifts was a Stratocaster especially made for lefties, and this would be the guitar with which Dale would record all his songs from that moment on; and, as every unique guitar has a name, he called it 'The Beast'. That nickname was earned by him destroying one by one all the amplifiers that Fender left for him. Dale's strength and volume were too much for those small amps of 10 or 15 watts that used to end up in flames before the onslaught of 'The Beast', a guitar that, in spite of the fact it was for lefties, had the strings in reverse, the sixth below and the first above, in the way in which Dale had learned to play it.    

One night, Leo Fender and his right hand man, Freddy Tavares, went to one of Dale's performances, with hundreds of people screaming in awe at the sound of his guitar. At one point Fender told Tavares, "Now I understand what Dale is trying to tell us." They went to work and created the first 85-watt transformer, which reached 100, and when Dale tried it, he was delighted, it was like going from driving a small Beetle to a Ferrari – these were the sounds Dale had been hearing in his head. Now they needed a speaker that would support that kind of volume. That's how Leo, Freddy and Dick went to the company of James B. Lansing to make a 15-inch loudspeaker built according to their specifications, which would be known as the JBL-D130 15", and would be part of the mythical amplifier Fender Showman, the first that managed to break the boundaries of the era. Now Dale could imitate the roar of the waves.

With his Strat connected to the Showman, his thick strings like cables and his incredible speed Dale had become the leader of the new surfing cult. On July 1, 1961 he began his residency at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, with a capacity for 3,000 people, and that spread the phenomenon of surf music throughout California. The sound he got was huge, gigantic, and everyone else paled in comparison. It was there that he premiered Let's Go Trippin ', a wonderful instrumental in which he gave free rein to his guitar skills, which became the first surf song to reach the charts. It was a tremendous success at regional level, reaching number 4, which would take him to the national list, where the song climbed to number 60.

Hundreds of followers began to imitate his style and surfing would become the official sound of California during the early 60s. Soon his first album would appear, Surfer's Choice, recorded mainly live in the Rendezvous Ballroom with some 'overdubs' in the studio. Dick Dale and his band, the Del-Tones, were, and it was never better said, on the crest of the wave. One night, loaded with the adrenaline of a day of surfing, Dale decided to teach his musicians an old Greek melody, close to his Lebanese roots: it was Misirlou and his interpretation almost unleashed a riot in the hall. It is one of the most powerful riffs in the history of music and is the best example of Dale's style, as 'The Beast' unleashes a strong and raw storm that is impossible to resist, and finally, Dale manages to sound as if Gene Kruppa was playing his drums in a giant wave.

The next album would be King Of The Surf Guitar where the title song, sung by the Blossoms of Darlene Love, stood out, which makes the result sound halfway between Dale's surf and Phil Spector's girl groups, two of my big weaknesses. The lyrics made clear what was happening: "Listen to the king of the surf guitar (...) From Balboa to Anaheim, from San Bernardino to Riverside, all the boys in all L.A., come to listen to Dick Dale play". His version of Hava Nagila also appears, which is similar to that of Misirlou, making Dale one of the first rock musicians open to 'world music'. He was also one of the first to appear on the Ed Sullivan program, although his lack of interest in leaving California made it possible for others to bring surf music to the charts. That would mainly be the Beach Boys of Brian Wilson, who would add some splendid harmonies, but they would not forget to cover Let's Go Trippin 'of the King.

For his part, Dale continued to develop things with Fender, first came the Fender Reverb Tank. He was not happy with the sound of its voice, as he was missing 'vibrato', so he discovered in an old Hammond organ a 'reverb' unit and showed it to Fender. This is how he came out with the Fender Reverb Tank; Dale was so happy with the result that he plugged his Stratocaster into it, which gave him another of his most characteristic sounds.

Finally he had also come to the conclusion that he needed more volume on his guitar, now he played in places with bigger audiences, so Dale and Fender continued to work together until they achieved a speaker that would fit two of the 15-inch ones to be able to withstand his powerful riffs, then designed a 100-watt version, which reached 180, and the Fender Dual Showman was born. No wonder he is considered the father of the noisiest guitarists in the world. One of them, also left-handed, came to see him in the early 60's while he was in the army. From that moment Jimi Hendrix always held the King of the Surf Guitar in high esteem.

In 1963 came Checkered Flag, which included the minor hit The Scavenger and another of his most iconic songs, The Wedge; the following year featured Mr. Eliminator, which like the previous one revolved around car racing. Surf madness was in its peak, with people like James Brown and
Albert King recording songs in that style, but as fast as it came it evaporated, and the arrival of the Beatles and the 'British Invasion' left surf behind. After the 1965 Live At Ciro's live show, Dale disappeared from the map, and when Coast To Coast was released in 1967, no one cared about it. To top it off, he was diagnosed with colon cancer from which, luckily, he would end up recovering. But for years he withdrew from music.

He would not return until 1986 when he recorded an album, and the following year he united with Stevie Ray Vaughan to record a version of the classic surf Pipeline of the Chantays, for which they would receive a nomination for a Grammy. But his true resurgence would arrive in the 90s. In 1993 he recorded Tribal Thunder, with songs as powerful as Nitro and Esperanza; the record was celebrated by critics but was not a huge hit. But everything would change on May 12, 1994. That day Quentin Tarantino's second film, Pulp Fiction premiered at the Cannes festival . The film opened with a scene in a restaurant in which a couple talked about robberies, and in the end they decided that this was a good place to rob and they ended up saying this:

WOMAN: I love you, Pumpkin.
MAN: I love you, Honey Bunny.  
The two stand up suddenly.  
MAN: Everybody be cool this is a robbery!  
WOMAN: Any of you fuckin 'pricks move and I'll execute every one of you.  
Then the image froze and Misirlou began to sound like thunder while the initial credits appeared.

The king of the surf guitar was back and had a new audience. That same year he released Unknown Territory, then two years later Calling Up Spirits would appear, with which he would travel on tour to Europe, and in 2002 Spacial Disorientation, his last album to date was released.

Each time you raise the volume of your amp to 10 to try to blow the roof off, remember the king of the surf guitar.