Warning: Just five minutes with 74-year-old surf rocker Dick Dale and his infamous Fender Strat could cause spilled mai tais, random outbreaks of retro dance moves (e.g., the swim or splashin' around), and lifelong hearing loss.
But that doesn't mean Dick is a brutal dude. In fact, he's basically a nice guy who likes to chill out, ride waves, and kick back with exotic animals. It's just that whenever he gets a guitar in his hands, he can't help himself from playing insanely loud and hard, blowing up amps, and bursting eardrums.
Last week, New Times spoke with the legendary axe man about Hank Williams, big waves, ukuleles, lions, tigers, leopards, Latino tunes, and how to make people's ears bleed.
New Times: Why did Dick Dale originally dive into music?
Dick Dale: I always wanted to be a cowboy singer. I listened to Hank Williams. And I was raised on big band and Gene Krupa. That's why I play now with that heavy staccato style like I'm playing drums. I actually started playing on soup cans and flowerpots while listening to big band.
When did you pick up the guitar?
It was a ukulele first, back when I was in kindergarten. I was reading a Superman magazine and it said, "Sell so many jars of Noxzema skin cream and we'll send you this ukulele." And I got it. But it was a piece of crap, so I filled a red wagon with a bunch of Pepsi and Coke bottles, went down to the store, cashed them, and I got a basic ukulele for $6.
Later I got a regular acoustic guitar. When I would stay at my grandma and grandpa's farm, I would go walking through the swamps with one of my buddies in Whitman, Massachusetts, and there were a lot of these guys strumming. It was like in Deliverance. But it was pretty wild. And my buddy had a guitar for sale, so he sold it to me for $8, and I paid him 25 or 50 cents a week.
When I started playing the guitar, I used the ukulele chords. Plus I held the ukulele upside-down when I first got it. You know, the book didn't say, "Turn it the other way, stupid. You're left-handed." And that's how I started playing upside-down backwards, 'cause all my rhythm was in my left hand.
At what point did you move out to the West Coast from Massachusetts?
In 1954, I finished 11th grade and said so long to everybody, because my father was hired by Howard Hughes to come to California. He was a precision machinist. And so that's where I ended up finishing my senior year of high school.
Then surfing became my life. And at the same time, I was raising over 40 different species of animals — lions, tigers, elephants, leopards, hawks, eagles, everything. You name it and I've raised them to preserve their breeds before the poachers killed them all into extinction. That was my life. I had all these animals, and I lived with them, slept with them, ate with them. I surfed from sunup to sundown. And I played my guitar in between.
So you only started surfing when you went out to Cali?
Right. But I brought the first surfboard back to the East Coast, and then they started a surf club in Wildwood, New Jersey. While I performing there at the Rainbow Club, I had to get a permit from the police department because they said the board was a weapon that could hurt people. So I could only surf from 7 to 10 a.m. and then I had to be out of the water.
When and how did you really develop your signature surf-guitar style? On your website, you say, "the '50s, not the '60s, as is commonly believed."
Well, it actually started in 1955. And the kids I surfed with called me "King of the Surf Guitar." But my music is really based out of Gene Krupa and the screams of my African lions, my elephants, and all my different animals. And then there was the ocean. I never called it surf music. I was called ["King of the Surf Guitar"] by the kids I surfed with — "Hey, man, you're the king! You're the king!"
I used to make fun of that title by going to Burger King and putting on one of those paper crowns. But I had a critic who was scolding me: "Don't you ever make fun of it because there's only two musicians in the world with titles recognized by historians: Elvis the King of Rock 'n' Roll, and Dick Dale the King of the Surf Guitar."
So I bit my lip, behaved, and accepted that I was the King of the Surf Guitar. Because, normally, when I play music, I play to all walks of life, from 5-year-old kids all the way up to 105. There are people with bones in their nose. There are people who are yellow, orange, black, and green. There are motorcycle riders and schoolteachers.
And I play everything from Johnny Cash to a lot of Latino stuff. I used to fly my airplane, land up in the mountains, and perform for the Mexican Indians and the little children. So when I do "Maria Elena" or "Esperanza," how can you call that surf music? It's not.
I like to just call it Dick Dale music because it's a feeling that I project no matter what I play, even if I play a love song. I've learned all styles of music — spiritual, country, Hank Williams stuff, jazz, Dixieland. Music is just an expression of feeling that comes out of your body. And that's basically it.
Besides surf music, you're also famous for destroying guitars and blowing up speakers.
Yeah, I'm noted for banging on that Stratocaster with the biggest strings. They call them telephone wires.
When I met Leo Fender and he created the Stratocaster guitar, he wanted me to pioneer it, proof it, and help take all the bugs out of it. Everything that came out of Leo Fender's head, I was his test pilot. He used to say, "When it can withstand the barrage of punishment from Dick Dale, then it is fit for human consumption."
So I blew up over 50 amplifiers. And that's why they also call me the Father of Heavy Metal. Because I use 60-gauge strings and I make people's ears bleed.
You know, it's power! Power and rhythm! That's how I play.