Left-handed guitarist Dick Dale, whose best known track, Miserlou, brought him back to prominence after it was used as the theme for Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, died on Saturday following a four year battle against cancer.
Dale’s pounding, blaringly loud power-chord, instrumentals on songs like Miserlou and Let’s Go Trippin earned him the title ‘King of the Surf Guitar’. Dale liked to say it was he, and not the Beach Boys, who invented surf music; and some critics have agreed with him.
Born Richard Anthony Monsour on May 4 1937, Dale was of Lebanese descent on his father’s side; something he would later draw on musically for inspiration and influence. It wasn’t just stylistically in which his music was varied. In Kindergarten he collected empty Coke and Pepsi bottles to exchange them for the deposits in order to buy his first instrument; an $6 Ukulele which he learned to play from an instruction manual. He had piano lessons aged 9 and in the 7th grade he was taught to play the trumpet. His Lebanese uncle taught him how to play the tarabaki whilst Dale watched him play the oud. In between all of this he purchased a friends guitar for $8 and taught himself to play that too.
Dale is credited as one of the first electric guitarists to employ non-Western scales in his playing. His sound derives from Gene Krupa’s jungle drum rhythms and wild animals’ roars and other sounds, as well as from indigenous peoples’ dance rhythms. Dale was among the first guitarists to use reverb—which gave the guitar a “wet” sound that has become a staple of surf music. His staccato picking, however, is his trademark. Being left-handed, he initially had to play a right-handed guitar, but then changed to a left handed model. However, he did so without restringing the guitar, leading him to effectively play the guitar upside-down (to put this in contrast, Hendrix played a right-handed guitar upside-down but restrung his guitar), often playing by reaching over the fretboard rather than wrapping his fingers up from underneath. Dale is also noted for playing his percussive, heavy bending style, using what most guitarists consider very heavy gauge strings (again, for context Dale used 16p, 18p, 20p. 38w, 48w, 58w but guitar string manufacturers do not make string sets for standard tuned electric guitars heavier than 13 to 56). And we would probably need several more pages to talk about his work with Leo Fender on amps…
Dale took up surfing at 18 and rapidly became an avid surfer. He started building a devoted Los Angeles fan base in the late 50s with repeated appearances at Newport Beach’s old Rendezvous Ballroom where he played Miserlou, The Wedge, Night Rider, and other compositions at “wall-rattling” volume on a custom-made Fender Stratocaster guitar. Miserlou become his signature song and is testimony to his childhood influences as it had been adapted from a Middle Eastern folk tune.
His fingering style was so frenetic that he shredded guitar picks during songs, a technique that forced him to stash spares on his guitar’s body. ‘‘Better shred than dead,’’ he liked to joke, an expression that eventually became the title of a 1997 anthology released by Rhino Records. Dale said he developed his musical style when he sought to merge the sounds of the crashing ocean waves he heard while surfing with melodies inspired by the rockabilly music he loved. And so Dale pioneered a musical genre that Beach Boy Brian Wilson and others would later bring to fruition. Rolling Stone magazine call Let’s Go Trippin’ the ‘‘the harbinger of the ‘60s surf music craze.’’
His career also was side lined by a battle with cancer in the 60s and a serious foot infection in the 70s that was the result of a surfing injury. Quentin Tarantino’s choice of , who selected Miserlou as the theme song of his 1994 film Pulp Fiction helped pull Dale back into the pop-culture spotlight. In 193 he released Tribal Thunder, his first album of all new material in nearly 30 years. He followed it with Unknown Territory the following year. Dale continued to tour into his 80s, in part he said to pay the medical bills that advancing age was saddling him with. Having beaten cancer in the 1960s, he suffered a serious recurrence in 2015.
Dale is survived by his wife, Lana, and a son, James, a drummer who sometimes toured with his father.