If you're not familiar with him you probably know him as background music for Pulp Fiction. But he's a true guitar innovator and was instrumental in helping Leo Fender develop reverb for guitar amps. We talked to Dale at length after the show. It was a private lecture in how to play surf rock straight from the king himself.
While developing his signature sound, he claims he was trying to make music that sounded like getting swept up in a wave and then spit out on the other end. That along with imitating the sounds his animals made. He's an avid collector of lions, tigers, jaguars, and other wild animals.
But, he divulged that the real secret of the surf rock sound is having the band place the emphasis on the first beat of each bar, which is the natural tendency for non-musicians and a hallmark of tribal drumming. Most musicians tend to emphasize the offbeat, but Dale claims that the secret to his sound is not reverb or his guitar playing. It's the emphasis on the first beat that allows the crowd to feel the band and each note. That's what drives his fast, articulate soloing. He said he initially picked up this idea from the big band leader Gene Krupa. Not yet recognizing this trick, I did notice that Dale would often launch into new songs without warning his band. Sometimes the drums or bass would drop out for a second, but it never sounded like the song was lost. Dale attributes that effect to his emphasis on the one.
On the subject of reverb, Dale claims that there was no reverb used on his seminal early recordings, including "Misirlou". That's not entirely true though. He didn't have reverb on his guitar amp but he did record in a long narrow room with the mic at the end. This created a natural reverb sound.
Another interesting Dick Dale trick of the trade is that he plays guitar left handed with the strings in reverse. So his top string is the high E and the bottom string is the low E. This is the opposite of how everyone else in the world strings their guitar. He told us he did this because his first instrument was a ukulele.
He also suggested that he taught Jimi Hendrix how to play guitar and implied that it was Dick Dale that gave Jimi the idea to rock a headband. That sounded like a little bit of a stretch, but who knows? Dale never added acid to his headband like Hendrix though. He says he's never taken a drug in his life or had a sip of alcohol. That along with vegetarianism is the key to his good health. In spite of fighting cancer and diabetes, he's a sprightly septuagenarian, so it's hard to argue with his approach. He still plays guitar with the intensity and attitude of a 20-year-old.
So, yeah, it was an awesome night for us—a master class in surf rock. He even thumbed through my iPhone and for a while and commented "nice photo" as we tried to help him troubleshoot his Grandpa-gets-an-iPhone problems. If you ever get a chance to see him don't waste it. He's still rocking so hard and plays way gnarlier than any punk kid I've seen in recent years. Oh, and his ringtone is "Misirlou".
Check out the video below of "Ghost Riders in the Sky" from last night. And, for an introduction to his recordings, we recommend his Singles Collection '61-75 on Sundazed.