Dick Dale, the “King of the Surf Guitar” who formulated the sound and attack of the Southern California-bred instrumental style in the early ‘60s, has died. He was 81.
His bassist, Sam Bolle, confirmed the news to the Guardian.
Dale’s self-released records with his band the Deltones led the way for countless other acts — the Chantays, the Surfaris, Eddie and the Showmen and the Pyramids among them — who emulated his reverb-soaked, “wet” sound and aggressive attack in their own hits.
In his “The Illustrated Discography of Surf Music,” writer and latter-day surf guitarist John Blair described the genesis of Dale’s distinctive and unprecedented sound.
“He attempted to musically reproduce the feeling he had while surfing, and the result of this somewhat nebulous and certainly subjective approach was the surfing music genre,” Blair wrote. “The feeling was one of vibration and pulsification, which he produced by a heavy staccato sound on the low-key strings of his guitar accompanied by a heavy thunder-like beat.”
Dick Dale wasn't nicknamed "King of the Surf Guitar" for nothing: he pretty much invented the style single-handedly, and no matter who copied or expanded upon his blueprint, he remained the fieriest, most technically gifted musician the genre ever produced. Dale's pioneering use of Middle Eastern and Eastern European melodies (learned organically through his familial heritage) was among the first in any genre of American popular music, and predated the teaching of such "exotic" scales in guitar-shredder academies by two decades. The breakneck speed of his single-note staccato picking technique was unrivalled until it entered the repertoires of metal virtuosos like Eddie Van Halen, and his wild showmanship made an enormous impression on the young Jimi Hendrix. But those aren't the only reasons Dale was once called the father of heavy metal. Working closely with the Fender company, Dale continually pushed the limits of electric amplification technology, helping to develop new equipment that was capable of producing the thick, clearly defined tones he heard in his head, at the previously undreamed-of volumes he demanded. He also pioneered the use of portable reverb effects, creating a signature sonic texture for surf instrumentals. And, if all that weren't enough, Dale managed to redefine his instrument while essentially playing it upside-down and backwards -- he switched sides in order to play left-handed, but without re-stringing it (as Hendrix later did).