Young Dick Dale, Surf Guitar God, looking pretty badass on his 1941 Harley-Davidson Flathead– he even machined the handlebar risers himself.
“According to Dick Dale, he and his cousin were riding motorcycles to the beach on the Balboa Peninsula in southern California, where Dale befriended the local surfers. There he also began playing with a band at a club called the Rinky Dink. Another guitar player showed him how to make certain adjustments to the pickup settings on his Stratocaster guitar to create different sounds, and that sound, aided by other sonic developments and featuring Dale’s staccato attack, became his trademark. Although he was still playing country music, he moved closer to the beach and began surfing during the day and playing music at night, adding rock ‘n’ roll to his repertoire.” via
“I do not play to musicians. I play to the people. I’ve never taken a lesson in my life, and I can play every instrument there is. I play by ear, but I can fool anybody into thinking I went to some conservatory of music. I create a nonchemical river of sound, and I never know what I’m playing next or how I’m going to play it. I just start ripping and take what I feel from the audience–and it comes. There’s no bullshit. If you’re not sweating, you’re stealing people’s money. That’s why people feel what I do. In all these years, I’ve never had one person walk out of a show and say, ‘Dick Dale’s a fake,’ or, ‘He sucks.’ One and one is two with Dick Dale. It’s not three, like these politicians say. The kids who’ve been following me around on this tour call my music `Dick Rock,’ and they call themselves `Dickheads.’ And the reason they do that is because music is an attitude–and man, my whole life has been an attitude, too.” –Dick Dale via
Dick Dale talks about the birth and evolution of his iconic, signature guitar sound below:
“I loved country music, and I always wanted to be a cowboy singer. So I followed people like Hank Williams and things like that. And in fact I even tutored Chet Williams’ daughter on how to be on stage. I’ve gotten to perform in the same building at the same time as people like Johnny Cash, Tex Ritter, Gene Autry, and Lefty Frizzell. I just did a memorandum song for Joe Maphis, who’s the father of the double-neck guitar. And at the same time it was Larry Collins and his sister Laurie, and I was sweet on Laurie at the time. And Larry, he was just a little kid, but could he play the double-neck guitar, because he was tutored by Joe Maphis. Larry was the one who taught me my first guitar lick. So anyway I did a dedication song they asked me to do on a thing called ‘Joe Maphis: Joe Maphis’ [?], it was a dedication to him, on his album that they did, they took all his old songs, he’s been passed on now. So I did that. And I just did one for Glen Campbell, because he used to play the backup guitars for me when I recorded with Capitol Records. He was one of the most incredible guitarists that could play anything on a guitar, and stuff like that.
I came to California in 1954. Drums were my first instrument. I used to listen to the big band albums that my Dad would bring home, and that’s what got me to play the trumpet, like Harry James, Louis Armstrong, and stuff like that. And I’ve always been self taught. I used to bang on my mother’s flour pans as a drum listening to Gene Krupa, cans of sugar and stuff like that in the Depression days. My father would say, ‘Stop scratching your mother’s cans!’ That’s where I got all my rhythm, and being left-handed. So when I first got my first instrument, I was reading in a Superman comic magazine. It said sell X number of jars of our Noxzema Skin Cream and we’ll send you this ukulele. Well I’d be out there in the snow banging on doors at night, ‘Buy my Noxzema Skin Cream.’ I finally got the ukulele and it was made out of pressed cardboard or something, I was so disillusioned I smashed it in a trash can. Then I went in and took the Pepsi-Cola bottles and the Coke bottles in my little red wagon, went down and got six dollars. And I went to the music store and I bought my first six-dollar ukulele. It was plastic and it had screws going into the tuning pegs so they would stay in it. But the book didn’t tell me – ‘turn it the other way stupid, you’re left handed.’ I was holding it to strum with my left hand ’cause all the rhythm was there.
I used to try to figure it out and tape my fingers to the strings and stuff like that when I’d go to sleep at night, hoping that they’d stay there. So I’d play upside-down backwards. And that’s not, like Jimi Hendrix, I found Jimi when he was playing bass for Little Richard in a bar in Pasadena to 30 people. He wasn’t Jimi Hendrix then. But then he’d come and ask me, how I did what I was doing. He said, ‘How do you get that slide?’ I showed him all the slides and everything like that. In fact, Buddy Miles (Hendrix’s drummer) when he would open for me, used to stand on stage and say, ‘You know, there wasn’t a day didn’t go by that Jimi didn’t say he got his best shit from Dale.’ The thing is, Jimi played—because he was a left-hander, and he couldn’t play like I was playing because I was playing upside down backwards, so we set him up, got him a left-handed neck, where the neck of the guitar was strung so that a left-handed player could play it, the way you’d string your strings. He was a true left-handed player playing on a left-handed neck. I wasn’t, I was a left-handed person playing upside-down backwards on a right-handed neck.
Leo Fender, who become like a father figure to me, died laughing when he gave me a Stratocaster. He said, “Here play this,” because I went to him and said, ‘My name is Dick Dale, I’m a surfer, I got no money, can you help me learn the guitar?’ He handed me the guitar and I held it upside-down backwards and he almost fell off the chair laughing. And he never laughed, he was like Einstein.
I wanted to make my guitar sound like Gene Krupa’s drums. I wanted a big fat sound, in fact I always tell my drummers that I want them to build to build on double-floor toms, because of that jungle sound. That’s where Gene Krupa got all his rhythms from, from Natives. He always played on the one, what we call the one. Musicians play on the one-and.
So it goes like this; tika-tika-taka-tika-taka-tika-taka-tika-ta, and you learn this—I’ve been in the martial arts all my life, and the routine, and in the Shaolin temples I’ve been with monks. So in the Shaolin temple they never allow you to touch the skin of a drum with your hands until you can mouth what you’re going to play. And if you go back in time at the first orchestral symphonic performance of symphonies, you will hear/see the maestro standing on his podium with the baton in his fingers, and wave the wand, and he’ll be keeping time going 1234-1234-1234-123, it goes all the way back to there.
Gene Krupa, he watched the natives when they would go either into their war dances or their celebration dances or anything, and they’d be holding their shafts, the spears, and they would always dance to the rhythm, going chickachicka-chackachicka-chickachickaBOOM, chickachicka-chackachicka-chickachickaBOOM, like that, and that was always on the one. So when I play my music, I play it that way, I play it to the grassroots people that don’t count on the one hand. That’s why all ages from 5 years old up to 105 can understand what I’m playing and they can feel what I’m playing when they’ve got in their head keeping time to my music.
I wanted my guitar to sound big and fat and thick. Well in those days, in the 50s, they didn’t have an electronic piece of equipment that makes the sound sound that way, and it’s called a transformer. And transformers only favored highs mids, or lows, never all three. And I wanted Leo to try to accomplish that. And every time he’d bring in a wall of speakers in the little office where we used sit together, they would sound nice and loud. But when I’d get them on stage, then I’d fry them, they’d catch on fire. The reason why is because when you’re pushing amperage to something that can’t handle them, it heats up the coil, it heats up the wires in the speaker, and they start frying the cloth on the speaker, the paper. I was in the Royal Albert Hall in London, where the queen goes, and performing, and my bass player was going, ‘Dick, you’re smoking the speakers,’ and I said, ‘Shut up, just keep playing, it’s their PA system.’
Leo Fender saw me blow over 50 of his amplifiers and he kept having to remake them. Then he stood in front of me in the middle of 4,000 people and he said to his number-two man, Freddie—Tavares from Hawaii, who played Hawaiian steel guitar for Harry Owens, who did all the beautiful Hawaiian songs, he was the number two man, he was the man who perfected the Telecaster. I’m the guy who perfected the Stratocaster and made changes with Leo and stuff like that. We’d sit down together in his living room and listen to Marty Robbins on the little old Jansen 10-inch speaker, but I blew every one of those speakers. So what happened was he said, now I know what Dick’s trying to tell me, and went back to the drawing board. And going from a 15-watt output transformer that didn’t give you that, it gave you loud enough for a living room but not in an auditorium, because in the auditorium the people’s bodies would suck up the sound, the fatness of the sound.
From there Leo created the first 85-watt output transformer, which peaked 100 watts. Now going from a 10-watt, 15-watt output transformer to an 85-watt output transformer that peaked at 100 watts, that’s like going from a little VW bug to a Testarossa. That was the first breakthrough, splitting the atom, of music and evolving volume that you’re talking about. Now in order to get that volume, we needed that transformer; I also used instead of 6-7-8-9-10-gauge strings, my strings were 16-18-20 unwound, and 39-49-60-gauge wound. Critics called them telephone wires. I even experimented with piano strings on my guitar, on my Stratocaster.
But we needed a speaker that could handle it. So we went to JBL. We told them we wanted a 15-inch D130. We wanted a speaker that was 15 inches and had around an 11-pound magnet on the back. I wanted an aluminum dust cover in the middle of the column so I could hear the click of the pick. They started laughing and they were saying, ‘What are you trying to do, put it on a tugboat?’ Leo said, ‘If you want my business, make it.’ And they did, and it was called the 15-inch JBL D130. Now we took that and built a three-foot high cabinet, two feet wide, 12 inches deep, with no portholes at all, just the speaker hole, and we packed it full of fiberglass. And then we went and plugged it in to the Showman—he called it a Showman amplifier, because he called me a showman because I was always jumping up on top of my speakers, and rocking back and forth while I played, and rocking the speaker back and forth, and I’d do all kinds of crazy things, I’d leap off the stage and slide on my knees on the floor as I was ending a song, and he said, “Man, you’re a showman.” I wanted it to be the cream because one night we ran out of amplifiers and he had to make one fast, and he found some cream tolex ones in the back room and he covered it, and he said, ‘Don’t let anybody see it because they’re going to want it because you’re playing on it. But it’s very impractical, they’ll stain it with coffee and they’ll stain it with cigarette butts and everything else.’ And I said ‘Oh but I love it I love it.’ And the next day he calls me in and he shows me his crew is making them with the cream tolex. So there, that was another breakthrough.
The next breakthrough was, I wanted it to be fatter. And also, not only the thicker the gauge string was a fatter sound, but the thicker the wood of the Stratocaster, that’s why I was considered the best rock-and-roll guitar player. Because the wood is thick, and if you could put strings on a telephone pole with a pickup, you’d have the fattest sound in the world, but you can’t hold a telephone pole. So we trimmed off the back sides of the Stratocaster and made the wood really thick, which gave it a real chunky fat sound. So the strings, the output transformer, and the solidity of the wood, and the speaker, that made the sound that Dick Dale is famous for.
Then I wanted to put another speaker in it. So he flipped out, went back to the drawing board, and he had to change the ohms down to 4 ohms. Originally, the speaker on the back said 16 ohms, but it’s not, it’s 8 ohms. So he made the first next-step up 4-ohm output transformer to match the twin speakers. This was a 100-watt output transformer peaking 180 watts, using tubes, for a fat sound. And that was called a Dick Dale transformer.
I still gave trouble to the speakers, the single-speaker cabinet, because it was twisting, and the reason why it was twisting was because when I was picking on my string like Gene Krupa plays sticks on his drum, I was doing that on my string, I’m playing drums. And it was confusing the speaker and it was twisting and jamming. When you would rub the speaker back and forth with your finger, you’re supposed to hear nothing. But when it jams you’d hear ekk-ekk-ekk [laughs]. So we went back to Lansing and told them to rubberize the outside ridge, so that it would flex easier, and it did the trick. We used the same trick for the high cabinet, and I just put a divider in the middle.” –Dick Dale via
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