July 12, 2015 in Historic Fenders

Dick Dale – The King of Surf Guitar

S60s21Dick Dale is a landmark of American music, as his signature musical style, trademark sound, and interesting technique are unique and inspiring, to say the least. Anyone searching for something new should give any of his recordings a listen, as those who explore Dale’s music will discover something fresh and melodic, even though it happens to be vintage.

Part of Dale’s magic lies in the fact that he’s a very aggressive player, and his pickhand literally pummels the strings as he plays. If you carefully watch video of the surf guitar master playing live, you’ll see that he attacks the strings with a lot of muscle, and extended viewing can lead you to wonder when he might break a string from the intensity in which he plays.

Dale’s breakthrough single was entitled ‘Let’s Go Trippin’,’ and it single-handedly launched the surf music craze in 1961. This new wave of underwater music caused many surfers to ditch their surfboard and pick up an electric guitar to follow in Dale’s footsteps. The original surf craze lasted until around 1964, which is around the time the British Invasion took over America.

Dale’s signature surf sound was originally created by using his trademark left-handed mid-1950’s Fender Stratocaster nicknamed “The Beast,” a gift from Leo Fender to Dale in the early 1960’s. Dale’s relationship working with Fender continued through the 1960s, and this included the distinction of him being the first guitarist to perform using a 100-watt amplifier.

Dale would routinely blow-up his Fender amps at live gigs and performances, so he and Leo Fender worked together to design a higher-output amplifier that could withstand his massive volume level onstage and his heavy-handed picking attack. Couple this with his guitar being strung with outrageously heavy strings (16-58’s), led to further problems with him blowing amps and speakers. It’s reported that Dale killed around 50 tube amps during his rise to stardom in the early 1960’s.

This situation was finally remedied by Fender when they built the guitarist a custom 85-watt Fender Showman head-cabinet (which could peak at 100 watts). The amp cabinet also featured dual 15” Lansing speakers to withstand the flexing, shaking, and twisting coming from the sheer volume of Dale’s new form of music. Dale used this same amplifier throughout his career, and it’s currently on display at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, AZ.

Dick Dale's 1965 Fender Showman Amp at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, AZ

Dale’s career coasted through the 1970’s and 1980’s, until he found a resurgence of popularity when his music was featured in popular films such as Pulp Fiction in 1994 and ‘Back to the Beach,’ where he performed with Stevie Ray Vaughn in 1987, playing a version of the surf-classic ‘Pipeline.’ In addition to films, his music was also well-received in the popular Guitar Hero video game series, which introduced his watery licks to a new generation of music fans and virtual guitarists.

Dick Dale is a fretboard legend that continues to inspire and amaze anyone that discovers his signature style, sound, and spirit. Here’s to you Dick Dale, now let’s go catch some (sound)waves!


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