Dick Dale Did Not Go Gentle into that Good Night

[Dale performing at the Viper Room, Los Angeles on June 2, 2018]

Like his relentless and unstoppable guitar playing, Dick Dale liked to talk loud and fast and carpet-bomb listeners with flurries of ideas, proclamations, philosophies, health tips, things that pissed him off, and even, if you were lucky, smatterings of love and respect for those who were not Dick Dale. The man was a giant, and he walked the walk and talked the talk of legend—all of which could be withering to lesser mortals.

For example, he once told my friend and studio partner Scott Mathews—who produced Dale’s 1996 album, Calling Up Spirits—something like, “I don’t know why you are the producer. Dick Dale produces the sounds!”

He was also not shy about defending his legacy. “Dick Dale created the surfing sound,” he told Guitar Player in September 1994. “Others played surfing songs. Often, my songs had nothing to do with surfing, but they had the surfing sound the way I played it. The guitar was the surfing sound. I played the way I felt. I called it surf music at the time because that’s the feeling I had when a wave came crashing down on me. Now, I think more of animals when I play. Like the power of my tiger, or the whine of my mountain lion, or the rage of an elephant.”

But, while his demeanor could put some folks off, there should be no argument that Dale was a total badass. To this day, he is one of the loudest guitar players I’ve ever heard. And we are talking CLEAN LOUD—not distorted, saturated, fuzzy, buzzy, or overdriven. His pick attack was feral yet precise, and the onslaught of notes pummeled the air like Godzilla delivering a smackdown to Ghidorah.

Not surprisingly, Dale’s gear was as brawny as a muscle car: “The Beast” (his gold-sparkle Fender Stratocaster), thick strings (.016, .018, .020, .038, .048, and .058 or .060), a heavy pick, Fender Dual Showman amps (modded with the “Dick Dale Kit” of 15-inch JBL D-130F speakers with larger magnets, bigger voice coils, heavier wire, aluminum dust covers, and rubberized front rims), and an outboard Fender Reverb unit.

There was also the significant fact of his spirit. Although he was besieged with myriad and serious health issues, he continued to perform, and shows were booked through this year. Part of the reason may have been that Dale lived to play, but, sadly, he also had to play to live. Much has been written about the crushing cost of his health care in his latter years (reportedly, $3,000 per month in 2015), as he battled cancer, diabetes, renal failure, and the removal of parts of his stomach and intestines.

“They put the colostomy bag on his side so he can still play guitar,” Dale’s wife Lana told me in 2015. “But we found the Stoma patch needs to be changed daily — rather than every six or seven days — so we are using more supplies than health insurance allows.”

It’s chilling to think that Dale had to psyche up his body to get onstage and perform under physical duress and pain, but it’s also a tribute to his strength and love of music that he could rock out shows into his late 70s and early 80s. If someone didn’t know the backstory, they might think, “Hey, that old dude can still shred”—as the concert below on June 2, 2018 clearly shows…

When I worked for Guitar Player, I was honored to present Dale with two of the magazine’s major awards—The Certified Legend Award in 2007, and The Jason Becker Award for Creativity, Courage, and Inspiration in 2015 (only four guitarists have been given this honor; Becker himself, Leslie West, Harvey Mandel, and Dale). Although his rapid-fire conversation was always engaged whenever we spoke, he also truly appreciated the honors, and he enjoyed sharing his tips, techniques, creative strategies, and views on the musical life with GP readers.

In addition, he loved talking about the times he’d invite kids to his compound to bash around on the guitars, basses, drums, and other instruments in his studio as he offered impromptu lessons, encouragement, and support. For all of his admittedly well-deserved declarations of self-worth, Dale definitely wanted to “play it forward.” I was even pleasantly surprised when we talked after I gave him the Certified Legend Award at the 2007 All-Star Guitar Night. At one point, he stopped his tributes to Dick Dale to speak in glowing terms about his son, Jimmy—how he was carrying the torch, how great a player he was, and how much it meant to perform with him. [Sadly, Jimmy Dale reported in yesterday’s media about his father’s passing that he and his dad had been estranged the past two years.]

Back in 2001, the Los Angeles Times asked me for a quote about Dale, and I still feel the same today, as I look back on his mammoth imprint on guitar playing: “In our world, he’s definitely one of the guys who shaped the way we do things now. He’s never been considered a technical genius, but he does have an intensely strong personality that comes through in the way he plays. It’s passionate and arrogant, but in a good way. He attacks the guitar to squeeze every single aggressive noise possible out of it. He’s got this feral energy. Can you imagine that in 1962, with all of that namby-pamby pop of the day? Here comes this guy in surf clothes and he’s brutalizing a guitar. He influenced a ton of players.”

But let’s let Dale have the last word here, as it should be. (And, hey, his ghost would likely kick my ass if I didn’t allow him to end this tribute…)

Here’s what he said when he was inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville in 2009: “I never dreamed I would be inducted by my peers, because I’m not what I think an accomplished musician should be. I can’t read music. I don’t know what an augmented 9th or 13th is, and I don’t give a crap. I just make my guitar scream with pain or pleasure.”


Author: Michael Molenda

Founder of Guardians of Guitar. Longest-serving Editor in Chief of GUITAR PLAYER (1997-2018). Long live Link Wray and Mick Ronson!

5 thoughts on “Dick Dale Did Not Go Gentle into that Good Night

  1. Thanks for the great writing Michael. Surf Zombies got to open for Dick Dale twice and we were so hyped. Had a good conversation with him. Was hoping we could do it a 3rd time.

  2. Dick Dale played in Austin every often the last twenty years and I did my best to catch him every time he was in town. I’d taken my son to see him at a dive called The Red Eyed Fly when Maxx was in middle school. I wanted him to see what a rock legend could do to a room. The show was just what you’d expect from Dick Dale. Astounding.

    After the show, , he graciously sat at a table and signed autographs and I’d pulled the last show poster off the wall and he autographed it for me. He asked Maxx if he wanted him to sign something and Maxx pulled out a paper from one of his teachers that I was supposed to sign since he’d managed to get in some trouble in school that day. He handed it over and Dale read it and laughed. Then he took out his felt pen and wrote across the page “Maxx is excused and give him an A!”

    Maxx turned it in the next day and, indeed, was excused.

    I suspect that teacher still has that paper.

  3. Just as i remember him when i saw him stage right in Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom. He’s the greatest!

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