Frontier Psychiatrist

Dick Dale – King of Surf, Father of Heavy Metal

Posted on: September 16, 2010

Dick Dale: King of Surf Guitar

With the Jewish new year behind us and the Autumnal equinox right around the corner, summer will wave goodbye next Tuesday and head off into the sunset. It’s ironic that a quintessential summer soundtrack should come out at the end of the season, but Shout Factory has released a record to keep us warm well into the Gregorian new year. 

Guitar Legend:The Very Best of Dick Dale features 16 tracks that include standards as well as some rarer gems. Dick Dale is the “King of Surf Guitar,” and was an early progenitor of loud music. Punk, rock, punkrock, rockpunk:  if the music involves plugging a Fender guitar into an amplifier, drenching it in reverb, and turning it up to eleven, you can thank Mr. Dale for doing it first.

Dick Dale, Miserlou

Most people today will recognize “Miserlou” from the Pulp Fiction soundtrack. That erstwhile Tarantino classic used the song to great effect, drawing upon its raw power to sell the grit, speed, and danger that epitomize the film. But way before the opening credits rolled and “Miserlou” was introduced to a new generation of ears, Dale was cooly shredding riffs to go with his surfing exploits on the California coast near Newport Beach in the 1950s. He worked directly with Leo Fender to develop and refine larger and more powerful guitar amplifiers. This close association led to to Dale having access to sounds nobody else did.  These new sounds informed his style and launched a wave of original American music that has since traveled all over the world. 

Dick Dale, Hava Nagila

One of the hallmarks of American music is how it borrows sounds and styles from other cultures. Dale makes this point succinctly in his version of “Hava Nagila,” a Hebrew folksong whose title means “Let Us Rejoice.”  Notice how the saxophone, usually relegated to backgrounds in surf music, gets a solo towards the end and howls away. The half-step chord progressions and musical scales (usually in a minor key) that typify Middle Eastern music figure prominently into many of Dale’s original tunes.  (Note the similarities between “Miserlou” and “Hava Nagila.”)  This favored modality helped fuel rumors that Dale was originally from Lebanon. He is of Lebanese/Russian/Polish descent, but actually hails from Quincy, Massachusetts. For the record, Dick Dale is 100% American.

Dick Dale, Third Stone from the Sun

“Third Stone from the Sun,” originally written by Jimi Hendrix, is one of those rare gems that  makes this collection worth owning. In the spoken intro, which is hard to comprehend, Dale whispers, “Jimi, I’m still here. Wish you were.” These two legends of the Fender stratocaster have something in common besides being fathers of modern rock and roll. They are both left-handed. But while Hendrix flipped his right-handed guitar over and restrung it so that the low E string was on top, Dale didn’t restring his. So when you look at him play, the low E string is on the bottom. This is a completely upside down approach to playing the instrument, and is an important part of Dale’s unique sound.

Dick Dale (Feat. Stevie Ray Vaughan), Pipeline

Another association with a lost guitar legend manifests in  “Pipeline.” Dale and Stevie Ray Vaughn shred through this surf classic that was produced for the campy but classic 1987 film Back to the Beach. Here they engage in a spirited back and forth with the melody. Dale goes first, and his guitar is panned to the right in the mix. Vaughn’s guitar sounds brighter and less reverbed, and is panned to the left. 

Dick Dale, Nitro

Finally, if there is any lingering doubt that Dale is indeed the “father of heavy metal,” as Guitar Magazine dubbed him in the early eighties, listen to “Nitro” from the not so classic 1996 film Barbed Wire.  The speed and precision with which he plays would land him a gig in any death metal outfit and the drums sound as if they were borrowed from a Motorhead recording.  Bearing in mind this a later recording, the idea that Dale has been playing this way for nearly fifty years surely adds credence to the notion of his royal rock paternity.

Today, at the age of 73, Dick Dale still travels around the world shredding for audiences new and old. Though recent battles with cancer have left him somewhat diminished (he recently had to cancel a long planned tour of Japan this fall), his legacy as a rock and roll pioneer will remain forever.

Dick Dale Today

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1 Response to "Dick Dale – King of Surf, Father of Heavy Metal"

[…] is a staff writer who covers revival music. He recently reviewed The Morlocks Play Chess and a new Dick Dale […]

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