What’s on Dick Dale’s Mind?

Posted June 26, 2008 in Feature Story

There are a few people in this world that have played a part in changing—or is it creating—history. When Dick Dale enters the room, you feel like your life has just changed and something is about to happen. Dale has lived a thousand lives and when he talks about it, you don’t doubt for a second his fantastic experiences, or the profound travails he’s been through. Here Dale muses on his musical accomplishments, his exotic animal refuge in Riverside, living in the Gillette mansion in Balboa and the Dick Dale Sky Ranch in 29 Palms, where he now resides. Slinging his legendary Fender Strat loaded with 60 gauge strings, this guitar legend and two-time cancer survivor is the real deal, and he has much on his mind. Agent Orange’s DUSTY WATSON gets into the head and heart of DICK DALE


Dick Dale on Guitars 

Leo [Fender] created the Stratocaster in 1954 and gave me one and asked me to play it, beat it to death and work the bugs out of it. He couldn’t understand why I had to play so loud until he came and stood in front of 4,000 people and saw what I was doing. Freddie Tavares had worked with Leo on developing the Telecaster and Leo wanted him to help him with it but he was too busy as the steel guitar player with Harry Owen’s Royal Hawaiians, so he sent Leo down to check me out. Harry wrote my father a letter asking me to record an instrumental song he had just written for my Surfer’s Choice recording but my father (who managed Dick’s career for many years) thought it wasn’t a good idea so he put the letter aside. I just found the letter recently, and what an honor it was to know Harry had written a song for me.


Dick Dale on Surfing and Animals

Surfing was my life. I was surfing everyday in front of the Pavilion in Balboa and would come out of the water, walk in through the back door and towel off, pick up my guitar and start to play. It was Dick Dale, King of the Surf Guitar named by the 17 surfers I rode with, but that has nothing to do with the kinds of sounds I created. I had two-and-a-half acres of land behind my nightclub—Dick Dale’s on Van Buren in Riverside—where I had lions and tigers, hawks, cheetahs, mountain lions, elephants, over 40 different species of animals, and I was mimicking the sound of my mountain lion screamin’ when he wanted something to eat. And my elephant, every time I fed it a wheel barrel of fruit, shoving it down its throat, and my lion every day at five o’clock would go Nnnneeeooohhhuuuhh! And the ground would rumble and I would just mimic those sounds. 


Dick Dale on Close Calls with His Wild Pets

One day I was in the cage feeding my mane lion and he came at me. I had to whack him in the head with a pipe and he went down and stared at me like oh you want to play now? and my female jumped down from the ledge and screamed like I had never heard her and fought him off. So I was able to get out!  I’ve stitched myself up many times from claws and fang tears in my skin and skull from my jaguar and the lions. I used carpet needles and fishing line. When you experience things like that you don’t sweat the small shit. 


Dick Dale on Gene Krupa

Where did my sound really come from? It was Gene Krupa. I was banging knives on my mother’s canister sets and sugar cans. I worked for five cents an hour in an Arabic bakery and couldn’t afford drums! I studied my father’s Krupa records and how he got his rhythms and I picked up how he listened to the one. The natives knew the one. The Zulu Indians knew the one. I based all my rhythms on that style. And I wanted my guitar to sound like his big fuckin’ drums. 


Dick Dale on Burning Up Speakers

That’s why I use 60 gauge strings [Krupa’s sound]. That’s why I kept burning up speakers because the little teeny upper transformer would heat up the wire and the cone of the speaker and they would just burn. So Leo Fender created the first 85-watt output transformer that peaked at 100 watts—there was nothing like that in fuckin history. Then when we built the 15” speaker with Lansing we put two of them in the Showman and called it the Dual Showman . . . and when the 100-watt output transformer came I put six of ‘em behind me that night in San Bernardino just to be funny and it lifted me up off my feet. I said fuck that shit and went back to just playing through my doubles.



Dick Dale on Nearly Becoming a Country Act and the Reverb Tank

Before the Rendezvous Ballroom days I played on the Town Hall Party in Compton with Lefty Frizzell, Tex Ritter, Gene Autry, Johnny Cash, Chet Atkins, all the great country stars. Glen Campbell came later. I used some of those guys on my early albums. I never used my own band members on my first recordings because they weren’t good enough. The reverb tank was created for my voice, not my guitar. Leo hated anything but pure, clean sound but I needed something to help my voice sustain like notes on my Hammond organ and I saw the word REVERB on a box inside my organ and I took it out and brought it to Leo and told him that is what I want for my voice. So he built a box for the spring reverb and put three tubes in it and I hooked it up to a Birdcage Shure microphone and I sounded like Dean Martin!  


Dick Dale on Tuning

I also have an invisible tuner inside my pick guard. When I’m onstage and need to tune I tell everyone “Be quiet! I need to tune my guitar. I’ve been doing this so long I can adjust the string tension until I feel the vibration of the note in my body.” Funny shit. 


Dick Dale on Surviving Cancer, Martial Arts, Septuagenarianism, and Life

All the years in the Martial Arts—I mean I’m 71—how do you think I’ve been able to do 39 concerts in 42 days? For six weeks, Monday through Friday I got hit with three doses of radiation and at the same time I got my chemotherapy. One day at eight-thirty in the morning I was taking my radiation and chemo and at nine o’clock that night I was playing for 7,000 people at the NAMM Convention with the Saturday Night Live band.  I never used drugs for pain and they tried to give me morphine—but it didn’t work, so I said fuck it and endured the pain. They used three surgeons for the operation and it lasted six hours. The doctor said if my body wasn’t in the condition that it was in, it would have never been able to be done. I knew I had a problem, but I didn’t want to go in; we were finishing our Canadian tour and were headed off straight to another European, but cancelled when they told me “You better get in now pal.” I really loved my surgeon’s bedside manner—he was funnier than shit. [Laughs] 


Dick Dale on Giving Back and Taking the Pain

I am doing talks at the Cancer Foundations, giving people strength, you know? Strength to keep on going. The letters that I’ve gotten will literally bring tears to your eyes. It’s just unbelievable, the support from all over the world it’s really touching. A six-year-old girl sent me a huge watercolor painting of palm trees and a hammock; it’s beautiful.

When the pain is there I swear at it, I give it a good Bostonian swearing and you know—I’m staring down at the grass and not looking up through the dirt.”


Dick Dale on Guitars (Post)

“Well it’s been pretty hard, I mean, I’ve been going through this since last September. It took so much out of me, sometimes I don’t want to do anything but lie on the couch and watch CNN. But I did write a beautiful song about being on the beach—you know, I’ve been on the beach my whole life. When you meet these people and the light is so bright around them. It has the line, As I walk in the sun, I know I’ll find my special one


Long live DICK DALE.



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