Dick Dale, a California-based musician and surfer whose rumbling and percussive guitar work drew inspiration from the thundering force of ocean waves, earning him the title king of surf guitar, died March 16 at 81.
His former bassist Sam Bolle confirmed the death to the Associated Press but did not say where or how he died.
With his Fender Stratocaster guitar, Mr. Dale said he attempted to mimic the surging ocean sounds and the energy of the big cats he raised for more than three decades. “I try to get the feeling of coming off a 10-foot wave combined with the scream of a jaguar — and it becomes a roller coaster of sound,” he once told the Vancouver Sun.
In the early 1960s, as youngsters flocked to Newport Beach, Calif., to master surfing, they spent their evenings dancing to Mr. Dale’s band, the Del-Tones, at the Rendezvous Ballroom on the Balboa Peninsula, where his audience numbered into the thousands.
Mr. Dale’s 1961 song “Let’s Go Trippin’ ” is generally considered the first recorded surf instrumental. But “Misirlou” (1962), a rocked-up Eastern Mediterranean folk song, proved even more influential. The recording was revived in the 1994 Quentin Tarantino film “Pulp Fiction.”
The song’s arrangement was fortuitous. At one concert, an audience member challenged Mr. Dale to play a song entirely on one string. Without hesitation, he recalled “Misirlou” from his childhood — his father was Lebanese — and proceeded to bring down the house by performing the song in double time, entirely on the low E string.
Mr. Dale, a southpaw who played a right-handed guitar flipped upside down, picked blindingly fast — his picks sometimes turned to dust from the force of his attack. Guitar maker Leo Fender customized Mr. Dale’s amplifiers to prevent the barrage of notes from blowing out his speakers.
His aggressive and clamorous tone came in part from the Fender reverb unit, an amplifier accessory that Mr. Dale helped popularize. The device altered the guitar’s signal by vibrating it through a loose spring, causing the notes to cascade and bounce.
Earlier rock guitarists such as Link Wray and Duane Eddy had success with rock instrumentals. However, Mr. Dale’s music, initially a Southern California phenomenon, inspired a wave of instrumental surf bands such as the Chantays, the Surfaris and the Marketts. Neil Young and Jim Messina began their careers playing surf music.
Though quite aware of his influence, Mr. Dale did not consider himself a virtuoso.
“I’m not a guitar player,” he told the Riverside (Calif.) Press-Enterprise in 2001. “The guitar players are guys like Steve Vai, Eddie Van Halen, these are guys that are really masters of their instruments. I’m just a master of just getting sound, if you want to call me a master of something. In fact, I just call myself a manipulator of sound.”
Mr. Dale was born Richard Anthony Monsour in Boston on May 4, 1937. His parents, who farmed in nearby Whitman, Mass., were of Lebanese and Polish descent. He grew up enamored of the jazz drummer and bandleader Gene Krupa.
“I learned those rhythms that Krupa had learned from the indigenous tribes,” he told the Indianapolis weekly Nuvo. “He would play those rhythms that tribes would bump their spears on the ground to, always on the ‘one.’ That’s how I learned to play drums. And then I took that same feel, that rhythm, and applied it to my guitar.”
In 1954, after the family moved to Southern California, he began performing rockabilly music in talent shows and soon began using the stage name Dick Dale. In 1958, he recorded “Ooh-Whee Marie” for Del-Tone, a vanity label financed by his father.
Although his records rarely appeared in the national pop charts, Mr. Dale appeared on the “Ed Sullivan Show” in 1963, and he had a cameo the next year in the Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon movie “Muscle Beach Party.”
Mr. Dale was a show business survivor in a career filled with mishaps and hardships. In the mid-1960s, as his musical style was being eclipsed by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, he was diagnosed with rectal cancer. His weight dropped to 98 pounds from 158 as medical bills consumed his earlier earnings. He attributed much of his recovery — both physical and mental — to a regimen of martial arts training.
In the 1980s, he was treated for third-degree burns on his picking hand caused by a cooking accident and was later evicted from his mansion after a costly divorce. At the time of his 1987 Grammy Award nomination for a rerecording of the Chantays’ “Pipeline” (with fellow guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan), he was living in an RV parked in his parents’ driveway.
“Though clearly stunned, Dale never once slid into self-pity,” the Los Angeles Times reported in 1986 amid the eviction proceedings. “Within an hour, he’d taken out a yellow legal pad and made a list of the things he would need to rebuild his life virtually from scratch. The list eventually grew to 17 items.
“His first priority,” according to the story, “was saving the guitars and other instruments, the tools he’d need for the comeback in which he had unswerving confidence. Second came the recording equipment. The clothes came third. His beloved Macintosh computers rated 6th; his surfboards 14th. The cash and valuables in his safes were an afterthought, at 17.”
Mr. Dale’s list of survivors could not be determined.
Through all the difficulties, the guitarist remained resolute about his music career.
“It’s not wrong to become broke, but it’s a real bad thing if you become poor,” Mr. Dale told the Times in 1986. “The difference between being broke and being poor is that when you’re poor, you don’t have the mental ability to want something and work hard enough to get it.
“I once made a million dollars a year with my career. I made $10,000 for three minutes’ work on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ in 1963. It all went to agents, record companies, producers, managers, taxes. It’s no big deal. I just ended up starting over again, just like I’m going to do now.”