When Dick Dale set off on his first surfing run, he became obsessed with channeling the sound of the waves into music. “I could feel this thunderous sound,” he told the Baltimore Sun. “It was just like the screaming, the roar of the tiger. When I started banging on my guitar, I was trying to emulate that fat, thick sound.”
Once captured in Dale’s guitar strings, that screaming, that tiger roar would change rock as we know it. With a Fender Stratocaster in his hand rather than a surfboard, he slashed at his instrument like he was escaping a riptide — and channeled the fear of Davy Jones’ locker into a sound that rattled the world forever.
Dale passed away of heart failure at 81 on Saturday (Mar. 16) as his bassist, Sam Bolle, confirmed to The Guardian. Yet, his ripples continue to emanate through popular music. By imbuing rock guitar with choppy, undulating tones, he and his Del-Tones crafted the 1960s California Sound.
In his day, his hit version of the Middle Eastern standard “Misirlou” spawned covers by the Beach Boys, the Ventures, the Trashmen and more. Future punks were taking notes: Every time the Cramps, the Ramones or Agent Orange abused a volume dial or a reverb tank, their debt to the King of the Surf Guitar shone through. And of course, his rendition (spelled “Miserlou”) left an indelible impact on Generation X in 1994, when its iconic riff rang out over the opening credits to Quentin Tarantino’s indie pop culture phenomenon Pulp Fiction.
But instead of passing the torch to a new generation, Dale spent the rest of his life showing gremmies how it was done. This wasn’t by design: “I can’t stop touring because I will die,” he told Pittsburgh City Paper. As a prominent victim of the American health care system, he was forced to perform into his eighties to treat his diabetes and rectal cancer.
Despite this adversity, he treated playing guitar as a sacrament — until the end. “When I die, it will not be in a rocking chair with a beer,” he said in 2004. “It will be onstage, with one big explosion and body parts.” At 81 and indisposed, Dale could still eat your favorite shredder for lunch. He may be gone, but surf-rock fans’ ears won’t stop ringing anytime soon.
While attempting to summarize the total of Dick Dale’s influence on rock & roll would be like trying to bottle the Pacific Ocean, here are 12 artists who directly took his influence and rode on.
The Beach Boys
An experimental-leaning band from the jump, the Beach Boys took what Dale created and boldly combined it with other flavors: Chuck Berry’s revved-up poetry, the Four Freshmen’s harmonies, Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound.
By doing so, they gave Dale’s turbulent sounds an accessible gleam — and laid the greatest sport around on landlocked kids everywhere. Brian Wilson said it himself: “Dick’s guitar playing was a big influence on all of us,” he stated in an Instagram tribute.
These surf-rock greats began as teens wandering into a pro studio with pocket money — and Dale’s sound in their brains. Nobody remembers “Surfer Joe,” the song they showed up to cut, but if you haven’t heard its B-side, the instrumental perennial “Wipe Out,” you must live on the sun.
They made up the beach-bum classic on the spot: it carried the band into the 2010s. All the while, they tipped their hat to Dale with covers of “Miserlou,” “Surf Beat” and “Let’s Go Trippin’.”
Where the Bel-Airs are mostly a footnote, the Ventures were gangbusters internationally. Their 1960 version of Johnny Smith’s “Walk, Don’t Run” peaked at No. 2 on the Hot 100; Rolling Stone cited it as one of the greatest guitar songs of all time. Although the Nokie Edwards-led surf-rock icons may have gained more commercial hosannas than Dale, their version of “Miserlou” showed the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
Early surf-rockers the Bel-Airs would have a minor hit in 1961 called “Mr. Moto” — and when guitarist Paul Johnson beheld a peak Dale onstage at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, California, he realized he was standing on the shoulders of a giant.
“His music was incredibly dynamic, louder and more sophisticated than the Bel-Airs,” he said in awe. “His blazing technique was something to behold.” When it comes to surf-guitar legends, game recognizes game.
If most surfing bands were content to follow Dale’s lead, the Trashmen corrupted it; their 1963 hit “Surfin’ Bird” is still the dumbest, funniest earworm garage rock ever gobbed up. “We were the only group up here in the Midwest turning the reverb up and playing things like ‘Miserlou’,” said their rhythm guitarist Dal Winslow. “The kids just went bananas for it. A lot of the stuff we played was the Dick Dale stuff.”
Their goofy surf oddity wasn’t for lack of reverence. To the lovable, landlocked Trashmen, Dale was the Word, and the Word was Dale.
A 23-year-old talent obsessed with Elvis as well as surf culture, Fuller recorded the 1966 rock classic “I Fought the Law” with the Bobby Fuller Four before dying under still-unsolved circumstances. While his potential was arguably never reached, it’s clear that his influences were in the waves.
And, turns out Fuller wasn’t the only one blown away at the Rendezvous. He opened his own teen club of the same name — and an incinerated version of “Miserlou” appears in his Early Recordings series.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience
Close your eyes and picture three things: a headband, a backwards Strat and a howling Fender amp. Who comes to mind? The bold-as-love guitar hero didn’t just borrow Dale’s choice of headgear: he took his pyrotechnics and cranked them from 10 to 11.
When Dale became seriously ill in 1967, Hendrix remarked, “You’ll never hear surf music again.” He corrected himself: “I bet that’s a big lie.” He was right on two counts: Dale pulled through, and Hendrix was his rightful evolutionary step.
Stevie Ray Vaughan
You may be unlikely to recall the 1987 surf-parody movie Back to the Beach — but its soundtrack should be swept up by any surf fan. Fellow Strat hero Vaughan teamed up with Dale for a pristine version of “Pipeline,” a stormy surf standard, originally a hit for The Chantays in 1963.
When it came to his guitar style, Dale would have none of the technical flimflam; this put him deeply in league with punk. “The average person doesn’t know what an augmented ninth is,” he barked to the Las Vegas Sun in 1995. “Neither do I, and I don’t give a shit!”
The Ramones could commiserate; they boiled their sound down to rapid downstrokes and barre chords. “The Ramones, Johnny Ramone has come to see Dick Dale play,” Dale has said. “It was really neat, all these groups coming to pay homage.”
While Van Halen made no known direct references to Dale, they wouldn’t exist without what he created. According to their biographer, Ken Dodds, a young Alex and Eddie cut their teeth on “Wipe Out”; the first song Eddie learned was “Walk, Don’t Run.”
“I would just play those four chords for hours,” Eddie remembered about the Ventures classic. Since both bands are unimaginable without Dale, one only need hear Eddie’s high-treble, tremolo-picked runs on “Eruption” to understand the influence as a soul transference.
The Cramps’ “Human Fly” begins with a long tremolo slide to nowhere; Nick Knox’s drums are an invitation to a knife fight; singer Lux Interior hisses like a snake. Do you think Dale had anything to do with this racket?
“You’ve got Dick Dale and Ricky Nelson,” said Nosebleed in a 1995 interview, referring to the Pulp Fiction soundtrack. “Do you reckon the Cramps would fit into something like that?” “Perfectly,” said guitarist Poison Ivy. “Yeah, I think so too,” opined Interior. File under the dark side of surf-rock.
Agent Orange have recorded a slew of punk favorites since 1979 — but come the 1990s, singer Mike Palm wanted to return to his surf-rock routes. “I’ve began to realize how intense my California roots really are,” he told the L.A. Times. I was heavily influenced by surf music.”
The band showed their true colors by covering Dale twice: they tackled “Miserlou” and “Surf Beat.” They came around to an essential truth: Dale outpunked punk before it began. To the guitar legend, genre distinctions could be boiled down to a simple essence: “Music is an attitude,” he once asserted. “Keep it simple, stupid. That’s always been my theory.”
We may have lost one of surf rock’s primary architects — but for anyone with an ocean of heart and attitude, the blueprints are still there for all to hear.