Before everybody was learnin' how

October 08, 1993|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

How much do you really know about surf music? The Beach Boys? Jan and Dean? Everybody knows them. The Ventures? The Surfaris? The Chantay's? That's a little more like it.

But if you don't know Dick Dale, you may as well hang it up, haole.

Why? Because Dick Dale invented surf music. That may not be the way it reads in some of the history books, but that's largely because the historians weren't there to see it -- all they have to go by is when the first surf rock singles came out.

"But that was after we'd already established the surfing sound," explains Dale over the phone from Sky Ranch, his home outside 29 Palms, Calif. "The surfing sound wasn't created in '59 or '60 or '61, like the books say. I started inventing it in 1956. I was playing it to people in '57 and '58, and we had 4,000 people a night in the late '50s."

As for Dale's claim to the title "King of the Surf Guitar," that came from the surfers themselves. "Everything I've ever done was named by the kids I was surfing with," he says. "It was just one big happy family, like a big clan."

Back then, Dale was as much a surfer as he was a musician, spending his days in the water and his nights playing at the Rendezvous Ballroom. "It ended up with 4,000 people a night," he recalls. "This is before there were ever the Beach Boys. Jan and Dean, the Righteous Brothers. We had to put in 13 more fire exits, because the building covered a whole city block."

None of what he did in those early days got on record, unfortunately. In fact, Dale and his band, the Del-Tones, didn't cut their first single, "Let's Go Trippin'," until 1961. And by that point, Dale had pretty much perfected the surf guitar vocabulary the twangy tone, the staccato picking, the shivering glissandos -- that would later be absorbed into hits like "Pipeline" and "Wipe-Out."

"What I was trying to do was actually capture the sound of being out in the ocean," he says. "When I'd be out there surfing, I could feel this thunderous sound. It was just like the screaming, the roar of the tiger. When I started banging on my guitar, I was trying to emulate that same sound -- that fat, thick sound."

Making a guitar roar like the ocean wasn't easy, particularly given the size and strength of guitar amps back then. "In those days, we didn't put microphones in front of amplifiers," he explains. "Amplifiers had to stand on their own merit. And when Leo Fender was making like an 8- and 10-inch speaker for country players, it just didn't do it.

"I could not get that driving, thriving sound I wanted, and I would tell Leo, 'We're getting 4,000 people a night. The big, fat sound is not coming through. I want a fat, thick sound with an edge on it.' "

Dale's relationship with Fender was a long one. "When I met Leo in 1955, he gave me a guitar called the Stratocaster, and he said, 'Here, take this guitar.' Well, I'm left-handed; it was a right-handed guitar. So I held it upside down, playing it backward."

Wasn't that, um, kind of difficult? "Well, I learned to play that way on a ukulele, not realizing it."

Oh.

At any rate, it was Dale who got Fender to build the Bandmaster amp, the first guitar amp that was truly loud enough for rock and roll.

Dale also introduced reverb to the rock guitar vocabulary, but that came about almost by accident. "The reverb was actually intended for my voice, because I didn't have a natural vibrato when I sang, and I sounded terrible," he says. "I wanted something to add sustain, so we stole the idea out of Hammond BTC Organ, because they had a reverb tank inside the Hammond Organ.

"I sang through it, and then I went, 'Wow!' So I plugged my guitar in it. That was like frosting on the cake."

Overall, Dale and the Del-Tones cut five albums between 1961 and 1964, but the guitarist wasn't satisfied with the way the recordings came out. "I was never able to get the sound I wanted," he says. "These guys would always tell me, 'Your guitar is just too overwhelming, we're going to have to put

compressors on.' So it comes out thin. When 'Let's Go Trippin' ' was recorded, I was so frustrated when I heard it, I just smashed it against the wall."

Consequently, he dropped out of the business and didn't do another album until "Tribal Thunder" came out this year. "It's not like an album where somebody goes and puts two or three good songs on it and puts filler in for the rest because they've got an obligation for another album," he says. "Every song that I did was like painting a picture of my feelings. There's no overdubbing, there's no fancy garb, there's nothing. It's just gut-raw. The way you hear it is the way I played it."

But even then, hearing Dick Dale on the stereo still can't compete with the excitement of his playing live on stage. "I'm not some musician that went to the Juilliard School," he shrugs. "I don't play to musicians, I play to people. I take them on a roller coaster ride of sound, and that's basically what it's all about."

Dick Dale

When: Sunday at 9 p.m.

Where: Max's on Broadway, 735 S. Broadway

Tickets: $13.50 in advance, $15.50 day of show

Call: (410) 675-6297 for information, (410) 481-7328 for tickets

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