R.I.P. Dick Dale, "King of the Surf Guitar"

Music News
Dick Dale, LIVE on KEXP in December 2009 // photo by Jim Bennett (view set)
I've been performing since 1955. I'm going to have to keep performing 'til I die because I'm not going to die in some rocking chair with a big ol' beer belly. — Dick Dale

Legendary guitarist Dick Dale passed away on Saturday night at the age of 81. While no cause of death was given, throughout his life, Dale battled with diabetes, kidney disease, and rectal cancer. The news was confirmed by his long-time drummer Dusty Watson.

Not only was Dick Dale an influential musician, but he also helped pioneer new technology in guitars and amplifiers, collaborating with the Fender Musical Instruments Corporation. Born Richard Anthony Monsour in 1937, Dale's interest in music began at a young age. In 1954, the Monsours moved from his birthplace of Boston, Massachusetts, to Orange County, California, where surf culture became a huge inspiration to him. Drawing influence from his Lebanese ancestry, Dale's unique sound set him apart from other west coast beach bands. His signature song — 1962's "Misirlou" — is actually a revved-up re-interpretation of an Eastern Mediterranean traditional folk song.

During his live performances, his furious guitar playing — "I grind so hard that the guitar picks just melt down," he told The New York Times in 1994 — was literally blowing up his Fender amplifiers. Thus began a friendship and long-running collaboration with Leo Fender, founder of the Fender Musical Instruments Corporation. They created the first 85-watt transformer, which peaked at 100 watts, and then once Dale outgrew that volume capacity, they later designed a 100-watt version that peaked at 180 watts.

Volume wasn't their only experimentation: his signature gold Fender Stratocaster (nicknamed "The Beast") was custom-designed for him. As Fender.com describes, it was "outfitted to be played loud, as it boasted massive .016-, .018- and .020-gauge unwound strings and .039-, .049- and .060-gauge wound strings that produce tremendous tension. When on stage, Dale didn’t necessarily break strings — he practically burned through them, thanks in part to the heavy picks he used. The Beast did not have any tone controls, only a master volume and a toggle that bypassed the three-way switch to activate the neck and middle pickup only."

Dale was also the pioneer of reverb: unsatisfied with his singing voice, he took the reverb unit out of an old Hammond organ and gave it to Fender. Together, they invented the "Fender Tank Reverb." Not content to just use it on his voice, Dale began to plug his guitars through it, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Sadly, Dale's physical health became a challenge. In 1965, at the age of 28, he was diagnosed with rectal cancer. An L.A. Times profile reports that doctors told the guitarist that without aggressive surgery, he could be dead in months. Dale survived, but his bank account balance didn't. A divorce and unwise business decisions continued to drain his finances. 

Thankfully, in 1994, director Quentin Tarantino used Dale's signature track "Misirlou" in the opening credits of his blockbuster film Pulp Fiction. The resurgence revitalized his career, but he never quite recovered from the financial blow resulting from his health problems. By this time, his rectal cancer had returned and left him without parts of his stomach and intestines. The Washington Post reports he also suffered from diabetes, renal failure, and vertebrae damage. "Even with insurance, the cost of buying bags and patches for his colostomy bag and other treatments required Dale to perform live." As he once famously said, "I'm going to have to keep performing 'til I die because I'm not going to die in some rocking chair with a big ol' beer belly."

Dale is survived by his wife and manager, Lana Dale, and his son, Jimmy.