During the late 50s, Dick Dale staked claim to a guitar sound in Balboa, CA that became synonymous with surf culture. He became known as the King of Surf Rock Guitar. The sound is distorted with a rhythmic twang. It’s a breakneck steed up on a wave, firing west toward the horizon.
Born May 4, 1937, Dale is a true American hero. You’ve heard his signature song “Miserlou” in Pulp Fiction. On a larger scale, Dick Dale evolved volume. Working with Leo Fender and JBL Speakers, Dale was one the first guitar players on the planet to push, play with, expand, and experiment with the entity of louder volume. Rock music is as loud as it is today thanks in large part to Dick Dale. At 75-years old, he’s still playing, touring, and being loud. He’s a man of many talents, and words. He’s a horseman, an exotic animal trainer, a martial arts expert, an archer, and a pilot whose favorite plane is a Cessna 337B Super Skymaster. His wife of nine years, Lana, is his soul mate, who knew she was going to be with him from the age of two. She also communicates with the dead. Dale spoke from his home in San Bernardino County, California.
Due to the length of this interview, it is broken down into parts:
I. Exotic Animals II. Evolution of Dick Dale Sound/Volume
III. Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon/Drugs IV. What Happens When We Die?
V. Angel Saying to Buy Lottery Ticket/Coyotes VI. Elvis
VII. Playing on Top of Space Mountain VII. Air Force Rescue/Plane Crash
IX. Dalai Llama/Lana as Nun X. Dick’s First Guitar/Becoming King of Surf Rock
My life was music, surfing, and all my animals. And so when I heard my elephant scream at the top of his lungs when he wanted me to feed it, I'd go in and I'd feed it. Or my mountain lion would scream really high and my African lion would rumble to me at 5:30 every evening to eat. My cats were very well-mannered in the way that I had raised them. You can't let people think that they can get these animals and raise them, because the animals will kill them. A lion has 1,700 pounds per square inch in their jaw, and when they close they go right through the middle hands, but I used to stick my arms in their mouths [laughs]. See, there's a way that you work with these animals, you cannot control/command them without resentment, and that's why people get injured. You have to use a different kind of psychology.
If a lion strikes out at me or something, I don't strike back at him, but I let him know I'm angry and I'm upset, but I don't push it. If I push it, then they'll kill me. So what I do is, I'll talk in their language, I've learned how they growl, how they talk, how they greet. I know when they're stalking me and how to break the stalk from talking to them. Like if my tiger's thinking that I kinda seem to them like a nice little catch, and he'll start looking at me, and start zoning in on me, and start walking towards me, I'll give him a greeting. I'll go like [coughing-grunting snuffing noise – DICK MAKES INCREDIBLE ANIMAL NOISES, HOLY SHIT], that's something that's a greeting, and then all of a sudden that changes his mind about everything and he'll walk up and rub his head against me. If I started beating on him, saying, "Get out!" like that, he'll just wait for the opportune moment to take my head off, and that's just the way it is. You cannot beat them with divine mastery of control, you just gotta use psychology in a certain way and know how to protect yourself in a certain way. I don't advise people to go out and get these animals. First of all it's illegal to get them. I had so many people back in the late 50s and 60s that would come to me and say, "Oh please can you come to our place, our lion, it's six months old, it's almost a year old, and we can't get him off the couch because it's snarling at us." And so they said, "Just get him out, just take him away." Because they're cute when they're cubs, but when they grow up, they want to chew your legs off.
II. Evolution of Dick Dale Sound/Volume.
I came to California in 1954. Drums were my first instrument. I used to listen to the big band albums that my Dad would bring home, and that's what got me to play the trumpet, like Harry James, Louis Armstrong, and stuff like that. And I've always been self taught. I used to bang on my mother's flour pans as a drum listening to Gene Krupa, cans of sugar and stuff like that in the Depression days. My father would say, "Stop scratching your mother's cans." That's where I got all my rhythm, and being left-handed. So when I first got my first instrument, I was reading in a Superman comic magazine. It said sell X number of jars of our Noxzema Skin Cream and we'll send you this ukulele. Well I'd be out there in the snow banging on doors at night, "Buy my Noxzema Skin Cream." I finally got the ukulele and it was made out of pressed cardboard or something, I was so disillusioned I smashed it in a trash can. Then I went in and took the Pepsi-Cola bottles and the Coke bottles in my little red wagon, went down and got six dollars. And I went to the music store and I bought my first six-dollar ukulele. It was plastic and it had screws going into the tuning pegs so they would stay in it. But the book didn't tell me - "turn it the other way stupid, you're left handed." I was holding it to strum with my left hand 'cause all the rhythm was there.
I used to try to figure it out and tape my fingers to the strings and stuff like that when I'd go to sleep at night, hoping that they'd stay there. So I'd play upside-down backwards. And that's not, like Jimi Hendrix, I found Jimi when he was playing bass for Little Richard in a bar in Pasadena to 30 people. He wasn't Jimi Hendrix then. But then he'd come and ask me, how I did what I was doing. He said, “How do you get that slide?” I showed him all the slides and everything like that. In fact, Buddy Miles (Hendrix’s drummer) when he would open for me, used to stand on stage and say, "You know, there wasn't a day didn't go by that Jimi didn't say he got his best shit from Dale." The thing is, Jimi played—because he was a left-hander, and he couldn't play like I was playing because I was playing upside down backwards, so we set him up, got him a left-handed neck, where the neck of the guitar was strung so that a left-handed player could play it, the way you'd string your strings. He was a true left-handed player playing on a left-handed neck. I wasn't, I was a left-handed person playing upside-down backwards on a right-handed neck.
Leo Fender, who become like a father figure to me, died laughing when he gave me a Stratocaster. He said, "Here play this," because I went to him and said, "My name is Dick Dale, I'm a surfer, I got no money, can you help me learn the guitar?" He handed me the guitar and I held it upside-down backwards and he almost fell off the chair laughing. And he never laughed, he was like Einstein.
I wanted to make my guitar sound like Gene Krupa's drums. I wanted a big fat sound, in fact I always tell my drummers that I want them to build to build on double-floor toms, because of that jungle sound. That's where Gene Krupa got all his rhythms from, from Natives. He always played on the one, what we call the one. Musicians play on the one-and.
So it goes like this; tika-tika-taka-tika-taka-tika-taka-tika-ta, and you learn this—I've been in the martial arts all my life, and the routine, and in the Shaolin temples I've been with monks. So in the Shaolin temple they never allow you to touch the skin of a drum with your hands until you can mouth what you're going to play. And if you go back in time at the first orchestral symphonic performance of symphonies, you will hear/see the maestro standing on his podium with the baton in his fingers, and wave the wand, and he'll be keeping time going 1234-1234-1234-123, it goes all the way back to there.
Gene Krupa, he watched the natives when they would go either into their war dances or their celebration dances or anything, and they'd be holding their shafts, the spears, and they would always dance to the rhythm, going chickachicka-chackachicka-chickachickaBOOM, chickachicka-chackachicka-chickachickaBOOM, like that, and that was always on the one. So when I play my music, I play it that way, I play it to the grassroots people that don't count on the one hand. That's why all ages from 5 years old up to 105 can understand what I'm playing and they can feel what I'm playing when they've got in their head keeping time to my music.
I wanted my guitar to sound big and fat and thick. Well in those days, in the 50s, they didn’t have an electronic piece of equipment that makes the sound sound that way, and it's called a transformer. And transformers only favored highs mids, or lows, never all three. And I wanted Leo to try to accomplish that. And every time he'd bring in a wall of speakers in the little office where we used sit together, they would sound nice and loud. But when I'd get them on stage, then I'd fry them, they'd catch on fire. The reason why is because when you're pushing amperage to something that can't handle them, it heats up the coil, it heats up the wires in the speaker, and they start frying the cloth on the speaker, the paper. I was in the Royal Albert Hall in London, where the queen goes, and performing, and my bass player was going, "Dick, you're smoking the speakers," and I said, "Shut up, just keep playing, it's their PA system."
Leo Fender saw me blow over 50 of his amplifiers and he kept having to remake them. Then he stood in front of me in the middle of 4,000 people and he said to his number-two man, Freddie—Tavares from Hawaii, who played Hawaiian steel guitar for Harry Owens, who did all the beautiful Hawaiian songs, he was the number two man, he was the man who perfected the Telecaster. I'm the guy who perfected the Stratocaster and made changes with Leo and stuff like that. We'd sit down together in his living room and listen to Marty Robbins on the little old Jansen 10-inch speaker, but I blew every one of those speakers. So what happened was he said, now I know what Dick's trying to tell me, and went back to the drawing board. And going from a 15-watt output transformer that didn't give you that, it gave you loud enough for a living room but not in an auditorium, because in the auditorium the people's bodies would suck up the sound, the fatness of the sound.
From there Leo created the first 85-watt output transformer, which peaked 100 watts. Now going from a 10-watt, 15-watt output transformer to an 85-watt output transformer that peaked at 100 watts, that's like going from a little VW bug to a Testarossa. That was the first breakthrough, splitting the atom, of music and evolving volume that you're talking about. Now in order to get that volume, we needed that transformer; I also used instead of 6-7-8-9-10-gauge strings, my strings were 16-18-20 unwound, and 39-49-60-gauge wound. Critics called them telephone wires. I even experimented with piano strings on my guitar, on my Stratocaster.
But we needed a speaker that could handle it. So we went to JBL. We told them we wanted a 15-inch D130. We wanted a speaker that was 15 inches and had around an 11-pound magnet on the back. I wanted an aluminum dust cover in the middle of the column so I could hear the click of the pick. They started laughing and they were saying, "What are you trying to do, put it on a tugboat?" Leo said, "If you want my business, make it." And they did, and it was called the 15-inch JBL D130. Now we took that and built a three-foot high cabinet, two feet wide, 12 inches deep, with no portholes at all, just the speaker hole, and we packed it full of fiberglass. And then we went and plugged it in to the Showman—he called it a Showman amplifier, because he called me a showman because I was always jumping up on top of my speakers, and rocking back and forth while I played, and rocking the speaker back and forth, and I'd do all kinds of crazy things, I'd leap off the stage and slide on my knees on the floor as I was ending a song, and he said, "Man, you're a showman." I wanted it to be the cream because one night we ran out of amplifiers and he had to make one fast, and he found some cream tolex ones in the back room and he covered it, and he said, "Don't let anybody see it because they're going to want it because you're playing on it. But it's very impractical, they'll stain it with coffee and they'll stain it with cigarette butts and everything else." And I said "Oh but I love it I love it." And the next day he calls me in and he shows me his crew is making them with the cream tolex. So there, that was another breakthrough.
The next breakthrough was, I wanted it to be fatter. And also, not only the thicker the gauge string was a fatter sound, but the thicker the wood of the Stratocaster, that's why I was considered the best rock-and-roll guitar player. Because the wood is thick, and if you could put strings on a telephone pole with a pickup, you'd have the fattest sound in the world, but you can't hold a telephone pole. So we trimmed off the back sides of the Stratocaster and made the wood really thick, which gave it a real chunky fat sound. So the strings, the output transformer, and the solidity of the wood, and the speaker, that made the sound that Dick Dale is famous for.
Then I wanted to put another speaker in it. So he flipped out, went back to the drawing board, and he had to change the ohms down to 4 ohms. Originally, the speaker on the back said 16 ohms, but it's not, it's 8 ohms. So he made the first next-step up 4-ohm output transformer to match the twin speakers. This was a 100-watt output transformer peaking 180 watts, using tubes, for a fat sound. And that was called a Dick Dale transformer.
I still gave trouble to the speakers, the single-speaker cabinet, because it was twisting, and the reason why it was twisting was because when I was picking on my string like Gene Krupa plays sticks on his drum, I was doing that on my string, I'm playing drums. And it was confusing the speaker and it was twisting and jamming. When you would rub the speaker back and forth with your finger, you're supposed to hear nothing. But when it jams you'd hear ekk-ekk-ekk [laughs]. So we went back to Lansing and told them to rubberize the outside ridge, so that it would flex easier, and it did the trick. We used the same trick for the high cabinet, and I just put a divider in the middle.
When you finally had the sound you were looking for and striving for, what did that feel like? When you first played it live? What ran through your mind? You were about to make history with it. Did you think about gigantic tigers?
III. Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon/Drugs
Keith Moon came up to me one time, I was on stage singing, and he says to me, he was stoned, and he gets up on the stage and grabs the mike and he says, "Dick Dale, I'm Keith Moon of the Who", and I was like "Who?" My band was going crazy, they knew all about him. I didn't know who the hell he was. He said, "I got Lennon and Ringo on my album, and I'm talking about $85,000?, and if you don't play the guitar on it I'm gonna junk the whole goddam thing." So I said, "Well, time is money." And he said, "All right, Friday I'm recording, and this is where I'm going to be at, and in fact tonight why don't you come down tonight afterwards to our party?" I told him, "I don't do that shit." And I went up to my dressing room with him and we took a Polaroid picture together, it was funny as hell, I've still got it somewhere in my computer. He came back the next night again while I was at the Whisky in Hollywood, I was there for two nights, and he goes, "Dick Dale, blah blah blah," the whole thing. He was on drugs for Crissake. I showed up and started recording for his stuff, and he was there, and then he was so whacked out he collapsed in the damn sound booth, and we had to do his parts. I had no empathy.
As I speak to you, I'm in renal failure. And if it wasn't for my wife Lana, God bless her, the angel from heaven, she was the person who worked at the largest veteran's hospital in the States, in St. Petersburg, Florida, where she was born. She has [fibromyalgia? MS?] throughout her body, which is the most painful thing known to man - a breakdown of your muscles, her mother was carrying her with MS, and she also has a tumor in the thyroid in her throat. So we're both a couple of sickies taking care of each other. That's what life is. She doesn't take pain pills, because the doctors don't tell you that when you take pain pills, or too much of Tylenol or anything like that, it puts holes in your liver that don’t grow back. I went through three operations, two of them being nine and a half hours long with three surgeons, to save my life, to try to cut out all the stuff. Rhe radiation is what screwed up my body, and the chemotherapy is what screwed up my body, badly. And it put three holes in there, in my intestines. And my wife found, when doctors could not find them after I'd collapsed, and I was in emergency for 12 hours, and she went to them and said, "Dick has three fistulas, one-two-three, do you see them?" They were looking for something else. And when I was in concert in Europe for two months, I was in such pain it was beyond belief, my body was worn from 210 pounds down to 150, and all you could see was skin laying on bones. She was the one who brought me back.
IV. What Happens When We Die?
V. Angel Saying to Buy Lottery Ticket/Coyotes
Then her angel said, go get a scratch lottery ticket, those scratch-off things, which she'd never done before. Lana didn't have the money to fly and meet me—and neither did I because of my divorce took everything, and I was starting all over again. I had nothing except the property I had left that I was living on, everything else that I had was gone. So she turned around and did a scratch-off, and she won over $400, and that was her plane ticket to come to me. She said, "I can't let you die, I've loved you since I was two." And so she came, and she'd never seen mountains before or anything, because I live in the high desert, 2,000 feet above Palm Springs, and you can see for miles and miles, see the Milky Way and everything. She fell in love with this place, she fell in love with the different animals, like I've always done with my animals before. She speaks to over a dozen coyotes, they come to her out of the mountains, and the volcanoes. She calls them, and they come. Even when we're gone for months. In the middle of the night they'll call to her. They bring their babies to her. She gives them names, and feeds them. They go through my food bill.
My medical bill is over $3,000 a month to buy supplies, because of the damn government, what they're doing, they start including my medical because of the supplies I have to get for my body. Because I wear a bag at the same time, because of the renal failure. They say I should never be on stage, I shouldn’t be playing. For nine years they've been telling me that. And when I get in to perform, and I meet the same people who've been coming and bringing their kids to me, and the people who have the same diseases and everything, they see me on stage and they say how does he do it, and we start talking about theirs, and I teach them how to help other people so that they won't hurt so much. And the pain that Lana goes through, it's unbelievable. She works all day long and never complains. It gives them the strength and the courage, and I tell them how I handle it, and what I do about it, I tell them I swear at it and tell it to get out of my damn body, and I go and help somebody else. And when I help somebody else, I don't feel what's going wrong with me. And that's the way Lana feels, Lana never leaves my side, and I never leave her side.
Lana started contacting my deceased mother and father. She started communicating with their spirits. Afterwards she was emailing me, she said, “Your mother's very beautiful.” And I said, “How do you know, my mother's dead.” And she said, “She came to me while I was in church, and touched my shoulder and said, ‘Please take care of my Dicky.’” And she said that she loved her because she was the only one that wasn't along for the ride, and she loved me because she truly loved me. I was skeptical. I said, “Really, what was my mother wearing?” And she told me to get a picture of my father's, from when we came to California. So my sister gave me a picture of my sister and my mother standing there. Lana described every single piece of clothing that she was wearing, from her little fur hat to her little fox stole, same colors, same everything.
One time Lana said, “Your mom's here sitting in the car while we're driving, and she's saying move some of the stuff out of that back chair so your father can sit in here, it's a mess.” So Lana gets up and does it, and she says, “Your dad's here, and they can see you and they can hear you.” Lana says things my mother said, exactly the same way, when I’ve never told her, and she never heard my mother talk. Once we were driving down the highway, playing Vince Gill and things like that on the stereo. I love some of the beautiful country songs. Lana says, “Your dad wants me to play his favorite song,” and I said, "What is it, Dad?" And Lana goes, “It's on the CD. It's called 'I'll Dance at Your Wedding," and we looked at the CD, and son of a bitch, it's on the CD.
A good friend of mine’s mother had died. Her husband had passed away, and she had been remarried. Lana said she didn't die, she was murdered. My friend said he suspected murder. But Lana didn’t know them, and hadn’t met them. I asked why they didn’t do an autopsy? And he said, "I was so screwed up, I should've." Lana said, "He put some stuff in black liquid," and my friend said, "Yeah, he was always giving her a cup of coffee every day, you take this and it'll make you go." But it wasn't, he was putting something in it. Then he said something about washing dishes, and Lana said that he never washed a dish in his life. And the stepson said that's right, he never did, he was never in that kitchen, so he was lying. And then Lana said that they never slept together either, and my friend said, "That's true, he always slept on the couch, he never slept on the bed." And then she got in an argument with him. She told him, “I'd be crazy to leave you in my will.” That's what Lana said, and that's exactly what the stepson said that the mother said. Lana saw the whole thing.
They [THE SPIRITS] say that if you're very close with them, they’ll see you. If you're not, then you won't see them, and they only see you once. Once they die, they see everybody, everything passes by them. The people that they didn't like, they only pass by them once. My mother didn't like her sister, and she only saw her once, and that was that. And my father saw my sister once, he hated her. I’ve tried to trick Lana. Like my mother had a favorite movie, called Light Blue Heaven, and the star of that, Steve Martin. My mother, when she was paralyzed and everything after, she'd fall out of the chair laughing so hard every time I had her at the ranch and we'd watch it together. “So Lana," she said, "Tell Dicky that when you get back home, I want to watch Light Blue Heaven together, all of us." Now, Lana didn't know that. She didn't know I had a housecat that died in my arms either, and she sees the cat laying on the floor. She heard, "Whaowwww!" Like that, and she described the cat to me, and it was exactly my cat. She didn't know that I had that.
Lana and I were in Hawaii for a promotional thing. A very famous surfer from there, Eddie Aikau, who was beloved as one of the first to ride the big waves, 30, 40, 50-footers. He went on an outrigger race on one of the islands with a crew. They started taking water in, because the sea was so rough. So Eddie got on his surfboard, and started padding toward one of the other islands to bring help, and he was never seen again. And they had the largest sea search the islands have ever had, because he was so beloved. Eddie contacted Lana while we were there. And he knew all the people that I was associated with. And told stories to her. But he didn't tell her his name, he said, "They call me Crow, nickname Crow," and a bunch of other nicknames. So Lana got on the computer and started looking up Crow, and it came up that his name was Eddie Aikau. He came to her again, and she said "What is your real name?" He said, "Eddie Aikau.” Lana asked him, "You paddled to bring help to your people in the outrigger, what happened?" And he said, "Too many shark." He spoke in pidgin, like Hawaiian slang.
He was preparing to do his first concert in Vegas on his own, he said, "Man, I'm scared to death, I'm calling all the shots on this one." And then Prissy, she showed me all the plans of this new house, because they were living in Beverly Hills, and she was showing me the plans that she wanted to build a whole new house, because she didn't want the Memphis Mafia to be all over it. She didn't want those guys in the house anymore, so she says, "I want them out of here!" She made them build a house on the property. But once again, they had no privacy whatsoever, if Elvis wanted to see a movie he had to rent the whole movie theater and watch a half a dozen movies at the same time. And that was what it basically was. He always cared about what people thought. He would give lavish gifts to little old ladies and stuff like that.
VII. Playing on Top of Space Mountain
They always wanted me to play guitar, they would take me off the line and say, "Here, the guys are having a party up there in Boise, they want you to play for them." So I'd get out there, and the guys would get mad at me at first because I was getting out of duty, I was getting out of punishment duty. And then I'd sing songs to the generals and all those guys, who would tip me. I’d steal the bacon from the kitchen and bring the guys back big trays of bacon.
VII. Air Force Rescue/Plane Crash
The letter of commendation was for an incident - a plane crashed with two guys in it, crashed on takeoff. I was the only guy running a truck and took a driver and engineer up front, with linemen one on each side. I was there writing some songs in the truck. They’d said, "You gonna put Dale on the truck, you're gonna screw it up." "He'll be alright, just have him sit there, so that we'll have somebody there near the runway." And they didn't think nothing was gonna happen. And these two guys crashed, they went screaming down. I was driving and at the same time steering the wheel with my feet, and operating the pumps for the guy who sits on the right hand side of the truck. We got there and pulled one of the guys out and he was dead already, and the other guy was dead, his body was crushed by the engine. And the fire was coming down and the whole plane was about to explode and I was in the damn thing. We used foam to put fire out. It stinks like hell and stays with you for months after you get it on your body. We didn't have all the big asbestos stuff, all we had was an asbestos helmet in those days, and a heavy jacket and heavy pants and rubber boots and the asbestos gloves. So you can only see out of about a three-inch piece of glass that was about three inches by two inches and you normally have somebody behind you guiding you in with the nozzle but I didn't have anybody.
So I went in there and pulled the guy out, and then all of a sudden I felt something happening, and I dove into the foam, and there was an explosion, and the next thing I knew I woke up looking at the side of my truck. There was a fireman giving me oxygen, but I could see straight up on the top of my truck these other guys were pouring the foam into my truck because you can empty one of those trucks in a minute if you get them going. Thank God they were in time to save my life. After that I was the good guy on the base.
IX. Dalai Llama/Lana as Nun
When I was inducted into the Musician’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Nashville, with Charlie Daniels and Chet Atkins, Chet had passed on so his was there. Charlie Daniels is a good ‘ol boy as they would say. This Hall of Fame is not like the one in Cleveland, that one’s a joke where six people sitting around a table vote based on some corporate thing. They put in whoever some big company wants them to put in. There are so many people who are deserving to be there, who aren’t there. The one that I’m in, The Musician’s Hall of Fame, is where it all started. You’re voted on by over 100,000 of your peers. And that’s gotta tell you something.
One time, congressman Jerry Lewis from California, stood in front of members of the cabinet, speakers of the floor and recited a letter about me and what I’ve done for the country. It’s on my website, where it says “Personal.” They voted me into the White House Congressional Hall of Records.
There are so many people I’ve gotten to meet. I cherish it all. Right down to the 12 year old girl who sent me a get well card with my guitar in a hammock stretched between two palm trees on a beach that said, “Get well soon.” I should write it all down. My website is so outdated it’s ridiculous. I’ve just been to busy with the cancer, and diabetes, and touring, and worried about my wife Lana and her pain.
X. Dick’s First Guitar/Becoming King of Surf Rock Guitar
Before I did that, I had gone down to Balboa with my friend, Ray on our motorcycles. At one time, I was president of the Sultans of southwest LA, which are still going I think. Lana found a Sultans plaque of mine. There was a coffee house right next to an ice cream parlor called The Rinky Dink Ice Cream Parlor. I heard a kid playing in the coffee part where they played folk songs with acoustic guitars. That was Billy Barber. We ended up playing together, and he’s the one who first took me out to surf. But he didn’t really surf. He just liked to look at the girls [laughs]. I taught Ray how to play bass, and we played there at The Rinky Dink. Then I found a drummer and had a guy named Nick O’Malley on rhythm guitar. We played for peanuts and all the Shirley Temples we could drink. We were making $7 from the shows. People started coming to see us. I asked for a raise to $12 a show and they fired me. There was a line of people out the door to see us, and they fired us. That’s when we went down the Rendezvous Ballroom.