Dick Dale Talks Guitars, Amps, Lions and a Yacht

Dick Dale and his wife Lana.  Photo courtesy of Dick and Lana Dale.
Dick Dale and his wife Lana. Photo courtesy of Dick and Lana Dale.

[Note to readers:  this story is from a 2015 interview, but I am reposting in memory of Dick Dale, who died last Saturday at age 81.  He was one-of-a-kind, an innovator, a natural storyteller and a true showman.  He will be missed terribly.]

Dick Dale, the Pioneer of Surf Rock Music will be making a return engagement to an already sold out performance at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona on Friday, April 3rd, where he has an exhibit dedicated to the many achievements of his career. Not only does the exhibit celebrate his reign as the King of Surf Guitar, it also focuses on his partnership with Leo Fender in developing many technological landmarks, including the Showman Amp and Fender Rhodes piano as well as such other Fender innovations as the Echoplex echo machine, the reverb tank, the Stratocaster, Precision bass guitar, Contempo organ, their 6-string bass and acoustic guitars and their output transformers.

“The exhibit at MIM also includes my old surfboard, my favorite surfboard,” Dale says. “They have my Fender Contempo Organ, too, which I used in all my early songs and performances. All the electronic contacts inside that Contempo organ are gold-plated for corrosion-resistant conductivity. I played that organ all the time because it used to really cut through when I performed. There were different organs out there at the time, like the Hammond B3, which blues players generally liked to play. The Fender Contempo gave me a string edge–it gave a blast that hit your bones. Leo Fender and I later created a keyboard called the Fender Rhodes, as in the Rhodes piano, that plugged into an amplifier. I helped pioneer it for the Hollywood Bowl, where I played in front of 4,000 people.

In the exhibit, you’ll also see an output transformer on the wall.   Dale reveals this is the secret as to why he was called the “Father of Heavy Metal.”

“In those days, in 1955, the output transformers were only about 10-15 watts and they were going through little 8” to 12” speakers,” he says. “Nobody needed to play loudly. That’s even with the Gibson and Martin guitars. Both Martin and Gibson guitars players would raise the frets higher and strum on it with an artificial strumming machine for hours in order to give it an intonation and season the wood. This way, you could strum on it hard without getting a string rattle because if the strings are too close to the neck, you can’t strum on it hard. The country players, when they played on those big acoustic guitars, the frets were raised higher so that the B-note string rattled. They didn’t have huge amplifiers. The amplifiers were small, little amplifiers.

“Because I wanted to make my sound like Gene Krupa’s drums—he was my big hero–I blew out about fifty of Leo Fender’s amplifiers because when you try to push electricity through the diodes going into the amplifier, it would heat up the copper wire going to the coil in the speaker and they would melt and catch the fiber on fire. When I was playing at the Royal Albert Hall in London, I was smoking and my bass player said to me, ‘Dick, you’re smoking the monitors! They’re burning!’

“I said to him, ‘Shut up! Keep playing!’

“Leo Fender kept asking me, ‘Why do you have to play so loud?’

“I told him, when you have 100 people come in to see me, it’s okay. But when a theatre fills up to 4,000 people, their bodies soak up the bass sound of the guitar coming through the amplifier. That is why I use 60-gauge string. My first string on through the sixth was 16 unwound, 18 unwound, 20 unwound and 39 gauge wound, 49 gauge wound and then 60 gauge wound. The average person was playing only 9, 10 and 11 gauge. So the press would say, ‘Dick Dale is playing on bridge cables, telephone wires!’ But the thicker the string gave me the fatter sound that went along with the Stratocaster guitar that we were pioneering. The more solid the wood was, the fatter the sound. They made the Stratocaster of thick wood and then I put the thick strings on it. But then the output transformer couldn’t handle it.

Back to the Drawing Board: Collaborating with Leo Fender

“Leo went to my concert with Freddy Taveres, who was a steel guitar player for Harry Owens, the most famous songwriter in Hawaii,” Dale says. “Taveres recorded for Harry Owens but he was also a test pilot for the Telecaster guitar that Leo made for the country players. Leo gave me one of the first Stratocasters and told me to beat it to death and tell him what I thought of it. Leo stood in the middle of 4,000 people and saw me onstage trying to pump out the music. To Freddy, he said, ‘Back to the drawing board. I know what Dick Dale is trying to tell me.’

“So he created the first 85-watt output transformer that peaked at 100-watts. That peaking came from a gas that was created in the tubes, which were called 5881s. The first tubes were called 6L6’s. One tube was warmer in color while the other sounded more brash.   Then he created the amplifier that we put it in.

“I was blowing up amplifiers so quickly that he did not have a replacement ready for me in time to have it properly covered. He found some cream-colored Tolex and covered it with that. We created a 15” JBL Lansing speaker which would handle that output transformer and built a cabinet that was 3’ x 2’ wide, 12 inches deep, which we packed it full of fiberglass–we wanted the speaker to push in and out. Leo called it the Showman Amplifier because he used to say of me, ‘He’s such a showman!’

“When he gave me the new amplifier that night, he said to me, ‘Just don’t put it out front onstage where the audience can see it because they are all going to want one but the cream color of that Tolex covering is very impractical because they’re going to get coffee stains on it, cigarette butts and whatnot.’   But I loved it and said so.

A week later Leo Fender called Dick into his office to show him he had created a line of all-blonde Showman amps.

“That is how this amp came to be. Usually, these amps had a dark brown or black covering. We went to Lansing and specified that we wanted a 15” speaker with a 10 pound magnet in the back,” Dale says.

“When I plugged that speaker into the Showman, it was like going from a bicycle to a Ferrari Testarossa. It was like splitting the atom! And then what happened was, I started jamming that speaker!

“Freddy was saying, ‘Dick, what are you doing to cause this?!’

“We wanted the speaker to move in and out but because of my Gene Krupa-like picking, it was causing the speaker to become confused because the cone was twisting. It couldn’t keep that rhythm without twisting and messing up. So we took that speaker and went back to JBL Lansing again. I say ‘JBL’ because Altec Lansing, his brother, had his own company. We asked them to put a rubberized coating around the ridge of the speaker where it connected the metal frame. That gave it more elasticity and I never jammed a speaker like that again. It was called the JBL Lansing D130F.

“Then I wanted to have two speakers inside the same box for an even bigger sound. Leo said, ‘I have to make a new output transformer!’ He managed to do it and had me listen to his 100 watt creation, which peaked at 180 watts.

“Up to this point, output transformers never produced the colors of treble, middle or bass. Usually it was just one or the other. But Leo found a way to use the copper wiring to create all three dynamic colors and that is why no one has been able to duplicate my sound with the combination of the output transformer, the tubes, the speakers, the size of the box and also the strings on my guitar and the way that I play. I do not use any other electronics. The only other thing I made was for my voice because I did not have a natural vibrato.

“I wanted a sustained sound like my piano, my favorite instrument. We made the Fender Echoplex but that was an echo so it didn’t do the job. I had a Hammond organ in the house and noticed it had buttons for reverb. So I took the entire organ apart with all the pieces spread across my living room floor. And I found this little metal tank that was bolted to the back of the organ inside. It said ‘reverb’ on it.

“I took that tank off and found nine little springs inside it. I took it to Leo and said, ‘This is the thing we need to use!’ So he made a separate little box using three tubes: 6K6, 7025 and 12AX7. The 6K6 was the power tube. I plugged my mic into it—I used the same microphone that Frank Sinatra carried with him all the time when he used to record, called a birdcage Shure dynamic microphone. You see them in all the old-time movies.

King of Surf Guitar and Lions in the Hallway

At the MIM exhibit, there is a gigantic mural-sized photograph on the wall of Dick Dale singing into one of these microphones. Dale says that photo of him was originally taken for LIFE magazine.

“Ed Sullivan got in touch with me after seeing the photos in LIFE magazine and had me on his show,” Dale says. “For that show, he had Kate Smith and Sonny Liston the night before he was going to fight Cassius Clay. Liston put his hand on my head and it covered my entire head. Also on the show that night were The Three Stooges, such neat people. Backstage, they’d told me their tale of woe, about how they were taken advantage of—they never got paid royalties for any of their shows that appeared on TV. That happened to many people.

“Years later, when I was a guest on the Late Show with David Letterman, which films in old Ed Sullivan Theater in New York, I said, ‘David! I was here before you!’ It was so funny. He kept picking on me night long. It was a riot. They said our joking made the whole show that night.

“All these things—Leo Fender and I created the Dual Showman because we changed the output transformer and we put in twin Lansing speakers and then the microphone again with the Shure dynamic. I plugged it onto the Fender Echoplex, sang into it, and it made me sound like Dean Martin, whom I love. After using it for about a week, I wondered what it would sound like if I plugged my guitar into it.”

The MIM exhibit also features a framed album of Dick Dale’s first album, Surfer’s Choice (Deltones), 1962.

surfer's-choice-album“That was the first time a surfer had ever been photographed for a commercial album cover,” Dale says. “There was no reverb was on that album though people swore it sounded like it had reverb on it.   It was just the power of me banging on those big gauge strings. I plugged my guitar into the Echoplex and it sustained the notes on the guitar. So when I played some Latino songs that I love and I’ve written those kinds of songs like Esperanza, it gave it such a pretty sound.

“Because my guitar had such a powerful sound, they called me ‘King of the Surf Guitar,’ even before I developed this reverb sound—because I was surfing everyday. ‘Man, that power is like the ocean,’ they’d say. But that power didn’t come from the ocean. These so-called historians think my guitar sound as King of the Surf Guitar is a ‘wet, splashy sound.’ That had nothing to do with it. That wasn’t me surfing.

“I explained to them my first reasons for creating my guitar sound came from Gene Krupa’s drums, The Four Tops. I teach my drummers to use those floor toms when they want to build. You don’t build first from the snare drums like the jazz players do—you build from the floor. When I get onstage, that is why you hear me doing solos on the rack toms and the floor toms. That is the sound I wanted to emulate.”

The other intriguing item in the Musical Instrument Museum exhibit is an old trumpet lying inside a plush-lined case. Dale explains that he used to play both trumpet and saxophone. “I had a 17-piece rock band at one time with 6 horns, six girl singers and double drummers. We used to play all the Glenn Miller and Harry James stuff. I’d play Louis Armstrong songs, too.”

“My other inspiration for how I developed my musical sound came from my animals,” he says. “I’ve had over 40 species of animals, including lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars, hawks, eagles, mountain lions, a baby elephant and sea lions. There wasn’t an animal that I didn’t take care of and raise at one time or another because I did not want them being killed by poachers. I had two and a half acres of land where I had them running with me. My African lion used to run down the hallway inside my house and there was a time when it jumped onto my bed it broke it all the way to the floor. So I had to go get cinder blocks and 4×8 sheets of plywood to support the bed.”

Dale does a great job emulating the roars of all his big cats and hunting birds, enough to make you laugh and realize this is what he is thinking when he conveys all the vibrancy and power in his music. Ask yourself how many guitar players have actually looked after big cats and hunting birds and then be able to actually emulate them both vocally and on the guitar?

While we were on the phone for this interview, I heard some rustling in the background and an abrupt intonation of dismay. Lana, his wife, had discovered a dead bird in the backyard–not a died-in-its-sleep serenely sort of situation–but more like dinner leftovers dressed in pillow fight fluff.

“We have Alice-in-Wonderland here with all the animals that live in the desert,” Dale said, “and we have over 150 black ravens. Ravens mate for life and are always flying in pairs. In the morning, at a certain time, every day they’ll come down to where Lana feeds them with all the other desert creatures so they will be there walking around and she names them like, “Hey Edgar, how ya doin’?” The raven is the most brilliant bird of all birds. They’re unbelievable—it’s the reason why the indigenous tribes respected them as magical creatures.

“The ravens always leave a feather at our front door and let us know they came. When we go on tour for a month and come back, they know when we’re back and they wait for us. It’s pretty wild.”

“So they’re here and if I look out the window from the bathroom, which is five feet away, the whole ground is black with them. Then we have over 100 pigeons, all different colors. They’ll come flying down at a certain time. Then the coyotes come and bring their babies. The ravens loves to tease the coyotes by pulling their tails. They have a big haven here because we take care of them. We also have hawks, finches and hummingbirds. We have prairie dogs and everything you can think of.   Lana sits there feeds and talks with them all. A heron arrived one day and a big white screech owl landed on her shoulder while she was feeding.

“Now, with Mother Nature, as you know–these animals have to eat, too. The hawks think, mmm, look at that pigeon! And so when Lana goes out and find feathers all over the place, she has a complete fit. I tell her, honey, you’re feeding all these animals but they’ve got to eat in their own way, too. You’ve got to accept certain things.

The King of Surf Guitar, Dick Dale.  Photo Courtesy of Dick Dale.
Guitarist Dick Dale. Photo Courtesy of Dick Dale.

Dale, who is currently 77 years old, has endured two bouts of surgery for colon cancer, radiation treatment and, like any one else in the U.S. who works freelance, he contends with the issues of not only maintaining monthly health insurance premiums but also covering those necessary healthcare expenses that insurance will not. But he still loves to perform and continues to hit the road on a regular basis.

“With my playing,” he says, “I joke and say I am not going to die in a rocking chair with a big old beer belly gut—it’s going to be onstage in one big explosion with body parts. One critic said, ‘Geez, the way he plays, he’ll probably take half the audience with him.”

A Boat is Not a Yacht

Dale is offering his 62’ 1978 Pacemaker motor yacht for sale, the last of the wood series interior. (For serious enquiries, please email: [email protected])


“I first came to Balboa in 1955. I’ve been a water person all my,” Dale says. “I used to play near the Fore River Shipyard (Postcard History) in Quincy, Massachussetts, where they built ships. In Balboa, they had 14-foot Lido sailing boats at a club where students learned to sail. There was another kind of boat you could rent there, called a 16-foot Satellite with a main sail and jib up front. This little old lady owned the rental area. When I asked to take a sailing lesson, she said, ‘I’d be glad to.’ She taught me how to sail. She was the Old Salt of the Sea.   I bought a 16-footer! I didn’t have much money at the time, as I was working for Hughes Aircraft. I used to go sailing in this boat every day. It was so neat.

“As years went on, I bought a 40-foot Hunter, a cabin cruiser. I had a man build what is called a flying bridge with a steering apparatus that was up there. You could go up at the top and look for swordfish. I installed a 40-foot bridge and would take my mom and dad to Catalina Island every weekend. We later sold it. I had been staying on a 45-foot yacht and bought it when my dad died so he never got to see it.

“To clarify,” Dale says, [as it turned out, this interviewer had been abusing the word boat for a couple hours] “a boat is called a boat when it is from 0 feet to 39 feet. A yacht is 40-99 feet. Past 45 feet up to 99 feet it is called a mega-yacht. Anything over 99 feet is called a ship and requires a captain’s license. What I have is a motor yacht. It has engines in it.”

“I don’t say ‘yacht’ because I think it sounds snobby,” Lana interjects, concurring with the interviewer.

“You’ve got to give it its respect by using the proper terminology!” Dale admonished us both. True, point taken. And if there are any other details you need to know about this motor yacht, I am sure they will be glad to respond to queries from serious buyers.

Click here for an up-to-date roster of Dick Dale’s tour dates.

Click here for more information on the various exhibits, concerts, and general admission to the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, Arizona.  If you scroll down to the image gallery, the righthand column, second photo down is an image of the Dale exhibit discussed in this article.

Now, you didn’t think a Dick Dale interview would come to a close this quickly, did you? Truly? Ha. Not likely. Stay tuned for another fabulous Dale story that will be coming next month…

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Dick and Lana Dale at the Huntington Beach Parade in 2001.  Photo courtesy of Dick and Lana Dale.
Dick and Lana Dale at the Huntington Beach Parade in 2001. Photo courtesy of Dick and Lana Dale.