Long Live the King of Surf Rock: A Tribute to Dick Dale

With the recent passing of guitar icon Dick Dale at age 81, guitar faculty member Bobby Stanton traces Dale's unmistakable sound throughout rock history.

March 22, 2019

When you think "surf rock," the band that most likely comes to mind is the Beach Boys. But fueling their sound was the innovative, reverb-drenched tone and style developed by Dick Dale, known most famously for his instrumental song "Misirlou" (originally released as "Miserlou"). As a Lebanese-American, Dale brought Arabic scales to American rock 'n' roll, and a percussive, fast picking style ("tremolo picking") inspired by the tarabaki drum. From Dale came surf rock, but his influence is clear in rockabilly and punk, and shows up in subtler ways in contemporary genres such as indie and post-rock. Get a sense of Dale's legacy through this playlist, including selections and commenary by Bobby Stanton, associate professor in the Guitar Department.

1. "Let’s Go Trippin’," Dick Dale

Stanton: "This was Dale's first hit, which was the big bang of the surf. It was a regional hit in Southern California, but it triggered the surf music craze that he embodied. He used large amounts of reverb to sound like crashing waves and a huge bottom string to drive the instrumental (usually modal) music that was the segue between the first wave of rock and the British Invasion. It was the first 'alternative' rock music."

2. "Miserlou," Dick Dale

Stanton: "Dale's biggest hit, which found a second life when it was featured in the 1994 film Pulp Fiction, features a Palestinian scale. Dale was born Richard Monsour in Boston to a Lebanese and Polish immigrant family. He graduated from high school in Quincy, Massachusetts, before moving to Southern California, where he later got his stage name from a disc jockey."

3. "Pipeline," The Chantays

Stanton: "Jumping onto the surf craze, the Chantays renamed one of their songs 'Pipeline' after the Banzai Pipeline in Hawaii. It became the gold standard for surf music. Notice how present the guitar is in the mix. This sound would go on to be copied widely (notably in 'Riders on the Storm,' by the Doors)."

4. "Surfin' U.S.A.," The Beach Boys

Stanton: "Vocal bands soon followed the surf craze. For this song, Beach Boys' songwriter Brian Wilson wrote a list of the big surf spots as lyrics and set them to the tune of Chuck Berry’s 'Sweet Little Sixteen.' The song is probably the most known song of the surf genre."

5. "Sleepwalk," Santo and Johnny

Stanton: "Although not technically a surf song, 'Sleepwalk' is usually considered to be close enough because of the timing of its release and the fact that it was a huge instrumental hit. Written in Brooklyn, New York, by Santo and Johnny, the song also features a lap steel guitar."

6. "Wipe Out," The Surfaris

Stanton: "This song is recorded out of tune, with distortion and marginal virtuosity, and still it is the anthem of all rock drummers. It has been featured in several movies and television shows. While it is the bane of many drummers' existence, it points out the fact that it’s not necessary to have those gifts if your message is strong enough, which is a basic rock music tenet."

7. "Rock Lobster," The B-52s

Stanton: "Here's a good example of surf music values being used in the 1970s. The song is tinged with retro imagery from the surf era."

8. "Rock 'n' Roll High School," The Ramones

Stanton: "Here are more of the surf sounds as later found in punk music. The style was a reaction to the distortion-crazed, overproduced music of the 1970s, and so Dale's tone was once again the voice of alternative music."

9. "Little Wing," Jimi Hendrix

Stanton: "I mention this song to highlight the impact Dale had on the evolution of the guitar amp. He worked with Leo Fender to create louder and louder amps because his audiences were getting so big. Together, they came up with the Fender Bassman amp. Jim Marshall copied the Tweed Fender Bassman circuit for his revolutionary Marshall amps, and then Jimi got one and changed the voice of the guitar. He also brought modal improvisation into the mainstream, just like Dick Dale had done previously. No Dick Dale, no Jimi Hendrix."

10. "Rumble," Link Wray

Stanton: "This song is by one of the many Native American superstars that were so influential on American music. This song has no lyrics and still it was banned on the radio, because people thought it would incite riots. It features the power chord, which was to become the foundation of rock music harmony."

11. "The Way," Fastball

Editors: Dale's bottom-string–heavy style even found its way to '90s pop-rock, as seen in this radio hit from Fastball. The guitar solo features a hollow body guitar with a breezy, beach-soaked vibe that is distinctly Dale.

12. "The Middle," Jimmy Eat World

Editors: Similar to Fastball, "The Middle" was another pop-rock radio smash, this one in 2001, with a solo that couldn't exist without Dale (listen not just for the surf tone, but for that signature tremolo picking technique).

13. "I Just Don't Know What to Do with Myself," The White Stripes

Editors: While you may not think "surf rock," when listening to the otherwise blues-rocky White Stripes (though, those muted pick drags are certainly reminiscent of "Let's Go Trippin'"), Jack White cites Dale as a major influence, saying "I spent many moments learning his massive reverbed guitar licks in my bedroom.”

14. "Maps," The Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Editors: One of indie rock's most iconic anthems, "Maps" begins with tremolo picking that eventually builds to gutsy and raw riffs, all while anchored by Karen O's plaintive, yet buoyant vocals. "Surf" may no longer be an adequate descriptor here, but you can hear the guitarist, Nick Zinner, pushing Dale's picking style into subtler, more textural directions.

15. "The Birth and Death of the Day," Explosions in the Sky

Editors: While the long-form, radio-unfriendly genre of post-rock may seem like a far cry from the surf hits of the '60s, the experimental genre has more in common with Dale than you might think. Aside from an affinity for instrumental music, post-rock relies on guitar melodies to carry songs that can be everything from soft to soaring, achieved through a technique often referred to as the "buzzsaw." At its essence, the technique is Dale's tremolo picking cranked through any number of effects, including reverb, delay, and distortion.

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