When Dick Dale wasn't angling the waves at California's Huntington Beach or Doheny, you could find him on the Rendezvous Ballroom stage in Balboa, playing guitar his way — upside down and backward.
Since left-handed guitars were hard to come by, the southpaw played a right-handed model in reverse, but unlike other lefty pickers, he didn't bother restringing his instrument. So he invented chords of his own, and a unique sound to match the music he heard in his head when he was riding those Pacific swells.
“I have all the rhythm in my left hand, and I use the rhythms that Gene Krupa did on his drums,” Dale explained in a recent phone interview from the road.
“Gene Krupa was my big hero, and I used to play on my mother's flour cans and sugar cans with the kitchen knives, listening to the big bands on my dad's records. Gene Krupa and Harry James. That's why I love to play the trumpet. I learned everything by ear and played all the different instruments. So then I was able to find a guitar. That was like in the seventh grade. And then I didn't know how to put my fingers on all the different strings, so I had to figure out how to do it upside down and backwards, and I still play that way today.”
Surfing music born
Adapting Krupa rhythms to the electric guitar resulted in Dale's trademark staccato picking, which he enhanced through electronic reverberation, creating a sound that his fellow surfers adopted as their own. Surfing music was born, and Dale was soon dubbed the “King of the Surf
One of his instrumental compositions, “Let's Go Trippin',” became his first single release and a local hit on his own Deltone label. Considered by many to be the first surf rock song, it was followed by “Jungle Fever” and “Surf Beat.”
In 1962, Dale released his first full-length album, “Surfer's Choice,” which was eventually picked up by Capitol Records. Its biggest single, “Misirlou,” became the opening music for Quentin Tarantino's “Pulp Fiction” more than 30 years later.
Guitar manufacturer Leo Fender persuaded Dale to make the Fender Stratocaster his instrument of choice and even custom-built the first 100-watt amplifier to accommodate Dale's tendency to play at speaker-blowing volume.
Regular dance nights at the Rendezvous became known as “stomps.” Alcohol was prohibited and a strict dress code enforced.
To this day, Dale boasts, “I've never had a drug in my body. I've never had alcohol in my body.”
The sobriety rule also applies to his 19-year-old son, Jimmy, who plays drums in Dale's band and is an accomplished guitarist in his own right.
“The kids that work for us are all clean-cut,” Dale said of his touring companions. “No booze, no drugs. I want my son to be involved with those kinds of people.”
Now 74, Dale has battled cancer and diabetes for years but still maintains a rigorous touring schedule, doing things his own way despite his doctor's advice. Making music with his son is a pleasure too good to give up.
Dale predicted fans attending Friday night's show at Farmers Market will share in that pleasure.
“You'll see me with my band, and Jimmy will be on drums,” he said. “You're gonna see him do some Gene Krupa, with heavy metal type drum solos that will knock your socks off, and I'm not just saying that 'cause he's my son.”