Richard Anthony Monsour, known professionally as Dick Dale, was born in Boston, Massachusetts, on May 4, 1937 and died on March 16, 2019, was an American rock guitarist and one of the pioneers of surf music. Arguments about who originated surf guitar are still raging on social media and blogs, but for pure kinetic energy, few would argue with crowning Dick Dale as the “King of the Surf Guitar”, coincidentally also the title of one of his albums.
Dale enjoyed a career revival after his signature tune, the eastern-inflected “Misirlou,” was featured in the 1994 film Pulp Fiction. Beforehand, from late 1959 to early 1961, Dale and his Del-Tones packed the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, California, and the Pasadena Civic Auditorium with upward of 3,000 to 4,000 young regular fans nearly every weekend night of the year. To satisfy their lust for action, he generated furious levels of energy and copious amounts of sheer volume to represent surfing’s physical experience into a musical performance. Naturally, Dale’s guitar choice was an important part of the process, driven by the necessity to satisfy such vast crowds with the volume and power that the music demanded.
Fender’s Jazzmaster and Jaguar are known as classic surf guitars, alongside the Mosrites. Having started out as an aspiring country singer and guitarist, Dick Dale chose to play a Stratocaster from the beginning of his professional career and stuck with it for fifty-plus years. As a left-hander, he played the guitar strung “upside down,” the way many lefties would approach the instrument upon flipping over a right-handed guitar. Leo Fender gave him a right-handed Stratocaster in the late 1950s and told to “beat it to death”, as Dale recalls on his website, DickDale.com. Subsequently, he moved over to left-handed Strats (most notably a chartreuse metal flake example known as “The Beast”) but continued to string the guitar with the low E on the bottom.
Other than this quirk, Dale’s use of a Strat for the bright, cutting tones of surf guitar really isn’t all that unusual as it was designed to excel in these tones just as much as the Jaguar and Jazzmaster. The bigger part of Dale’s sonic revolution came in his amp of choice and his promotion of that super-wet, reverb-laden sound. To broadcast his powerful sound to the big crowds of his performances, Dale exploited his relationship with Leo Fender to acquire a suitable amp. Fender had always asked musicians for feedback about his developments, and Dale’s pleas for more punching power certainly impressed him. Accounts of how much input Dale had on the development of the Showman amp vary greatly (with Dale’s own recollections often putting him right there at the drawing board, while other Fender employees occasionally minimized his role). Nonetheless, the powerful new Fender model, introduced in the new Blonde Tolex covering in 1960, was undoubtedly designed specifically to deliver the young surfing guitarist’s music to the masses.
Dale’s first hit single, “Let’s Go Trippin’”, his entire first album, "Surfer’s Choice", and his legendary early Rendezvous Ballroom shows were all performed without reverb. However, once the Fender Reverb Unit comes out in early 1962, with prototypes having been road-tested by Dale, there was no turning back from the big splash.