DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DICK DALE'S "BANZAI WASHOUT")
DICK DALE: Guitar Player magazine once asked me, who is your influence? And I said Hank Williams. And they said Hank Williams doesn't play electric guitar. And but that's who it was. And music to me is like a facet in my life. I love many things. I've trained lions and tigers for - raised them for 30 years.
And I've been in the martial arts for 30 years, been flying airplanes and just doing so many things that are very interesting. And music was just one of them. And I was raised actually listening to the big band era - you know, like Guy Lombardo, Harry James. And the first person that I really listened to was Gene Krupa on drums, and that's where I get this heavy staccato drumming effect on playing.
Like Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac once said to me - watching me - said, my God. He says, you play - you're the most percussive guitarist I've ever seen in my life. You look like you're playing drums. And I do. I'm playing all the different parts of the drums when I play my guitar. So actually, drums was my first, and Gene Krupa was my first big influence.
TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Some of the surf music stars didn't really surf - most notably the Beach Boys - but you did. You actually did surf. Is there a connection between the sounds that you'd hear surfing and the kind of music you were playing?
DALE: Yes. Actually, the sounds were actually compared to, actually, my lions and tigers. And the ocean - the power of my tigers and the power of the ocean - when I would get, you know, thrown across a cage, you know, with one blow or seeing the cat go, with 2,200 pounds per square inch, bite through a stainless steel pan, and you just marvel that man cannot control that.
And then you get out in a wave. And then you get out and you start paddling, and you're facing a six-footer or an eight-footer and - let alone a 10-footer. It is the most frightening thing in the world, and you just have to just dig down and go for it. And then when you get sucked up and taken over, you never feel strength like that in your life. And you just can't stop that power, so you must ride with it.
And that's when I learned to really go with the flow of everything in life. And the waves did create my feelings of that sound, that (imitating guitar). It was like the lip of a wave coming over the top of my head. I'd stick my finger in the wall and get my ear up as close as I could, getting in a tube or - then doing a bottom turn and missing it and getting sucked up over the top and being just crunched right through your board. And in those days, we used the big 10-footers, you know.
GROSS: Did the sound of the ocean make you want to get that loud, amplified sound that you wanted?
DALE: Yeah, it was - it's a combination of the ocean and the roar of my tigers and lions, and just putting it all together, that force. And the ocean just has the two sounds. It has the one that comes over the top of your head - it's a lazy sound - and then it has that bottom rumbling sound, and then it has that wipeout sound.
And with my big 60-gauge strings - like, most guitar players are using sevens and eights and nines - the Slinkies (ph), you know, and 10s. My thinnest string is a 14 unwound, and then I use two 18 unwounds for my second and third string. And then my fourth string, I use a 38 wound. And my fifth, I use a 48. And then I use a 58 or a 60, whichever ones I can get.
GROSS: So this is, like, really thick strings you're using. And that gives it a deeper sound?
DALE: Yeah, it gives it a big - Joel Sullivan calls them bridge cables.
DALE: It gives you a real, real, fat, thick, thick sound, along with a combination of what goes into this amplifier and the guitar and the speaker. It's a combination of everything. But playing them is very hard. It's very painful because it's like sticking - taking your finger and going up and down, you know, the sidewalk with it.
DALE: That's why when I make faces, everybody goes, oh, man, you make the neatest faces. I go, that's pain. That's not...
GROSS: What about the picking style that you developed?
DALE: The picking came from my parents - my father's side of the family, his grandparents - his mother and father were born in Beirut, Lebanon. And my mother's side of the family were born in Poland. So they - I was subject to the musical styles of both countries.
But when I had that influence of that Arabic music - when I came to California, a kid asked me - he said, can you play on one string? Because I was playing what I called rockabilly. And I developed a ruck-a-tuck style of strumming on the guitar because I didn't have a whole band. So I would go (imitating guitar).
So now, when I did that, this little boy - he was probably about 10. And at my first show at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa - that's when it opened up. We had, like, 17 surfers. And the kids I was surfing with - and he says, can you play on one string? And I didn't know what to do. And I said, well, come back tomorrow night, and I'll have something for you - just to get rid of him.
And then when I went home, I said, oh, my God. I'm going to get caught. I'm going to be found out that I'm a fake, you know, that I can't play on one string or something. And I thought, and I said, "Misirlou." And "Misirlou" is played very slowly. I went and quadrupled the sound.
I went (imitating guitar) because I wanted a machine gun, staccato picking style, which is very difficult to play because you have to keep your meter properly. And then, as a result, you break stainless steel strings, and you melt picks down - like, two or three of them in a song, they melt.
And that's why I have a special pick holder that - I reach down and I throw one out when I play, and I pick one up and I continue melting. But that's how I get that sound. It's like a machine gun style - picking style.
GROSS: Let's hear your original recording of "Misirlou," which you made back in 1962.
DALE: Yeah, I think the original people that did it are probably turning over in their grave when they heard it the way I play it.
(SOUNDBITE OF DICK DALE'S "MISIRLOU")
GROSS: What was the scene like on the beach when you started surfing and playing?
DALE: We would start - we would go down to the beach at 5 o'clock in the morning to get the early glass off and build a fire to keep warm. We never had wetsuits at that time, so we froze in the water. We'd - our legs would turn blue. We'd beat on our legs to stop the pain. And we just hoped that the next wave - you know, waiting for the next wave, and you'd just beat on our thighs, you know, just to keep the pain from going away.
It was just that everybody had a camaraderie about them. And basically, in California, everyone that went to a Dick Dale dance - you know, we all met at the beach. And we would all surf. And we'd just surf all day, come out of the water, break and have a sandwich, and go back in and surf to the evening glass offs.
GROSS: When you started playing, you wanted a really loud sound and you couldn't get it loud enough, and you knew Leo Fender, the guitar maker, and - what? - you worked together to get an amplifier that would give you the volume you wanted?
DALE: Well, what happened was it wasn't as much as volume. What it was was a quality of sound. I wanted to get a fat, thick, deep sound that was very fat, sounding like a big floor tom - a tom-tom - and because, once again, listening to the Gene Krupa drumming. And when - we never miked our amplifiers, we never had mikes in front of amplifiers. So the amplifier had to sound thick and pure on its own merit.
And with Leo making just amplifiers that are only 10-inch speakers, you cannot get a sound out of a 10-inch speaker that gives you a fat, thick sound. So when Leo Fender would call me to come to his factory, he said, Dick, I've got it. I've got the sound. I'd go up there and I'd play this amplifier that he'd have. And it would be really loud, you know, and really powerful. And I'd go, wow, that sounds great.
But then when I took it to the Rendezvous Ballroom and got it on the stage, and there's 4,000 people out there, all of a sudden their clothes would suck up the sound and suck up the thickness and the baseness of this sound. And I wouldn't have any more power or any more depth of sound.
So I kept trying to tell Leo that, and we kept on making all these adjustments with output transformers, with speakers. And that's how I blew up over 48 speakers and amplifiers, they'd catch on fire. The speakers would freeze, the speakers would tear from the coils. We went to Lansing Company and said, listen. We need a beefier speaker that'll handle the big-bass strings, that will handle this output transformer.
And then Leo finally came to - and Freddie Tavares - came to the Renzezvous, stood in the middle of 4,000 people to watch what I was doing, and they looked at each other and they said, now I know what Dick's trying to tell me.
So he went back to the drawing board, came up and invented the Dick Dale Showman amplifier and the Dual Showman amplifier, with the 15-inch Lansing speaker. That was the end result of the sound, and along with the creations that we did on the Stratocaster guitar, making it a real thick body because the thicker the wood, the more purer the sound.
BIANCULLI: Surf rock guitarist Dick Dale speaking to Terry Gross in 1993. He died last Saturday at age 81. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the newest horror film from Jordan Peele called "Us." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DICK DALE'S "HAVA NAGILA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.