Lightning-fast instrumental rock guitarist; surf music innovator in the early 1960s, and known as the "King of Surf Guitar." Born Richard Monsour (1937) in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of a Lebanese machinist, Dale as a child taught himself to play Hank Williams songs on ukulele and guitar. He began surfing as a teenager in the mid-'50s, after his family moved west to the Los Angeles County beachfront suburb of El Segundo; he was also writing instrumental country-western tunes.
In 1956, not long after changing his name, Dale won an Elvis Presley soundalike contest, and while he began changing his style from country to rock and roll, the band name on his debut single in 1958 was Dick Dale and the Rhythm Wranglers. In late 1959, backed by his new rock band the Del-Tones, Dale played his first concert at the Rendezvous Ballroom, a Newport Beach concert hall. Local surfers went wild over Dale's hard-driving sound; Dale and his band soon became the Rendezvous house band, and their 1961 single "Let's Go Trippin'" is considered by many to be the first true surf record.
Surfer's Choice, Dale's 1962 debut album, with Dale shown surfing on the album cover, sold more than 80,000 copies. As Dale later noted, the heavy-reverb "wet" guitar sound that became his trademark was absent from Choice. It was only after dozens of trial-and-error design sessions with guitar- and amp-maker Leo Fender that Dale was able to achieve the sonic power and thrust that came to define his music—most famously on "Misirlou," the Greek standard that Dale transformed into the quintessential surf song in 1962. ("Misirlou" was used as the opening song in the 1994 hit movie Pulp Fiction.) A versatile performer, Dale also played drums and trump during his band's live sets.
Genre purists regard Dale-type instrumentals—as distinct from the richly layered vocal songs produced by groups like the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean—as the true form of surf music. Dale later said he was trying through his music to "match the feeling I had while surfing; [the] vibration and pulsification, and the tremendous power." The best way to express surfing in audio form, Dale discovered, was a hammering guitar-pick attack on a single string while sliding his fret hand high to low down the neck of his battle-scarred Fender Stratocaster. (Although left-handed, Dale played a right-handed guitar flipped upside down, leaving the heavier-gauge strings on the bottom.)
Dale appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1963, released four albums in quick succession (King of the Surf Guitar and Checkered Flag in 1963, Mr. Eliminator and Summer Surf in 1964), and performed in Hollywood beach movies (Beach Party in 1963, Muscle Beach Party in 1964). Because he refused to tour outside of Southern California, however, he remained something of a regional phenomenon. He retired in 1965, then reformed the Del-Tones five years later and has been performing on and off ever since.
Dale and guitar legend Stevie Ray Vaughan together earned a Best Instrumental Grammy nomination in 1987 for their recording of the Chantays' 1963 hit "Pipeline." Four years later Dale was nominated to the International Surfing Hall of Fame. He recorded two albums in the mid-'90s (Tribal Thunder and Unknown Territory), launched his first nationwide tour, and made an MTV video. In 1996 he was elected to the Hollywood Rock Walk of Fame, and in 2000 the U.S. House of Representatives inducted Dale into the Library of Congress Hall of Records for outstanding achievements in music.
In 2015, Dale made news for candidly addressing ongoing health issues related to diabetes and renal cancer. Even while ailing, he continued to perform. "When I die, it’s not going to be in a rocking chair with a big beer belly. I’ll die onstage, in a big explosion of body parts."
Surf Beat: The Dick Dale Story was published in 2000. Dale was inducted into the Surfing Walk of Fame in Huntington Beach in 2011.