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Dick Dale, King of the Surf Guitar, Has Died at 81

Guitarist Dick Dale, smiling.
Dick Dale attending a convention in 2010. David Livingston/Getty Images

Musician Dick Dale, whose staccato, reverb-heavy guitar style defined surf rock, has died at the age of 81, according to Variety. Dale, who was born Richard Monsour, was one of the very few musicians who could claim to have invented an entire genre, with his 1962 single “Let’s Go Trippin’,”:

Dale’s unique guitar technique—he played left-handed, but unlike other lefties like Jimi Hendrix, left his guitars strung for right-handed players, so the high strings were closest to the top of the guitar—came from youth, ignorance, and ukuleles, as he explained to Miami New Times in 2011:

I was reading a Superman magazine and it said: Sell so many jars of Noxzema skin cream and we’ll send you this ukulele. And I got it. But it was a piece of crap, so I filled a red wagon with a bunch of Pepsi and Coke bottles, went down to the store, cashed them, and I got a basic ukulele for $6. … when I started playing the guitar, I used the ukulele chords. Plus, I held the ukulele upside-down when I first got it. You know, the book didn’t say: Turn it the other way, stupid. You’re left handed. And that’s how I started playing upside-down backwards ‘cause all my rhythm was in my left hand.

Dale didn’t just play upside down and backwards: to get the staccato sounds he favored, Dale attacked his instrument so ferociously that he had to use heavier gauge strings than other guitarists. But guitar technology didn’t advance to the point where Dale could make the kind of music he wanted to until he collaborated with inventor Leo Fender, destroying amplifier after amplifier in the early 1960s until Fender built him one he could play as loudly as he wanted to at his legendary live shows. “Miserlou,” famously used in Pulp Fiction’s opening credits, is a Rosetta Stone for understanding what everyone from Hendrix to Eddie Van Halen was up to in the years that followed:

Surf rock faded in popularity when the British Invasion rolled around, and Dale’s career was further hobbled by a battle with cancer in the mid-1960s, which sent him into early retirement. Although he occasionally reemerged to play an oldies show or cut an independent record in subsequent years, it wasn’t until Quentin Tarantino’s surf-rock-heavy soundtrack to Pulp Fiction in 1994 that Dale’s signature sound experienced a revival. Dale cut two albums for Hightone Records in the mid 1990s, and in 2001, released his last album, Spacial Disorientation. He is survived by his second wife and his son.