Though Dick Dale is known as "The King of Surf Guitar," his hero is drummer Gene Krupa. In 1937, the year Dale was born, Krupa rocked the music world with a solo in Benny Goodman's cover of "Sing, Sing, Sing."
Instead of stressing the off-beat, like most of his contemporaries, Krupa emphasized the on-beat to make jazz tunes swing. As a child, Dale would imitate this style, banging out rhythms on his mother's sugar canisters. Later, he applied it to guitar riffs, imagining his thick strings as long, skinny drums.
Krupa also inspired Dale to become an amateur ethnomusicologist.
"I studied how he got his rhythms from indigenous peoples," Dale says. "Western musicians play from their minds, but Zulus and aborigines internalize the beat and play from their bodies."
This interest in ancient cultures and faraway places spread to nearly every corner of Dale's life. Before long, he was practicing martial arts in Japanese dojos and raising lions and tigers in his California home. He also fell in love with ocean waves, which he'd surf from sunrise to sunset. Like big cats, they roared, and he yearned to replicate their sound on his guitar. To do so, he experimented with amp-based effects and exotic melodies from Mexico and the Middle East.
By the mid-1950s, Dale's sound was rippling through the country's nascent rock 'n' roll scene. His 1962 recording of "Miserlou" wowed fans with its dramatic reverb and light-speed picking. In 1963, the Beach Boys covered Dale's "Let's Go Trippin'," establishing surf rock as one of the decade's hottest trends. Surf sounds sprang from the underground again in the mid-'90s, when filmmaker Quentin Tarantino made Dale's version of "Miserlou" the Pulp Fiction theme song.
Dale eschews set lists, treating fans to a different display of sonic acrobatics at each show. Even as he battles cancer and diabetes, the music and his loved ones-fans included-keep him going.
When I die, it's not gonna be in some rocking chair, with a big old belly," he insists. "It's gonna be onstage, in one big explosion of body parts."