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Dick Dale, Surf Music Pioneer, Dead at 81

Dick Dale, guitar virtuoso and surf music pioneer, has died at age 81. Dale’s death was initially reported by California Rocker and later confirmed by the Guardian, who spoke with Dale’s live bassist Sam Bolle. The guitarist passed away Saturday night, though his cause of death was not revealed.

Known as the “King of the Surf Guitar,” Dale is frequently cited as the originator of the surf music. He was known for his distinctive style of playing, which frequently incorporated Middle Eastern scales with a heavy spring-reverb texture and rapid tremolo picking style. Like Jimi Hendrix after him, Dale played a right-handed guitar left-handed without restringing the instrument, which lent a particularly treble-heavy tone to his playing.

Born Richard Anthony Monsour in 1937, Dale learned the ukulele and then guitar as a young child. A Lebanese immigrant, Dale’s father taught him the Middle Eastern scales that would shape the sound of surf music for years to come.

Dale moved to Southern California in the mid-1950s, where he became an avid surfer. During this period, he teamed up with the Del-Tones on songs like 1961’s “Let’s Go Trippin’,” a single frequently cited as the first surf rock song. The track was later covered by the Beach Boys on their 1963 album Surfin’ U.S.A. “Misirlou,” Dale’s 1962 take on a classic Middle Eastern song, was frequently covered by exotica musicians like Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman, and was later featured in the 1994 Quentin Tarantino film Pulp Fiction.

Dale experience numerous health issues in the years before his death. In 2010, Dale said he was battling rectal cancer. In a viral interview with the Pittsburgh City Paper from 2015, the guitarist revealed that his intense recent tour schedule had more to do with his need to pay his medical bills than his desire to remain on the road. “I have to raise $3,000 every month to pay for the medical supplies I need to stay alive, and that’s on top of the insurance that I pay for,” he said.

Guitarists like Eddie Van Halen and Stevie Ray Vaughan have long cited Dale as an inspiration, modeling their own sounds on Dale’s signature style. Vaughan notably teamed up with Dale to cover the Chantays’ “Pipeline” in 1986, earning them both a nomination for Best Rock Instrumental Performance at the 1987 Grammys.

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