Dick Dale on the central role of rhythm in music and playing to the grassroots people

Keep Westword Free
I Support
  • Local
  • Community
  • Journalism
  • logo

Support the independent voice of Denver and help keep the future of Westword free.

Dick Dale (due tonight at the Gothic Theatre) is one of the most influential living musicians. If Dale hadn't blown the first 48 guitar amplifiers Leo Fender had brought to him, guitar amps as we now know them may have taken longer to develop. Dale, who invented surf rock, used to pay the Beach Boys fifty dollars to open for him in the early days. Dale's influence on rock and roll since the 1950s is immense, and he has shared the stage with legends while being a legend in his own right. He was a seminal influence on Jimi Hendrix, who immortalized Dale in song.

These days, Dale lives on piece of remote property in the desert with his wife Lana. He has a private runway because his house is set amidst numerous military bases and one must fly within a specific altitude range to safely make it to his place. Dale has been through ups and downs in his career. He has survived illness and injury, and, other than a period of a handful of years, he has kept up a touring regimen that would be impressive in anyone far younger than his 74 years. By any measure, Dale is an impressive person who is very much the living embodiment of the spirit of rock and roll as he also largely manages his career at this time.

Dale said, at the outset of our chat with him, that he doesn't really give interviews anymore without charging for them. But that we seemed to have a nice manner about us, he would return the favor. Dale was very generous with his time and discussed with us his recent health issues, his unique living situation, his lifelong love of animals, his populist social and political leanings and his rich philosophy on life which infuses his music. Here is a slice of that conversation we had with one of the true innovators of rock and roll.

Westword: Can you tell us about music and why rhythm plays such a central role in the music you've written over the years? After all, you got your start playing drums.

Dick Dale: Music is nothing but a door opener to meet families and their children and the elderly. I get babies and make them put earplugs in their ears. I have a saying, "Five to a hundred and five." People who have witnessed all the years of me playing, they bring their kids and say, "I used to see this guy when I was fourteen!" Now I've got everyone from body piercers, people with motorcycle jackets, tattoo people and all these kinds of people. But why are they there listening?

Because I play my music from the rhythm of Gene Krupa's drums, that he learned from the indigenous people of Africa, when they stomped their spears on the ground on the one. Always on the one. Whereas musicians playing on the one and, their rhythm, they play to other musicians to show how cool they are. I play all my music on the one. In the Shao Lin temple, they never allow you to touch the skin of a drum until you can tongue what you're going to play. That is when you go one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four -- that is what you would play on a drum. That's how you would play an instrument.

When you can tongue it, when you're no longer the grasshopper, then you can touch the drum. That teaches you, and I taught Jimmy [my son] that method, and that's why his timing is beyond anything I've ever had before when he plays drums. He applies that to the guitar, he applies that to everything else so I taught him that rhythm. Whereas I've had drummers who've got the fastest hands in the world that when they do a turnaround, it's like listening to oatmeal. Every drum does not get its due application for the accentuation. One day I'm going to write a book and do a DVD and call it, This is the Way It Really Is, Stupid.

Some people think it's childish or no good to go back to the beginning of time, how rhythm was first applied. If that's not the case, why do conductors of symphonic orchestras use the same applications that Gene Krupa learned from the natives with a baton? They wave that baton all on the one. You see what I'm saying?


So my performance and my playing is what draws these people because they can count what I'm doing. The pulsation. The ultimate guitar players can play every scale in the book. I've never taken a lesson on anything I play; I play by ear. The point is that they can play the scale so fast and everything else, but it sounds like oatmeal. You cannot decipher what they're playing. I've had heavy metal players say, "My god, what you play is the first time I ever heard speed where I could feel and count every note."

What they're hearing is, I don't think, every single note. What they're hearing is the application creating the pulsation of the first strike. That's what's attacking them. And that's what attacks the people, no matter how fast I play it or how slow I play it. It moves their body because it's a sensual rhythmic movement that goes through their body. That's why you swish around every time you hear a beat. The natives learned that, and they knew that from the beginning of time. They had their fertility/sexual rite dances where they went into total hypnotic states and dropped to the ground.

Gene Krupa was smart enough to learn that. That's why when a fella like Buddy Rich, who became the Einstein technician of drumming and took it out to a level into outer space, he could play four rhythms at the same time, but the only people that could understand that were other jazz players. Not grassroots people.

When they had the drum-off between Louie Bellson, Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, when it was over, Gene Krupa went up to Buddy Rich and said, "Mr. Rich, I'd give anything to play like you." And Buddy Rich looked at him and he said, "F-you. Did you see how many people were standing around you and how many people standing around me?" There were about a hundred people standing around Gene Krupa and about twenty people standing around Buddy Rich. Why?

The point is -- I proved that point in Las Vegas when I worked Vegas, Reno and Tahoe for seventeen years -- in the dressing room at The Golden Nugget, the casino boss manager had a big sign on the door that said, "No drum solos." Why? Because when everyone took a drum solo, they wanted to be like Buddy Rich, and they started playing on the rims of the snare -- all the stuff Buddy Rich used to do. And it would irritate the shit out of the blackjack players, and they'd go, "What is that racket?" Because it would ring through the casino. So no drum solos. And they would drop the curtain on them if they did it. I seen it happen more than once.

Then, one day, when I was playing, I decided I was going to do a drum solo, because I was a rebel a little bit. So I got on the drums, and I went on the floor toms and played the stuff that Gene Krupa did from the natives. I played strictly on the rack toms and the floor toms. The blackjack players started tapping their fingers on the table going, "Hit me, hit me again." They were engrossed in the rhythm that they heard and felt going through the casino because it was tom toms, no fancy rim shots or snare drums or that other bullshit. Guess what? That curtain never dropped on me.

So it became, to this day as we speak, one of the highlights of my show. I've never followed a list in my life because I think it's too phony. So every night that I play is always different. I play songs you'll recognize, but I also keep throwing in new ones all the time because my brain just goes to these things from the audience, and I never play the same song the same way twice because I can't remember how I did it the night before, and I just make up stuff in it. I'm always constantly making up stuff.

With the symphony I just played, I asked the conductor if I could put my two cents in, and he said, "Go for it." And that made me want to quit playing altogether and get a job as a conductor with a symphony. Because to see what could be done with a full symphonic orchestra and what we did, that they had never done before, was the most unbelievable experience I've ever had.

So now the agents started complaining to the casino manager, "How come you let Dick Dale do the drums and you don't let us." And he goes, "Because Dick Dale knows which goddamned drums to play!" It's like the old story of the woman who had a plumbing leak or something and her hot water heater wasn't working and the guy came down and charged her a hundred bucks and all he did was tap on the side of it with a hammer. Then she goes, "What do you mean you're charging me a hundred bucks and you just tapped it and it worked?" And he goes, "It's just knowing where to tap it, ma'am."

Instead of trying to impress other musicians, why don't you play to the people that are saving their money to come and see you play? Play to them. And that's what I've always done in my life. I read an audience and learned all those tricks from people like Liberace and all those guys that I played with, from Waylon Jennings, Johnny Paycheck, Johnny Cash, Gene Autry and Tex Ritter. Freddie Hart. I played with all those people and that's the story -- play to the grassroots people.

When people ask me, "How do I play the guitar and play like you do?" I tell them to sit down and let me cleanse their soul. Then we go into the philosophy of why I attack the instruments the way I play them. And it's a lot more than learning a scale. If you want to learn scales and become a studio musician for recording, that's different because you're going to have to write music and read it and doing the big heavy stuff.

But if you want to learn how to play an instrument -- I teach people how to play an instrument in one day, when they've been taking lessons for two years and still haven't learned a song yet -- the whole thing is that if you then want to learn the theory of music, learn it after you've learned to enjoy yourself playing and have other people enjoy what you play. But it's all in the mind of how you attack everything. Your body is your temple; treat it like your temple, and don't be swayed by other people's opinions. If you want to try this and do it, you do it. Bullshit walks and performance talks. Everything we do in life is psychological.

Dick Dale, with Fingers of the Sun, 7 p.m., Sunday, October 2, Gothic Theatre, 303-788-0984, $25, 16+

Follow Backbeat @westword_music and facebook.com/westwordmusic

Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.


Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.