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Jeff Moehlis: Long Live the King of the Surf Guitar

Dick Dale plays a rippin' show in Ventura

Rock royalty showed up in Ventura on Sunday. No, it wasn’t Elvis Presley, the king of rock ‘n’ roll, eating donuts at a shop. It wasn’t the king of pop, Michael Jackson, on a masked shopping spree. It was the king of surf guitar, Dick Dale, who played an absolutely rippin’ show at the Majestic Ventura Theater.

The classic surf music sound that Dale pioneered was in full force, namely the reverb-drenched distorted-Fender-Strat-through-Fender-amps gloriously-glissandoing staccato-picked guitar playing.

The show kicked off with thunderous guitar coming offstage over ultra-energetic and ultra-tight playing by youngsters Sammy on bass and Brian on drums. Dale emerged in the middle of the song, clad as usual in black with a slicked-back ponytail and a black headband. Make no mistake, Dale is back — at age 72 — after surviving treatment for cancer.

Dale performed a choice selection of covers, including “House of the Rising Sun” and “Fever,” which he sang in his deep, gruff voice; a blazing instrumental version of country classic “Ghost Rider”; surf standard “Pipeline”; and audience sing-alongs “Hey Bo Diddley” and “Louie, Louie.”

A particular highlight was early in the show when, during a cover of the “Peter Gunn Theme” he came through the audience, making it to the (closed-off) balcony and triumphantly looking down on his fans, all while playing his guitar.

Of course, Dale also played the song he is best known for, the quintessential surf music classic “Miserlou,” which was introduced to a new generation in the cult-hit film Pulp Fiction. Other blasts from Dale’s past included “Taco Wagon,” “Break Time” and his surf music arrangement of “Hava Nagila.”

Dale clearly enjoys performing, and often encouraged the audience to sing along or, in the case of “Break Time,” to count along.

A few words must be said about Dale’s unique guitar playing. He plays a right-handed Fender Stratocaster, which is flipped over so that the higher strings are on top, a trick that fan Jimi Hendrix adopted. Interestingly, he often frets the high strings and hits harmonics by coming over the fretboard, something I don’t recall anyone else using.

At one point, Dale helped play Sammy’s bass by reaching in to play low notes while Sammy soloed on higher notes. It seemed somewhat outrageous at the time, but it was later outdone when Dale traded his guitar for drumsticks and, after joining Brian for some skin pounding on the drum kit and in between spins of the sticks, proceeded to use the drumsticks to hit the bass’ strings and body while Sammy fretted notes. Rad stuff.

Two of the more diverse songs were a dancy number in which Dale played trumpet a la Louis Armstrong, and a romantic country song called “Special One” that Dale wrote while in the hospital for his cancer treatment. Introducing the latter song, he thanked fans for their support during this ordeal, and said to uproarious applause: “I couldn’t care less what cancer thinks. I’m gonna play my guitar, and that’s all there is to it.” He even did a stompin’ arrangement of “Amazing Grace” in honor of the troops off at war, promising to play it at every show until our “children come home.”

Dale played one more thing: the role of a proud father, marveling several times at opening punk-pop band Forever Came Calling, which includes his son, Jimmy, on drums.

In case there was any doubt, Sunday night’s concert showed Dale is still the king of the surf guitar. Long live the king!

Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB.

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