Mod Garage: The Dick Dale Wiring

The unique wiring scheme behind the definitive surf sound.

Welcome back to Mod Garage! This month it's all about a very special Stratocaster wiring made famous by Dick Dale, the player who started the whole surf guitar thing. His goal was not to play harmonic tunes, but to mimic the untamed noises of the sea. He developed a uniquely loud and raw Stratocaster style, as heard on “Misirlou," the 1962 masterpiece that Quentin Tarantino chose as the main theme for Pulp Fiction. The song features the early '60s Strat that Leo Fender personally presented to Dale. Fender was fond of Dale, who lived near Fender's Fullerton, California, factory, and despite the age disparity, the two became fast friends. Dale was involved in the development of the Fender Dual Showman amp, as well as JBL's D-130F 15" speakers and Fender's standalone spring reverb unit—gear he still plays today.


Dale's gold Stratocaster, nicknamed “The Beast," employs a minimal wiring scheme ideal for his style. The guitar is loaded with stock '60s Strat pickups wired to a 3-way pickup selector rather than the usual 5-way switch. The only pot is an A250k master volume—there are no tone controls. There's also an on/off mini-toggle switch to add the middle pickup to the 3-way switch's neck position—and that's it! It sounds pretty minimal, but works as intended, providing crisp tones ideal for surf music.

Modding your Strat to Dick Dale specs means removing parts and adding an extra mini-toggle or push/pull pot. (By the way, Dale's mini-toggle was originally located in a different location near the 3-way switch, which is why there are three unused holes in the pickguard, which Dale covered with metal button plugs. Today the toggle resides between the middle and neck pickups, as seen in the photo.)

Dale plays left-handed on a right-handed guitar without restringing. This results in a reverse-angled bridge pickup, with more high-end bite on the bass strings and a warmer sound on the trebles.

Here are some mods for tweaking the scheme:

· Instead of a mini-toggle, use a push/pull or push/push as the master volume. That way, you don't need to drill an extra pickguard hole.

· Instead of adding the middle pickup to the 3-way switch's neck position, you can configure the wiring to taste. For example, connecting the wires from the mini-toggle to the input lugs for the bridge and middle pickups on the 3-way switch adds the bridge pickup to the middle position, etc.

· Instead of a 3-way switch plus a mini-toggle, you can simply use the standard 5-way switch to get all the in-between pickup combinations, using the mini-toggle to complete the “seven-sound" mod, which adds bridge-plus-neck and all-at-once settings.

· You can experiment with the value of the volume control. An A500k or A1M pot provides an even brighter tone. (I don't recommend it, though—the stock A250k pot provides the best control in a passive circuit like this.)

In addition to modding your Strat, several other things can help you nail the Dick Dale tone:

· Dale plays left-handed on a right-handed guitar without restringing—the bass strings are where the trebles usually are, and vice-versa. On a Strat this results in a reverse-angled bridge pickup, with more high-end bite on the bass strings and a warmer sound on the trebles. Replacement pickguards like this are readily available, or you can make your own from scratch. (Even the stickers on Dale's Strat are available as reproductions.)


Courtesy of singlecoil.com.

· Dick Dale plays heavy strings: .016-.060! These create very high string tension. To protect your Strat's neck, consult a luthier before installing such heavy strings. (Chances are you'll need a new nut anyway.)

· Dale's tremolo is blocked with a piece of wood and all five springs are installed.

· Dick Dale plays through a Fender Showman amp and an external Fender reverb. And don't forget—he plays really loud!

· Dick Dale uses heavy picks, attacking the strings as close to the bridge as possible for maximum twang.

· For most songs he uses only the bridge pickup.

· Dale's trademark is his fast, hard staccato style, usually uptempo. (“Misirlou" is 180 bpm!)

You need time to develop fluency with these techniques—as a surf player myself, I know what this means! But it's worth the effort for a Strat sound like no other: raw, rambunctious, and almost onomatopoeic, painting a sonic picture of waves breaking on rocks. It's best to start at half tempo or even slower, and then work your way up to full tempo. And don't try to mimic this style with a tremolo stompbox! Yes, it partly works, but it's like showering with socks on. The energy only flows from the real thing.

Until next time, keep on modding—and surf on, my friends. Shaka!

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Photo courtesy of ampeg.com

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