One of the most iconic and recognizable genres in rock’n’roll and 20th-century music is surf-rock. Tunes like Pipeline and Wipeout helped shape the California sound in the early 60s by mixing reverb drenched twangy guitars and deep “swell like,” bending on the whammy bar. While the average listener may not know the names of all the songs most can almost instantly recognize the genre.
Dick Dale & The Del Tones
One of the most important songs to the genre is Dick Dale and The Del Tones’ rendition of Miserlou (spelling changed to Miserlou from Misirlou). Used in everything from Pulp Fiction to The Black Eyed Peas to M*A*S*H, Dale’s version of Misirlou has made its way into the hearts of many adoring fans gaining the genre and himself a bit of a cult following. Misirlou is originally an Eastern Mediterranean folk song with its earliest recording dating at 1919. Various traditional versions of the song appear in Turkish, Jewish, Arabic, Armenian, and Greek cultures.
Traditional Greek version – Mike Patrinos
Though to the mainstream U.S. and many others, Miserlou begins with Dick Dale. Heavily associated with surf culture and the beach scene is Southern California, it was only a matter of time before Miserlou found its way into the hands of islanders and of course ‘ukulele players. His fast tremelo picking while sliding up and down the neck on one string evokes the feeling of catching a wave and diving into the barrel.
Though it may be lost to history on just who played the first rendition of Miserlou on ‘ukulele, there has been a multitude of versions ranging from the more traditional to Dale’s surf-rock version. Today we are going to take a closer look to the legacy of Miserlou on the ‘ukulele and a couple of memorable performances.
Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain
Leaning more to the traditional side, The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain plays a rich and tasteful arrangement of Miserlou. Including five ‘ukuleles and an ‘ukulele bass, the UOGB utilizes the varying timbres of different styles and sizes of ‘ukuleles to help broaden their sonic image. Harmonizing they take the tune around with beautiful and tasteful counterpoint.
Rio Saito & James Hill
Somewhere in the middle of traditional and contemporary, ‘ukulele legend James Hill is joined by young virtuoso Rio Saito at the 2014 Thailand Ukulele Festival. Mixing different strumming patterns with a chord melody really adds a lively feel and full sound to the song. Switching between minor and major, the arrangement takes a few unexpected turns leaving the listener curious and excited to see what will happen next.
The Shimabukuro Brothers
No collection of Miserlou would be complete without contributions from both Shimabukuro brothers. Here is a video from the 2000 Okinawan Festival on Oahu featuring both Jake and Bruce on a more surf-rock version of the tune. Jake first starts off playing Malagueña solo then he slides down the neck ala Dick Dale’s version and launches into furiously picking on the 1st string. Moving up and down the neck Jake channels Dick Dale with a mixture of single notes, chords, octave runs, etc. that create an updated standard for ‘ukulele shredders.
Staples in her set, Taimane does a medley of surf tunes including our beloved Miserlou. Like the Shimabukuro’s, Taimane mostly utilizes the first string with a thumb pick to get the right tone and speed. Her performance includes Pipeline, the theme from Hawai’i 5-0, and Wipeout. Her execution is concise and she has great stage presence as always.
It’s great to see how different people from different parts of the world interpret the same song. The multitude of different stylizations weave together a tapestry of renditions to pull inspiration from. Personal touch is important to breathe life and create variety for a song. So that leads us to the question:
How would you play Miserlou?
UkePrints is a curated playlist of some essential ukulele tracks that all ukulele player should listen to. These songs have left a legacy for future players and in essence, sound impressions of the ‘ukulele or what I like to call them: UkePrints.