Surf and turf

Teisco Del Rey, the self-proclaimed "King of the El Cheapo Guitars," has just sat down for lunch at Guero's, a popular South Austin restaurant and taco bar. He barely begins his life story when a distinctive twang and rumble spills out of the sound system.

"Hey, that's appropriate!" he gushes. "'Walk Don't Run' comes over the airwaves wherever I go..." If Richard Strauss' "Thus Spake Zarathustra" forever remains in the possession of Elvis, Teisco Del Rey could make a legitimate claim on the Ventures' classic as his entrance music--and not just because he once spent two weeks during 1983 touring playing rhythm guitar with the legendary group's original lineup.

But even though the surf's up again in the musical world--resurrected, in part, because of the Pulp Fiction soundtrack that turned Dick Dale into the Ennio Morricone of the '90s--it's only a starting point in Del Rey's reinvigoration of instrumental rock. On the guitarist's just-released second CD, Teisco Del Rey Plays Music for Lovers, the wave he catches is a tsunami that rolls far away from the beaches of California, hitting Mexico, Jamaica, Louisiana, Italy, Finland, and the Middle East along the way, while still offering nods to such six-string instrumental giants as Link Wray and Duane Eddy.

"I guess a lot of people react to the variety of material I do," says Del Rey, alluding to surf-revival purists. "To me, it just makes sense, because you can't make something so monochromatic. But I think it also has something to do with growing up in the '60s."

A native of the San Francisco Bay area, Del Ray teethed on the rock and roll explosion there during the 1960s, a time when progressive FM radio was being born and Top-40 AM played everything from soup to nuts, as long as it was a hit. "It was anything goes," Del Rey recalls.

Appropriately, on Music for Lovers Del Rey conquers a diversity of material including "The Barber of Seville," "Theme from Lawrence of Arabia," the old pop hit "Sealed with a Kiss," and a Finnish folk song, "Kyla Vuotti Ulta Kuuta (The Village was Waiting for the New Moon)"--not to mention Link Wray's "Steel Trap" and "Werewolf" by the Frantics. Del Rey also welcomes such guests as guitarists Sonny Landreth and Doyle Bramhall, Austin singer Abra Moore, Ronnie Dawson's once-favorite drummer Lisa Pankratz, and Del Rey's Upstart Records labelmates and fellow surf-rock-plus enthusiasts Laika & the Cosmonauts. The result is a record on which the guitar definitely speaks for itself (even when it's Teisco's self-styled Guitorgan), restoring instrumental rock to its once-picturesque glory.

A collector of exotic electric guitars and chronicler of the instrument's more cheesey permutations in such magazines as Guitar Player, Guitar World, and Guitar Shop, Del Rey (known to his parents as Dan Forte) cuts a somewhat elusive figure in a town where one wouldn't be surprised to see a beggar's sign reading, "Will Play 'Pride and Joy' For Food." Aside from occasional gigs with his band, The Nut Rockers, Del Rey seems to stay holed up in his South Austin digs with his battery of 60 or so guitars, many of them made from plastic with wacky "space-age" designs in of such far-flung locales as Japan and Italy.

Humor may leaven Del Rey's approach to the often dry world of six-string gymnastics, but his music is indeed some serious shit. Inspired by guitarists including Mike Bloomfield and Django Reinhardt, Del Rey learned "Walk Don't Run" from Play Guitar With The Ventures albums.

"It came in handy when I substituted on rhythm guitar with the Ventures, because their repertoire was all stuff I'd learned off their little instructional records," he recalls with a laugh.

"Before I learned to play 'Louie Louie' or anything," he says, "seeing Duane Eddy play on 'American Bandstand' was a real turning point. It just had such an attraction. There was something real space-age back in the '50s about hearing electric guitars, even though they'd been around for a while. But you'd hear Duane Eddy play one with that tremolo, and you thought, 'Ooh, he's not playing a normal guitar. He's playing an electric guitar!"

Del Rey's conversion from run-of-the-mill guitar nut to wacko guitar fanatic came in the late '70s, when he started collecting the cheap and eccentric guitars he'd come across in music stores and pawn shops. Not long after, he had his own personal surf-music revival.

"I had this mutual music-fan friend, and we discovered we both played guitar," he explains. "So he came over to the house, and we were going to just jam some. Initially, we actually attempted to play some jazz tunes, because we were both sort of fledgling wannabe jazz players. So we were playing 'Autumn Leaves' and stuff like that, probably pretty badly, too. So that segued into us playing 12-bar blues kinda stuff, and then all of a sudden, we just said, 'Well, what else do we know?'

"We started playing 'Walk Don't Run' and 'Pipeline' and stuff like that, and it sounded great, just like it always sounded, because it was stuff we'd both played from the get-go. So then, we obviously decided, 'Hey, man, this stuff sounds cool, and we can actually do it, and nobody else is doing it, so let's start a band.'"

That group, Cowabunga, became a popular Bay Area surf-instrumental outfit. By 1987, Del Rey had relocated to Austin, the perfect place to mix his surf chops and blues roots. To wit, 1994's critically acclaimed The Many Moods of Teisco Del Rey featured guests like Jimmie Vaughan and Charlie Musselwhite, as well as original Ventures drummer Mel Taylor.

"The surf stuff was part of my genetic makeup, if you will. But it would never occur to me to just do a surf album," concludes Del Rey. "I just do stuff I like, and if you're playing all instrumentals, you've got to mix things up.