Surf music

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Surf music is a subgenre of rock music associated with surf culture, particularly as found in Southern California. It was especially popular from 1962 to 1964 in two major forms. [8] The first is instrumental surf, distinguished by reverb-drenched electric guitars played to evoke the sound of crashing waves, largely pioneered by Dick Dale and the Del-Tones. The second is vocal surf, which took elements of the original surf sound and added vocal harmonies, a movement led by the Beach Boys. [9] [10]

Rock music is a broad genre of popular music that originated as "rock and roll" in the United States in the early 1950s, and developed into a range of different styles in the 1960s and later, particularly in the United States and the United Kingdom. It has its roots in 1940s and 1950s rock and roll, a style which drew heavily from the genres of blues, rhythm and blues, and from country music. Rock music also drew strongly from a number of other genres such as electric blues and folk, and incorporated influences from jazz, classical and other musical styles. Musically, rock has centered on the electric guitar, usually as part of a rock group with electric bass, drums, and one or more singers. Usually, rock is song-based music usually with a 4/4 time signature using a verse–chorus form, but the genre has become extremely diverse. Like pop music, lyrics often stress romantic love but also address a wide variety of other themes that are frequently social or political.

Surf culture culture associated with the sport surfing

Surf culture includes the people, language, fashion, and lifestyle surrounding the sport of surfing. The history of surfing began with the ancient Polynesians. That initial culture directly influenced modern surfing, which began to flourish and evolve in the early 20th century, with its popularity spiking during the 1950s and 1960s. It has affected music, fashion, literature, film, art, and youth jargon in popular culture. The number of surfers throughout the world continues to increase as the culture spreads.

Southern California Place in California, United States

Southern California is a geographic and cultural region that generally comprises California's southernmost counties, and is the second most populous urban agglomeration in the United States. The region contains ten counties: Imperial, Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Ventura, and Kern counties.


Dick Dale developed the surf sound from instrumental rock, where he added Middle Eastern and Mexican influences, a spring reverb, and the rapid alternate picking characteristics. His regional hit "Let's Go Trippin' " (1961) launched the surf music craze, inspiring many others to take up the approach.

Instrumental rock is rock music that emphasizes musical instruments and features very little or no singing. Examples of instrumental rock can be found in practically every subgenre of rock, often from musicians who specialize in the style. Instrumental rock was most popular from the mid-1950s to mid-1960s, with artists such as Bill Doggett Combo, The Fireballs, The Shadows, The Ventures, Johnny and the Hurricanes and The Spotnicks. Surf music had many instrumental songs. Many instrumental hits came from the R&B world. Funk and disco produced several instrumental hit singles during the 1970s. The Allman Brothers Band feature several instrumentals. Jeff Beck also recorded two instrumental albums in the 1970s. Progressive rock and art rock performers of the 1960s and 1970s did many virtuosic instrumental performances.

Middle Eastern music spans across a vast region, from Morocco to Iran. The various nations of the region include the Arab countries of the Middle East and North Africa, the Iranian traditions of Persia, the Hebrew music of Israel and the diaspora, Armenian music, the varied traditions of Cypriot music, the music of Turkey, traditional Assyrian music, Berbers of North Africa, Coptic Christians in Egypt, and the Andalusian music very much alive in North Africa, all maintain their own traditions. It is widely regarded that some Middle-Eastern musical styles have influenced India, as well as Central Asia, Spain, and the Balkans.

Guitar picking is a group of hand and finger techniques a guitarist uses to set guitar strings in motion to produce audible notes. These techniques involve plucking, strumming, brushing, etc. Picking can be done with:

The genre reached national exposure when it was represented by vocal groups such as the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean. [11] Dale is quoted on such groups: "They were surfing sounds [with] surfing lyrics. In other words, the music wasn't surfing music. The words made them surfing songs. ... That was the difference ... the real surfing music is instrumental." [12]

Jan and Dean American musical duo

Jan and Dean were an American rock duo consisting of William Jan Berry and Dean Ormsby Torrence. In the early 1960s, they were pioneers of the California Sound and vocal surf music styles popularized by the Beach Boys.

At the height of its popularity, surf music rivaled girl groups and Motown for top American popular music trends. [13] It is sometimes referred to interchangeably with the California Sound. [14] During the later stages of the surf music craze, many of its groups started to write songs about cars and girls; this was later known as hot rod rock. [15]

A girl group is a music act featuring several female singers who generally harmonize together. The term "girl group" is also used in a narrower sense in the United States to denote the wave of American female pop music singing groups, many of whom were influenced by doo-wop and which flourished in the late 1950s and early 1960s between the decline of early rock and roll and start of the British Invasion. All-female bands, in which members also play instruments, are usually considered a separate phenomenon. These groups are sometimes called "girl bands" to differentiate, although this terminology is not universally followed.

Motown Records is an American record label owned by Universal Music Group. It was originally founded by Berry Gordy Jr. as Tamla Records on January 12, 1959, and was incorporated as Motown Record Corporation on April 14, 1960. Its name, a portmanteau of motor and town, has become a nickname for Detroit, where the label was originally headquartered.

California Sound

The California Sound is a popular music aesthetic that originates with American pop and rock recording artists from Southern California in the 1960s. At first, it was conflated with the California Myth, an idyllic setting inspired by the state's beach culture that commonly appeared in the lyrics of commercial pop songs. Later, the Sound was expanded outside its initial geography and subject matter and was developed to be more sophisticated, often featuring studio experimentation.

Instrumental surf


1963 performance flyer, promoting surf musicians. ComeWail009.jpg
1963 performance flyer, promoting surf musicians.

Surf music emerged in the late 1950s as instrumental rock and roll music, [9] almost always in straight 4/4 (or common) time, with a medium to fast tempo. The sound was dominated by electric guitars which were particularly characterized by the extensive use of the "wet" spring reverb that was incorporated into Fender amplifiers from 1961, which is thought to emulate the sound of the waves. [16] The outboard separate Fender Reverb Unit that was developed by Fender in 1961 (as opposed to reverb that was incorporated as a built-in amp feature) was the actual first "wet" surf reverb tone. This unit is the reverb effect heard on Dick Dale records, and others such as "Pipeline" by the Chantays and "Point Panic" by the Surfaris. It had more of a wet "plucky" tone than the "built in" amp reverb, due to a different circuitry.[ citation needed ]

Rock and roll is a genre of popular music that originated and evolved in the United States during the late 1940s and early 1950s from musical styles such as gospel, jump blues, jazz, boogie woogie, and rhythm and blues, along with country music. While elements of what was to become rock and roll can be heard in blues records from the 1920s and in country records of the 1930s, the genre did not acquire its name until 1954.

The Fender Reverb Unit (6G15) was a vacuum tube, spring reverb-equipped effects unit made by Fender. The Reverb Unit was originally introduced in 1961. It was discontinued in 1966 and was replaced by a solid-state model, the FR1000. The unit features three controls: Dwell, Mixer and Tone and includes a 12AT7 tube as a preamplifier; a 6K6 tube as the reverb driver; and a 12AX7 as the reverb recovery tube. The rectifier is a diode-type solid state unit. The circuit board, like Fender's Brownface, Blackface and Silverface amplifiers is an eyelet board and the unit its completely hand wired. The spring reverb “tank” is mounted on the interior side of the front baffle in a vertical position. Tanks were supplied by Gibbs and Accutronics in the original version. The vertically mounted tank should be a 4AB3C1C but most actually shipped with 4AB3C1B tanks which are designed for horizontal mounting; these are the same ones found in the Fender combo amps where it is mounted of the floor in a horizontal configuration. Physically, the unit looks like a small amplifier head and since the early 1960s the unit has become synonymous with surf music.

Banzai Pipeline

The Banzai Pipeline, or simply Pipeline or Pipe, is a surf reef break located in Hawaii, off Ehukai Beach Park in Pupukea on O'ahu's North Shore. A reef break is an area in the ocean where waves start to break once they reach the shallows of a reef. Pipeline is notorious for huge waves which break in shallow water just above a sharp and cavernous reef, forming large, hollow, thick curls of water that surfers can tube ride. There are three reefs at Pipeline in progressively deeper water farther out to sea that activate according to the increasing size of approaching ocean swells.

Guitarists also made use of the vibrato arm on their guitar to bend the pitch of notes downward, electronic tremolo effects and rapid (alternating) tremolo picking. [17] Guitar models favored included those made by Fender (particularly the Jazzmaster, Jaguar and Stratocaster guitars), Mosrite, Teisco, or Danelectro, usually with single coil pickups (which had high treble in contrast to double coil humbucker pickups). [18] Surf music was one of the first genres to universally adopt the electric bass, particularly the Fender Precision Bass. Classic surf drum kits tended to be Rogers, Ludwig, Gretsch or Slingerland. Some popular songs also incorporated a tenor or baritone saxophone, as on The Lively Ones' "Surf Rider" (1963) and The Revels' "Comanche" (1961). [19] Often an electric organ or an electric piano featured as backing harmony.[ citation needed ]

Fender Musical Instruments Corporation American manufacturer of stringed instruments and amplifiers

Fender Musical Instruments Corporation is an American manufacturer of stringed instruments and amplifiers. Fender produces acoustic guitars, bass amplifiers and public address equipment, but is best known for its solid-body electric guitars and bass guitars, particularly the Stratocaster, Telecaster, Precision Bass, and the Jazz Bass. The company was founded in Fullerton, California, by Clarence Leonidas "Leo" Fender in 1946. Its headquarters are in Scottsdale, Arizona.

The Fender Jazzmaster is an electric guitar designed as a more expensive sibling to the Fender Stratocaster. First introduced at the 1958 NAMM Show, it was initially marketed to jazz guitarists, but found favor among surf rock guitarists in the early 1960s. Its appearance is similar to the Jaguar, though it is tonally and physically different in many technical ways, including pickup design, scale length and controls.

The Fender Jaguar is an electric guitar by Fender Musical Instruments characterized by an offset-waist body, a relatively unusual switching system with two separate circuits for lead and rhythm, and a medium-scale 24" neck. Owing some roots to the Jazzmaster, it was introduced in 1962 as Fender's feature-laden top-of-the-line model, designed to lure players from Gibson. During its initial 13-year production run, the Jaguar did not sell as well as the less expensive Stratocaster and Telecaster, and achieved its most noticeable popularity in the surf music scene. After the Jaguar was taken out of production in 1975, vintage Jaguars became popular first with American punk rock players, and then more so during the alternative rock, shoegazing and indie rock movements of the 1980s and 1990s. Fender began making a version in Japan in the mid-1980s, and then introduced a USA-made reissue in 1999. Since then, Fender has made a variety of Jaguars in America, Mexico, Indonesia and China under both the Fender and Squier labels. Original vintage Jaguars sell for many times their original price.


By the early 1960s, instrumental rock and roll had been pioneered successfully by performers such as Link Wray, The Ventures and Duane Eddy. [20] This trend was developed by Dick Dale, who added Middle Eastern and Mexican influences, the distinctive reverb [16] (giving the guitar a "wet" sound),[ citation needed ] and the rapid alternate picking characteristic of the genre [16] (influenced by Arabic music, which Dale learnt from his Lebanese uncle). [21] His performances at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, California during the summer of 1961, [22] and his regional hit "Let's Go Trippin' " later that year, launched the surf music craze, which he followed up with hits like "Misirlou" (1962). [16]

Dick Dale performing in 2005. Dick Dale Middle East May 2005.jpg
Dick Dale performing in 2005.

Like Dale and his Del-Tones, most early surf bands were formed in Southern California, with Orange County in particular having a strong surf culture, and the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa hosted many surf-styled acts. [22] [20] Groups such as The Bel-Airs (whose hit "Mr. Moto", influenced by Dale's earlier live performances, [22] was released slightly before "Let's Go Trippin'"), The Challengers (with their album Surfbeat ) and then Eddie & the Showmen followed Dale to regional success. [23]

The Chantays scored a top ten national hit with "Pipeline", reaching number 4 in May 1963. Probably the single-most famous surf tune hit was "Wipe Out" by the Surfaris, with its intro of a wicked laugh; the Surfaris were also known for their cutting-edge lead guitar and drum solos, and Wipe Out reached number two on the Hot 100 in August 1963 and number 16 in October 1966. The group also had two other global hits, "Surfer Joe" and "Point Panic". [24]

The growing popularity of the genre led groups from other areas to try their hand. These included The Astronauts, from Boulder, Colorado; The Trashmen, from Minneapolis, Minnesota, who reached number 4 with "Surfin' Bird" in 1964; and The Rivieras, from South Bend, Indiana, who reached number 5 in 1964 with "California Sun". [16] The Atlantics, from Sydney, Australia, were not exclusively surf musicians, but made a significant contribution to the genre, the most famous example being their hit "Bombora" (1963). [16] Also from Sydney were The Denvermen, whose lyrical instrumental "Surfside" reached number 1 in the Australian charts. [25] Another Australian surf band who were known outside their own country's surf scene was The Joy Boys, backing band for singer Col Joye; their hit "Murphy the Surfie" (1963) was later covered by the Surfaris. [26]

European bands around this time generally focused more on the style played by British instrumental rock group The Shadows. A notable example of European surf instrumental is Spanish band Los Relámpagos' rendition of "Misirlou". The Dakotas, who were the British backing band for Merseybeat singer Billy J. Kramer, gained some attention as surf musicians with "Cruel Sea" (1963), which was later covered by The Ventures, and eventually other instrumental surf bands, including the Challengers and the Revelairs. [27]

Vocal surf


The Beach Boys performing "I Get Around" in 1964. Sullivan Beach Boys.jpg
The Beach Boys performing "I Get Around" in 1964.

In Matt Warshaw's The Encyclopedia of Surfing, he notes: "Surf music is divided into two categories: the pulsating, reverb-heavy, 'wet'- sounding instrumental form exemplified by guitarist Dick Dale, and the smooth-voiced, multitracked harmonized vocal style invented by the Beach Boys. Purists argue that surf music is by definition instrumental." [28]

This second wave of surf music was led by the Beach Boys, [9] a group whose main distinction between previous surf musicians was that they projected a world view. [30] In 1964, the group's leader and principal songwriter, Brian Wilson, explained: "It wasn't a conscious thing to build our music around surfing. We just want to be identified with the interests of young kids." [31] A year later, he would express: "I HATE so-called "surfin'" music. It's a name that people slap on any sound from California. Our music is rightfully 'the Beach Boy sound'—if one has to label it." [32]

Vocal surf can be interpreted as a regional variant of doo wop music, with tight harmonies on a song's chorus contrasted with scat singing. [33] According to musicologist Timothy Cooley, "Like instrumental surf rock with its fondness for the twelve-bar blues form, the vocal version of Surf Music drew many key elements from African-American genres ... what made the Beach Boys unique was its ability to capture the nation's and indeed the world's imagination about the emerging New Surfing lifestyle now centered in Southern California, as well as the subtle songwriting style and production techniques that identify the Beach Boys' sound." [34] In 1963, Murry Wilson, Brian's father who also acted as the Beach Boys' manager offered his definition of surf music: "The basis of surfing music is a rock and roll bass beat figuration, coupled with raunch-type weird-sounding lead guitar, an electric guitar, plus wailing saxes. Surfing music has to sound untrained with a certain rough flavor in order to appeal to teenagers. ... when the music gets too good, and too polished, it isn't considered the real thing." [1]

Hot rod rock

The 1932 Ford that appeared on the cover to the Beach Boys' album, Little Deuce Coupe (1963). Little Deuce Coupe.jpg
The 1932 Ford that appeared on the cover to the Beach Boys' album, Little Deuce Coupe (1963).

Hot rod music, or hot rod rock, evolved from surf music. [35] Dick Dale recalled surf music was re-imagined as hot rod music by a record company-inspired move to capture a larger market [36] . According to The Ultimate Hot Rod Dictionary by Jeff Breitenstein: "While cars and, to a lesser degree, hot rods have been a relatively common and enduring theme in American popular music, the term hot rod music is most often associated with the unique 'California sound' music of the early to mid-1960s ... and was defined by its rich vocal harmonies, amplified (generally Fender brand) electric guitars, and youth-oriented lyrics (most often celebrating hot rods and, more broadly, surfing and 'girls')." [37]

Author David Ferrandino wrote that "the Beach Boys' musical treatments of both cars and surfboards are identical", [38] whereas author Geoffrey Himes elaborated "subtle" differences: "Translating the surf-music format into hot-rod tunes wasn't difficult. ... If surf music was a lot of Dick Dale and some Chuck Berry, hot-rod music was a little more Berry and a little less Dale—i.e. less percussive staccato and more chiming riffs. Instead of slang about waxes and boards; you used slang about carburetors and pistons; instead of name-dropping the top surfing beaches, you cited the nicknames for the top drag-racing strips; instead of warning about the dangers of a 'Wipe Out', you warned of 'Dead Man's Curve'." [13]


In late 1961, the Beach Boys had their first chart hit, "Surfin' ", which peaked at number 75 on the Billboard Hot 100, [40] followed by "Surfin' U.S.A." (1963) and "Surfer Girl" (1963) which reached the Top 10. [12] In mid-1962, the group released their major-label debut, "Surfin' Safari". The song hit number 14 and helped launch the surf rock craze into a national phenomenon. [41] Breitenstein writes that hot rod rock gained national popularity beginning in 1962 with the Beach Boys' "409", which is often credited with initiating the hot rod music craze, which lasted until 1965. [37] [nb 1] Several key figures would lead the hot rod movement beside Wilson, including songwriter-producer-musician Gary Usher and songwriter-disc jockey Roger Christian. [43]

Wilson then co-wrote "Surf City" (1963) for Jan and Dean, which spent two weeks at the top of the Billboard Top 100 chart in July 1963. [29] In the wake of the Beach Boys' success, many singles by new surfing and hot rod groups were produced by Los Angeles groups. Himes notes: "Most of these weren't real groups; they were just a singer or two backed by the same floating pool of session musicians: often including Glen Campbell, Hal Blaine and Bruce Johnston. If a single happened to click, a group would be hastily assembled and sent out on tour. It was an odd blend of amateurism and professionalism." [13] [nb 2] One-hit wonders included Bruce & Terry with "Summer Means Fun", the Rivieras with "California Sun", Ronny & the Daytonas with "G.T.O.", and the Rip Chords with "Hey Little Cobra". The latter two hits both reached the top ten, but the only other act to achieve sustained success with the formula were Jan & Dean. [16] Hot rod group the Fantastic Baggys wrote many songs for Jan and Dean and also performed a few vocals for the duo. [45]


The surf music craze, along with the careers of nearly all surf acts, was effectively ended by the British Invasion beginning in early 1964. [16] Hot rod music also ceased to be prominent that year. [46] The emerging garage rock, folk rock, blues rock and later psychedelic rock genres also contributed to the decline of surf rock. [47] The Beach Boys survived the invasion by diversifying their approach to music. [48] Brian explained to Teen Beat : "We needed to grow. Up to this point we had milked every idea dry ... We had done every possible angle about surfing and then we did the car routine. But we needed to grow artistically." [13] After the decline of surf music, the Beach Boys continued producing a string of hit singles and albums, including the sharply divergent Pet Sounds (1966). Subsequently, they became the only American rock or pop group that could arguably rival the Beatles. [40] The band would only sparingly return to the hot rod and surfing-themed music, beginning with 1968's "Do It Again". [49]

Influence and revival

Instrumental surf rock style guitar was used in the James Bond Theme of the first Bond film Dr. No in 1962, recorded by Vic Flick with the John Barry Seven. The theme became a signature for Bond films and influenced the music of spy films of the 1960s. [50] Surf music also influenced a number of later rock musicians, including Keith Moon of The Who, [16] East Bay Ray of the Dead Kennedys, and Pixies guitarist Joey Santiago. [51] During the mid-to late 1990s, surf rock experienced a revival with surf acts, including Dick Dale recording once more, partly due to the popularity of the movie Pulp Fiction (1994), which used Dale's "Misirlou" and other surf rock songs in the soundtrack. [16] New surf bands were formed, including Arc Isla, Jon and the Nightriders, Man or Astro-man?, The Mermen, Los Straitjackets, and The New Electric Sound. In 2012, Orchestra Nova San Diego premiered "Surf", a symphonic homage to surf music, the ocean, and surfing, by classical composer Joseph Waters. [52]

Surf punk

Surf punk is a revival of the original surfing sound. [53] It was initiated in the late 1970s and early 1980s by groups such as Forgotten Rebels from Canada – who released "Surfin' on Heroin" in 1981 [53] – and Agent Orange from Orange County, who recorded punk cover versions of surf classics such as "Misirlou", "Mr Moto", and "Pipeline" that same year, with AllMusic's Greg Prato calling the band "influential" and "a step ahead of the rest of the punk/hardcore pack". [54] The genre is related to skate punk, which rose to prominence at the same time, in the Orange County beach towns that nurtured the first wave of surf musicians. [7] Skatepunk band JFA combined the Dead Kennedys' "Police Truck" with the Chantays' "Pipeline" to create the revved-up surf/skate homage "Pipe Truck". [55]


Herb Alpert played a part in the genre, producing for Jan & Dean. [56] Tony Hilder who owned the Impact label was a prolific surf music producer. [57] [58] [59] His name as publisher, producer etc., appears on many records, both 45s and albums. If not for the poor crediting on the budget releases his name would have appeared on more. [60] Gary Usher was a producer, arranger and writer. His work included the Surfaris and the Hondells. He also wrote "409" and "In My Room", which were hits for the Beach Boys. [61] Terry Melcher was a producer, noted for his part in shaping the sound of surf music as well as folk. He worked closely with the Beach Boys and was responsible for some of their chart success. [62]


  1. "Little Deuce Coupe" (1963) has been cited by John Milward as one of the earliest forms of hard rock with its series of buzzing beats. [42]
  2. From 1961 to 1965, some fifteen hundred car songs were recorded. [44] As in the 1950s, many groups adopted the names of car brands, but with a greater emphasis on hot rods, such as The Duece Coupes, The Duals, The GTOs, The Dragsters, The Roadsters, The T-Bones, and The Roadrunners. [44]

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Further reading