Surf music

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Surf music is a subgenre of rock music associated with surf culture, particularly as found in Orange County and other areas of 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 the original surf sound and added vocal harmonies backed by basic Chuck Berry rhythms, a movement led by the Beach Boys.[9][10]

The surf rock sound was dominated by electric guitars played through spring reverb and using the vibrato arm on their guitar to bend the pitch of notes downward.[11] Surf music was one of the early adopters of the electric bass, and often used an electric organ or an electric piano featured as backing harmony.[not verified in body] At the height of its popularity, surf music rivaled girl groups and Motown for top American popular music trends.[12]

Surf music is sometimes referred to interchangeably with the California Sound.[13] Many notable surf bands have been equally noted for both instrumental and vocal surf music, so surf music is generally considered as a single genre despite the variety of these styles.[11] During the later stages of the surf music craze, many groups started to leave surfing behind and write songs about cars and girls; this was later known as hot rod rock.[14]

Instrumental surf[edit]

1963 performance flyer, promoting surf musicians


Surf music began in the early 1960s as instrumental dance music, 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.[11] 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.[15] Guitar models favored included those made by Fender (particularly the Mustang, 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).[16] 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 "Surf Rider" and "Comanche".[17] Often an electric organ or an electric piano featured as backing harmony.[citation needed]


By the early 1960s, instrumental rock and roll had been pioneered successfully by performers such as Link Wray, The Ventures and Duane Eddy.[18] This trend was developed by Dick Dale, who added Middle Eastern and Mexican influences, the distinctive reverb[11] (giving the guitar a "wet" sound),[19] and the rapid alternate picking characteristic of the genre[11] (influenced by Arabic music, which Dale learnt from his Lebanese uncle).[20] His performances at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, California during the summer of 1961,[21] 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).[11]

Dick Dale performing in 2005
Dick Dale's "Let's Go Trippin'" (1961), which launched the surf music craze of the early 1960s.

Dick Dale's "Misirlou" (1962), a surf rock cover version of a folk song. It is often considered Dale's signature single.

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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.[21][18] Groups such as The Bel-Airs (whose hit "Mr. Moto", influenced by Dale's earlier live performances,[21] was released slightly before "Let's Go Trippin'"), The Challengers (with their album Surfbeat) and then Eddie & the Showmen followed Dale to regional success.[22]

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" with its intro of a wicked laugh by the Surfaris; 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".[23]

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".[11] 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).[11] Also from Sydney were The Denvermen, whose lyrical instrumental "Surfside" reached number 1 in the Australian charts.[24] 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.[25]

European bands around this time generally focused more on the style played by the Shadows. A notable example of European surf instrumental is Spanish band Los Relampagos' 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.[26]

Vocal surf[edit]

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.

—Matt Warshaw, The Encyclopedia of Surfing, 2005[27]
Released in March 1963, "Surfin' U.S.A." incorporated surf lyrics and the melody from Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen", later becoming one of the best known surf rock songs.[28]

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Surf music first achieved national exposure when it was represented by vocal groups such as the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, and Bruce & Terry.[29] Dick 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."[30]

The Beach Boys performing in 1964

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.[31] 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."[32] He later expressed: "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."[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."[35]

Hot rod rock[edit]

Hot rod music, or hot rod rock, evolved from surf music.[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 Geoffrey Himes wrote: "Translating the surf-music format into hot-rod tunes wasn’t difficult. The music was only subtly different. 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 'Deadman's Curve.'"[12]


Jan and Dean's "Surf City" is the first song with a surf-related title to become a national number-one hit.[38] The matter of which was the first surf song to top the charts remains a matter of dispute.[38]

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In late 1961, the Beach Boys had their first chart hit, "Surfin'", which peaked at number 75 on the Hot 100, [39] followed by "Surfin' U.S.A." (1963) and "Surfer Girl" (1963) which reached the Top 10.[30] 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.[40] 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] Brian 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.[28]

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."[12] 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", all from early 1964. The latter two hits both reached the top ten, but the only other act to achieve sustained success with the formula were Jan & Dean.[11] Hot rod group the Fantastic Baggys wrote many songs for Jan and Dean and also performed a few vocals for the duo.[42]


The surf music craze, with the careers of almost all surf acts, was effectively ended by the British Invasion beginning in 1964.[11] The emerging garage rock, folk rock, blues rock and later psychedelic rock genres also contributed to the decline of surf rock.[43] Only the Beach Boys were able to sustain popularity[citation needed] after attempting to move away from their initial surf image beginning in late 1964,[44] Brian explained to Teen Beat: "We needed to grow. Up to this point we had milked every idea dry. We milked it fucking dry. We had done every possible angle about surfing and then we did the car routine. But we needed to grow artistically."[12][nb 2]

Influence and revival[edit]

The use of instrumental surf rock style guitar for the soundtrack of Dr. No (1962), recorded by Vic Flick with the John Barry Seven, meant that it was reused in many of the films in the James Bond series, and influenced the music of many spy films of the 1960s.[46] Surf music also influenced a number of later rock musicians, including Keith Moon of The Who,[11] East Bay Ray of the Dead Kennedys, and Pixies guitarist Joey Santiago.[47] 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.[11] New surf bands were formed, including Jon and the Nightriders, Man or Astro-man?, The Mermen, Los Straitjackets and The New Electric Sound. In the 1980s, skateboard punk band JFA combined the Dead Kennedys' "Police Truck" with the Chantays' "Pipeline" to create the revved-up surf/skate homage "Pipe Truck."[48] In 2012, Orchestra Nova San Diego premiered "Surf", a symphonic homage to surf music, the ocean and surfing, by classical composer Joseph Waters.[49]

Surf punk[edit]

Surf punk is a revival of the original surfing sound.[50] It was initiated in the early 1980s by groups such as the Canadian band Forgotten Rebels, who released "Surfin' on Heroin" in 1981,[50] and Agent Orange from Orange County, who recorded a punk cover version of Dale's "Miserlou".[citation needed] The genre is related to skate punk, which rose to prominence at the same time in the Orange County beach towns which nurtured the first wave of surf musicians.[7]


  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.[41]
  2. ^ 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,[39] and would not record another hot rod or surfing-themed song until 1968's "Do It Again"[45] and 1976's "It's O.K.".[citation needed]


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Further reading[edit]