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Surf Rock: A Different Guitar Sound

The Southern California Sound

In the early 1960s, a new craze took hold on the beaches of the US, especially in southern California. In the 50 years since, surfing has kept its popularity. In 1961, a single influenced by this craze, “Surfin’,” was released on a small record label recorded by a band originally called the Pendletones. Without the band’s consent, they were renamed by the record company as The Beach Boys…and the rest is history.

Since those early days surf music, its guitar sound in particular has influenced virtually all guitar-based rock and pop styles. Today we are going to explore this unique sound and its influence on popular music.

The basics of surf guitar

Surf guitar is dominated by electric guitars played with a spring reverb and using the vibrato arm on the guitar to bend the pitch of notes downward. This heavy reverb coupled with the bright tone of guitars with “single-coil’ pickups (Fenders in particular) bring forth the feeling of waves crashing on the ocean. Many surf guitar players use heavy-gauge strings for maximum crunch. Surf guitar requires an amp that has a mix of clean treble and a round, clear bass tone.

Many collectors pay a lot of money for original guitars and amps from that era to replicate the sound of surf guitar, but you don’t need to spend yourself out of house and home to get the perfect sound. Reasonably priced replicas are widely available. Modern electronics in the form of effects pedals and computer programs will allow almost any guitar to create a surf guitar sound.

The legends of surf guitar

The undisputed king of surf guitar is Dick Dale. He originated the sound by drawing on eastern musical scales and heavy reverb, played in a staccato fashion at a breakneck speed. He pushed the electric guitar to its limits of sonic quality and even worked with Fender instruments to create the first 100-watt guitar amp to accommodate his playing. Among his influential recordings was “Miserlou,” which found a rebirth when it was used during the opening credits to 1994’s classic film PULP FICTION.

With all the focus on the unmatched vocal harmonies of the Beach Boys it is easy to overlook how important their guitar sound was. Band guitarists Carl Wilson, David Marks, and Al Jardine were early masters of surf guitar. Eventually band leader Brian Wilson stopped touring and created the band’s instrumental tracks with session musicians while the other members toured. Many of these musicians were part of the L.A. based collective known as The Wrecking Crew. Brian’s tour replacement was Glen Campbell, who was part of the Wrecking Crew, as well.

Among other great surf songs are “Wipeout” by the Surfaris, “Surfin’ Bird” by the Trashmen, and “California Sun” by the Rivieras.

Surf guitar’s influence

The British Invasion, as well as the advent of folk-rock and psychedelic rock, diminished the popularity of surf music. Even the Beach Boys, the one remaining popular surf act, soon began producing much more complex music, only occasionally dabbling in their old instrumental sound. Still, there has been and always will be a place for the surf guitar sound.

Phone Glenn Sutton at: 619-306-3664.

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