Surf music

Surf music is a genre of popular music associated with surf culture, particularly Orange County and other areas of Southern California.

It has two basic subgenres:

  • Surf pop music, including both surf ballads and dance music that includes a vocal line. Sometimes called "beach music" as it was popular amongst non-surfers as well. (Surf pop should not be confused with the "shag tempo" beach music of the Carolinas, however.)
  • Surf rock, generally instrumental in nature with an electric guitar or saxophone playing the main melody

Many notable surf bands have been equally noted for both surf instrumental and surf pop music, so surf music is generally considered as a single genre despite the variety of these styles.

Recordings are normally attributed to the bands that performed them, rather than to individual artists.

Additionally, surfers have internalized a form of reggae music and created their own Rasta identity. Both in Puerto Rico and the United States, youth surfers in the late 80's and early 90's found their own niche in the reggae world. Interestingly enough, the surfers in both countries were not urban youth, such as the genre had previously been identified, but were upper middle class, light skinned "blanquitos" or "whities. This shows the diversity of the surfing subculture and its ability to adopt aspects of completely different cultures. Also, this permits a cross-cultural connection to be formed between the origins of the music base (Jamaica in the case of reggae) and the locations where it is being listened to by the surfers (the United States and Puerto Rico)

Surf Rock

Generally dance music of medium to fast tempo, with electric guitars dominating the sound, and almost always in straight 4/4 common time.

Surf guitarists are noted for extensive use of the "wet" spring reverb sound and use of the tremolo arm on their guitar to bend the pitch of notes downward. Tube (valve) amplification, often through a Fender amplifier, is standard to achieve the Surf sound. The use of vibrato units (or more properly, tremolo) is also common; these were typically built into the guitar amplifiers of the late 1950s and 1960s, and more recently in effects pedals. Distortion is not commonly used, but occasionally a fuzz effect may be heard.

A typical surf instrumental band has the following instruments at its core:

The addition of tenor or baritone saxophone was common in the "classic" era of the early 1960s, but is rare today. Additional guitars, organ, electric piano, or hand drums or other percussion are also frequently used.

This basic configuration is identical to that adopted in the early development of rock and roll music, and the two styles developed in parallel, with some bands clearly in both genres. Both styles influenced the development of the electric guitar, electric bass and drum kit, in the process each affecting the other. For example, Dick Dale the self-proclaimed "King" of the surf guitar, worked closely with Leo Fender to design higher-wattage amplifiers, which in turn allowed rock musicians to play louder.

Surf music was one of the first genres to universally adopt the electric bass. The Fender Precision Bass was virtually standard amongst early surf groups, and was cutting-edge at the time. Unlike the double bass, a simple electric bass line can be learned by musicians with a minimal skill level. Thus, it was common practice to assign a marginal guitarist to play bass in many groups. Still, the promotion of more creative uses of electric bass as part of surf music influenced both rock and jazz music of the era.

Surf music also shared with rock and roll and jazz in the development of drum kit technique. Both surf and rock music (and some jazz styles) adopted a back beat as standard at about the same time, and using similar fills and rhythms. Both surf and rock styles were predominantly 4/4 common time. It can also be said that Surf drummers looked to the jazz world for inspiration; Gene Krupa, a hard-hitting jazz drummer, was a specific influence on the surf genre.


In the 1960s, Southern California was a melting-pot of many strains of musical thought. Rock and Roll music was popular, with instrumental rockers such as Duane Eddy, Link Wray, and Santo and Johnny proving that strong vocal ability was unnecessary to achieve a level of stardom. Los Angeles was a hub of Jazz activity, and the biggest acts typically played there. Unlike much of the US at the time, large numbers of Mexicans lived in this part of California, and their music was no doubt heard by many aspiring musicians of the era. Rock instrumentation, with an aggressive jazz-influenced drummer and some Latin influences equals Surf music. It merely required a few local talents to achieve a level of popularity before a trend was born. In actuality, Dick Dale had essentially created the surf sound around 1957.

Most Early surf bands were formed in Southern California area, with groups such as the Beach Boys , the Surfaris, Dick Dale and the Del-Tones, the Challengers, Eddie & the and Showmen. Orange County in particular had a strong surf culture, and the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa hosted many surf-styled acts. A typical night's entertainment featured not only Surf music, but cover versions of popular hits of the day.

The popularity of the genre led groups from other areas to try their hand as well. Both the Astronauts (Boulder, Colorado) and The Trashmen (Minneapolis, Minnesota) played surf music and their Billboard hits "Baja" (Astronauts, #94, 1963) and "Surfin Bird" (#4, 1964) showed that the popularity of the genre was spreading widely. The Rivieras from South Bend, Indiana, hit #5 in 1964 with "California Sun".

In 1963, Checker Records released the album "Surfin' With Bo Diddley" (Checker LP-2987) and the track "Surfer's Love Call" as the A-side of a single (Checker 1045) by the rock and roll pioneer Bo Diddley.

The Atlantics, from Sydney, Australia, were not exclusively surf musicians, but made significant contributions to the genre, the most famous example with being their hit "Bombora" (1963). Another Australian surf band who were known outside their own country's surf scene was the Joy Boys, whose hit "Murphy the Surfie" (1963) was later covered by the Surfaris.

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 mersey-beat 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.

For decades, "Vibrations" (The Ventures) was used in TV program in the Soviet Union called "International Panorama".

While known as a genre that developed on the West Coast of the United States in the 1960s, a 1990s revival has sparked a resurgence worldwide. Man or Astro-man?, Los Straitjackets, Pollo Del Mar and many others perform on a regular basis. Other groups such as Simon and the Bar Sinisters and Southern Culture on the Skids also dabble in this genre.


Surf Instrumental Record Labels:

Surf Pop

Surf pop music can be split into two styles.

Surf Ballads

Surf ballads tend to be slow and dominated by male vocal harmonies, often including a falsetto descant part and sometimes also a falseto lead. They may be in any time signature. Themes tend to be romantic and linked to surf culture. They can be said to descend directly from the Rhythm and Blues harmony groups of the late 1950s.


Beach Music

Not to be confused with the Carolina genre, this is medium to fast dance music which adds a male or female vocal line and often harmonies, but shares many of the instrumental roots of surf rock music. Themes of the lyrics often derive from surf culture, teenage issues, and can be lighthearted or even humorous. Such music appealed to non-surfers on a level that the instrumentalists did not. With the exception of Dick Dale, the Beach Music groups enjoyed much higher sales and popularity than the Instrumental bands. They were also more likely to gain the national spotlight and make the Billboard chart.



See also

  • Surf groups for:
    • Bands and artists principally associated with surf music.
    • Bands and artists associated with several genres but who have made a significant contribution to surf music.
  • List of surf musicians
  • Surf rock

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