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A Brief History of Instrumental Surf Music

By Sandy Smith Rosado, MM, MLS


What IS “surf music”? You hear it all around you but may not recognize the elements of the style that define instrumental surf rock music. This article will clue you in, and prepare you to enjoy the surf sounds of the many NESMA bands listed on this website.


The First Wave

Surf music is an early form of instrumental rock and roll, with its initial rise and fall (often called the “First Wave”) occurring between 1956 and 1964. Why 1956? Elvis Presley made his first appearance on the national scene that year, and this is usually dubbed the beginning of rock and roll. This new music was a fusion of “white” folk, hillbilly, and country music with elements from “black” music styles such as the blues, early rhythm and blues, and so-called “race” music. Elvis personified this fusion, after which black AND white musicians continued down a path to create “rock and roll” (a term in black culture signifying sex).


Stylistic Features

Certain stylistic features are common in surf music, although not all these features are present in all surf music. Surf music is defined here as instrumental (no singing); dance-able and aimed at youth (like all rock ‘n roll); and usually based on a standard rock band line-up of 1 or 2 electric guitars, a bass, and drums. Additional instruments may include a saxophone, keyboard, third guitar, and maybe a trumpet.  There is even a drum pattern called the “surf beat” that is very common in surf and rock tunes, with the accent on beats 2 and 4.


A number of guitar techniques have become commonly used in surf music, and are said to simulate the feel and sounds of surfing. These techniques include fast double-picking (like rushing water), often concurrent with a glissando (sliding the fingers down the fret board) – sounds like being inside the curl of a wave; a “wet” reverb sound, usually supplied by a reverb effect built into a guitar amplifier or a stand-alone reverb tank (this is kind of an echo effect – sounds like being under water); and liberal use of the “whammy” bar, which bends the pitch being played (gives a sense of wave-like movement to the pitch).


What about The Beach Boys - didn’t they play surf music? OK – this is sore point with many instrumental surf musicians. Usually when you read about surf music (there has actually been very little written about this genre), there is a cursory mention of Dick Dale (more about him later), and then The Beach Boys are discussed ad nauseum. Not that there is anything wrong with The Beach Boys but they - you know - SANG. They sang about surfing and the beach and girls in bikinis, etc. - this style is sometimes called “beach music” or “vocal surf music” or “California music” – it’s more akin to pop music. Some of the stylistic features mentioned above were used behind the vocals in some tunes, but The Beach Boys are not true surf music according to the definition given here.


Dick Dale

He was born Richard Monsour in Boston. He moved to California as a teen and was interested in pursuing a musical career as a country singer/guitarist (thus the moniker Dick Dale – he changed his name to sound “country”). He was an avid surfer, and an unusual self-taught guitarist, playing left-handed and upside down. He is credited with initiating many of the stylistic features of surf music, although more research needs to be done in this area. There is no question that his is a big name in early surf music, but he wasn’t the only one and he didn’t invent it single-handedly.


In the late 50s and early 60s, new guitar amplifiers were being developed for the new electric guitar styles; Leo Fender was an important name in advances in both instruments and amplifiers. Dick’s heavy and LOUD playing style was causing him to fry amps right and left, according to him. He worked with Leo Fender to develop more robust amps, such as the Fender Dual Showman, which would give him the power he wanted for performing. Fender amps and guitars are still the gear of choice for many surf bands, giving them a distinctive sound. (Leo Fender collaborated with many early rock musicians in an effort to improve his musical products.)


Initiating the creation of the ubiquitous reverb tank is also credited to Dick Dale. The story goes that Dick, who was trying to sing in the style of Elvis (he actually had a bit part as an Elvis impersonator in the 1960 Marilyn Monroe movie “Let’s Make Love”), felt less than confident about his vocal stylings. Leo Fender created a reverb unit for him to plug his microphone into, to add depth and power to his voice. One day, a clever Dick decided to plug his guitar into the unit to see what would happen and – voila! – the reverb-drenched “wet” surf guitar sound was born.


Surf music was loosely tied to surf culture - most of the young people listening to and playing surf music were surfers. In 1960-61, Dick Dale had a weekly gig at the Rendezvous Ballroom in the southern Cali town of Balboa, which attracted hundreds of surfers; one of the popular dances at the time was the Surfer’s Stomp. And then surf culture became pop culture, expanding from California throughout the country with surf tunes topping the charts  (such as The Ventures “Walk Don’t Run” in 1960, The Surfaris “Wipe Out” in 1963, and The Chantays “Pipeline”, also in 1963) and surf-themed movies such as “Gidget” (1959) and “Beach Blanket Bingo” (1965) filling the theaters.


Beyond Dick Dale

Dick Dale was not the only one forging ahead in the instrumental surf rock style. Although one of the earliest surf tunes is usually considered to be “Let’s Go Trippin’ “ by Dick Dale & the Deltones (1960), nearby in Redondo Beach another important tune was written in 1960 – “Mr. Moto”, by Paul Johnson & the Belairs. Listening with 50 years of hindsight, “Mr. Moto” is a much surf-ier tune – a lot of surf bands cover “Mr. Moto” in their set list; the same can’t be said for “Let’s Go Trippin’ “. Other notable California bands of the time included The Chantays (1961), The Surfaris (1962), and The Challengers from LA.


Surf music has never been confined to California though. Other bands of note include the garage band with a heavy surf influence, The Trashmen from Minneapolis (well-known for their hit “Surfin’ Bird” in 1964); the New Mexico band The Fireballs; The Astronauts from Boulder CO; The Shadows, an early English rock band who recorded the instrumental hit “Apache” in 1960; and who can forget The Ventures from Tacoma, Washington, formed in 1958, technically before surf music was on the map but a huge influence on the surf instrumental genre nonetheless.


The Beatles Kill Surf Music

…well, not on purpose, but the first appearance of The Beatles on the American rock scene in 1964 is usually deemed the death of surf music. These talented and charismatic youths turned American eyes away from the west coast surfing scene and toward the far side of the Atlantic. They also turned the interest from instrumental music back to vocal pop music, a trend already started by The Beach Boys. Thus the First Wave of surf music is usually considered to start with Elvis in 1956 and end with The Beatles in 1964. Coincidentally, Dick Dale was diagnosed with cancer in 1964 and was off the scene for over 20 years due to health issues. But of course, surf music wasn’t really dead…


The Second Wave

There was a “Second Wave” of surf music in the late 1970s-1980s. Music enthusiasts rediscovered the traditional surf sound of the early 1960s, and a number of compilations of instrumental surf music recordings were released. Jon & the Nightriders, an influential Second Wave surf band, was formed in 1979. Dick Dale returned to the scene with a new album in 1986, after 22 years on hiatus. Laika & the Cosmonauts formed in Finland in 1987, and The Mermen, still active today, got their start in CA in 1989. Los Straitjackets, arguably today’s best known surf instrumental band, played their first gig in 1988 on a lark, but did not perform in earnest until 1994.


The Third Wave

Surprisingly, it was a movie that got the “Third Wave” of surf music rolling. The soundtrack to “Pulp Fiction” in 1994 was littered with instrumental surf and guitar music from the 1960s, including the use of Dick Dale’s original 1962 recording of “Misirlou” as the lead tune. (Dick Dale might tell you he wrote “Misirlou”, but it is actually a guitar rendition of a Greek folk tune – Dick is of Lebanese descent.) Following the great success of the movie and its soundtrack, many surf bands were revitalized, and new ones were formed. Los Straitjackets came out of Nashville in Mexican wrestling masks to begin their rise to fame in 1994. The Fathoms formed in Boston in 1996, and made a comeback in 2005. The height of the east coast surge of surf bands may have come in 2000, when there were as many as 12 active surf bands in Boston and six in Providence, among many others. 9th Wave, the force behind the current North East Surf Music Alliance (NESMA), formed in 1996 and is still going strong.


Second and Third Wave surf bands can be strictly traditional, playing only the original surf music of the 60s on original or re-issued gear, or they may be pushing the envelope of instrumental surf rock with original tunes in styles crossing over into psychedelic, jazz, ska, exotica, western twang, spy, folk, or other genres. Surf music is now a world phenomenon - it has long since left the boundaries of southern California. There are significant surf music scenes in Italy, Spain, Russia, Finland, Israel, Brazil, Germany, Canada, Slovenia, Japan, and more. And - as an instrumental style, surf music transcends language barriers. Every June beginning in 2009 is celebrated as International Surf Music month around the world!



The largest network of surf bands worldwide, in any time period, is the North East Surf Music Alliance, (NESMA), founded in 2002 by Mike Rosado of 9th Wave in Connecticut. NESMA is currently 100+ members strong, and represents a collaborative network of surf bands from Canada south to Georgia, and from the Atlantic coast west to Minnesota.


Now that you know some of the stylistic features of surf music, you will hear it in movies, on track beds for extreme sports videos (not just surfing, but snowboarding, skateboarding, and more), on commercials (Domino’s and Nissan both had significant ad campaigns featuring surf music), as background music in grocery stores and pharmacies, and even sampled in more current pop music (think Black-Eyed Peas and Misirlou). Explore the NESMA website for more information on current bands that play this style, including links to sound clips and YouTube videos, and an “Upcoming Shows” listing to catch live performances!


Sandy Smith Rosado is a librarian and musician from Mansfield CT. She holds Masters degrees in Music and Library Science. She has been a member of the surf hot-rod band 9th Wave since 2000, playing vintage Farfisa organ, rhythm guitar, flute, alto saxophone, and more, as well as go-go dancing. She is a founding member and webmaster for the North East Surf Music Alliance (NESMA). The information in this article is based on her own research, reading, and experiences.


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