What Was Surf Rock?


There have been many popular genres that have popped out of the music scene over the years, but one of the most distinct genres that have been developed was surf rock. The unique sound of surf rock, which is described by many to be both fast-paced and groovy, is often brought by the reverb-heavy guitar meant to emulate the sound of waves on the sea.

Most surf rock songs are highlighted by fast guitar picking techniques and heavy use of reverb, although it has evolved during the end of its peak in the 1960s as a softer genre with melodic singing and tremolo guitar effects. Because of the differences between early surf rock and late surf rock, music experts divided surf rock into two subgenres, namely “instrumental surf rock” and “vocal surf rock.” While many people associate surf rock to The Beach Boys, they are actually not the ones who pioneered the genre. To know more about this beach-inspired subgenre to rock, let us talk a look at the origins of surf rock and its influences.

Instrumental Origins

Surf rock, otherwise known as surf or surf music, was developed as a subgenre of instrumental rock and roll music in the 1950s. Like most rock and roll songs in that era, surf rock songs are mostly following a 4/4 time signature, and their tempo is usually fast. Surf music has distinctive guitar sound, which is drowned by reverb produced by a spring inside a Fender amplifier. The spring reverb has been incorporated by Fender in their amplifiers since 1961 as a way to attract surf musicians who once modified their amplifiers to have a spring reverb system. Almost all surf rock guitars have the spring reverb effect as a part of their sound, as the effect is said to emulate the sound that the waves on the beach produce.

Dick Dale is considered to be the pioneer of surf rock, and according to him, he developed the genre by adding Middle Eastern and Mexican influences in his style of playing the guitar. In addition, he was also the one who first started used spring reverb to emulate the sound of waves, and his peculiar fast alternate picking technique was also incorporated to make the sound more upbeat and exhilarating. According to Dale, the fast picking technique was borrowed from Arabic music, which was introduced to him by his uncle, who was Lebanese.

In addition, the vibrato arm, which is found in most Fender instruments like the Stratocaster and the Jazzmaster, was also heavily used in surf rock. The tremolo effect produced by the vibrato arms allows the sound to be “wavy,” making it emulate waves even more.

Stratocaster electric guitar with a tremolo bar

Besides Dick Dale, there were also other notable musical acts that started playing surf music, and some of these bands or artists include Nokie Edward, Duane Eddy, and the Ventures. These musical acts were introduced to surf music when Dick Dale performed his song “Let’s Go Trippin’” at the Rendezvous Ballroom (located in Balboa, California) in 1961. Seeing that he will be able to be even more successful by clinging on the surf music genre that he developed, Dick Dale followed up with another surf rock single titled “Misirlou” in 1962. Today, “Misirlou” is considered as the main representative song for surf rock.

Although instrumental surf rock focuses mainly on the guitar, there are some songs on the genre that have great drumming tracks. One of the best surf rock songs with great drumming is Wipe Out by The Surfaris, and that song is still being played by drummers whenever they perform at talent shows since it enables them to showcase their abilities in drumming.

Most of the surf rock bands in the 1960s were formed in the southern regions of California, which is widely known for its beach and surf culture. The Rendezvous Ballroom is regarded as the hub for surf musicians in the 1960s since they were able to offer their stage to some of the biggest surf acts in music history.

Rise of Vocal Surf Rock

While the early surf rock is purely comprised of instrumental tracks, a version of the genre with vocal tracks started to develop when The Beach Boys rose in popularity in the mid-60s. The Beach Boys also incorporate in their music the “California Sound,” which is described to be a type of music influence by the surf culture in the state of California. Since surf music also belongs to the “California Sound” aesthetic, The Beach Boys were able to borrow elements of the said genre in their songs that are considered to be more “pop” than “surf.” According to Brian Wilson, a member of the Beach Boys who serves as a producer for many of their albums, the sound of the band wasn’t supposed to be strictly about surfing, as they have just followed the trend in music during that era.

In vocal surf rock, the reverb-heavy guitar is still present in most songs, but what’s gone in some of the tracks is the rapid guitar picking technique, as it would only serve as a distraction for the voices. Vocal surf music also borrowed elements in other popular genres in the 60s, such as doo-wop, blues, and scat singing.

Even though vocal surf music became more popular than its instrumental cousin thanks to The Beach Boys, many surf purists have stated that vocal surf should not be considered as real surf music, as the genre should only be instrumental. Regardless of the negative connotations surrounding vocal surf, most instrumental surf acts began incorporating vocals in their songs after the release of The Beach Boys song titled “Surfin’ U.S.A” in 1963.

British Invasion and Decline of Surf Music

When the British Invasion came to the United States, most of the popular music genre in the country started to fade out into the background since the radio waves were dominated by British musical acts. The British Invasion is the turning point in music history wherein British bands, such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, began to receive a rapid rise in popularity during the mid-60s.

The Beach Boys, who are considered to be the poster boys for surf music, began experimenting with other genres to rise up and fight against the British Invasion. Through the band’s efforts, although it was primarily Brian Wilson who encouraged the group to experiment, they were able to produce the iconic album “Pet Sounds” in 1966. Coincidentally, the said album also influenced other British acts to experiment on the genres as well. One of the bands that were moved by Pet Sounds was The Beatles, who produced an experimental album called “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in 1967.


By the 1970s, surf rock has faded into obscurity. When Dick Dale developed colorectal cancer in the late 1960s, the illness forced him to retire. When Jimi Hendrix found out that Dale is terminally ill, he was quoted in saying that people might never hear surf music again. Unfortunately, Dick Dale’s suffering didn’t end there, as he suffered from a pollution-related infection on his leg, which was almost amputated because of the damage that the infection has done to the said body part.

However, despite the misfortunes in his life, Dick Dale began performing again in the 1980s. Dale even appeared for a brief cameo in the 1987 film “Back to the Beach,” where he is performing a cover of “Pipeline” along with Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Surf music was officially revived in 1994 when Dick Dale’s song “Misirlou” was used as a background track in the film “Pulp Fiction,” which was directed by Quentin Tarantino. Since then, many producers and directors started incorporating surf tracks into their films.

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