Styles & Forms | Surf Music | Pop

Characterized by twangy, reverberation-soaked guitars; percussive instrumentals designed to simulate the effect of crashing waves; vocal harmonies underscored by a soaring falsetto – surf music was perfectly suited to an early 1960s pop scene of escapism and innocent fun and was to have a profound and lasting influence on the sound of the rock guitar.

Whereas chart-friendly instrumental recordings by bands such as The Ventures in the US and The Shadows in the UK helped to sustain the guitar’s popularity in the period between the demise of rock’n’roll and The British Invasion, surf rock often featured the raunchiest and most expressive solos.

Leading the way in that regard was the justifiably self-proclaimed ‘King of the Surf Guitar’, Dick Dale. A keen surfer, his musical endeavour to convey the excitement of the sport resulted in a rapid-fire style of single-note picking, coupled with an innovative use of portable reverb effects to help recreate the feel of the oceanic cascades. Born Richard Monsour to a Polish mother and Lebanese father, Dale further distinguished his music by infusing it with Eastern European and Middle Eastern melodies, all of which came to bear when Del-Tone released the first-ever surf instrumental, ‘Let’s Go Trippin’’, as a single in September 1961. This was only a regional hit in Southern California, but it single-handedly ignited a musical craze that saw the quick formation of dozens of local bands. Among the first of these were The Beach Boys, whose debut single, ‘Surfin’, was recorded the same month that ‘Let’s Go Trippin’’ was issued, prior to its own release on the tiny Candix label that December.

A Flamboyant Performer

Dick Dale’s influence was enormous. The 1962 Surfer’s Choice was his and surf music’s first album (released on Del-Tone before Capitol distributed it nationally). During the course of recording three further albums in 1965, he also helped develop, road test and popularize an array of equipment manufactured by the Fender Musical Instrument Company: amplifiers, reverb units and a custom-designed, left-handed, gold metalflake Stratocaster guitar. An accomplished musician and flamboyant performer, Dale played his guitars left-handed and upside-down in a style that made a significant impression on Jimi Hendrix, as well as on a subsequent generation of axe-wielding heavy-metal merchants.

In the meantime, while only a handful of surf instrumentals (such as the major 1963 chart hits ‘Wipe Out’ by The Surfaris and ‘Pipeline’ by The Chantays) enjoyed national success, The Beach Boys were bringing a new dimension to the genre. Under the guidance of songwriter/producer/arranger/musician Brian Wilson, the group blended Four Freshmen-inspired vocal harmonies, which conveyed a fun-in-the-sun California lifestyle, with lyrics describing the thrill of waxing down your surfboard, ‘loading up the Woody’ and ‘walking the nose’. After ‘Surfin’’ led to a contract with Capitol Records, the title track of the band’s 1962 debut album, Surfin’ Safari, made the national Top 20. That of its early 1963 follow-up, Surfin’ USA, adapted pertinent lyrics to the tune of...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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