Surf music? What even is that?
Even though you might’ve never heard of the genre called surf music, you’ve most definitely heard it multiple times in your life before. Whether it’s been in movies, TV shows, videos, or you’ve even heard it directly on a beach, you’d recognize this music almost instantly with hearing a sample. The iconic surf guitar sounds can be recognized by almost anyone, the distinct characteristics being like no other genre of music out there. Thus, this is one of many reasons why this style of music was so popular when first created and still is popular to this day, being used on television or simply just being enjoyed by surf music loving people.
Surf music was quite popular in areas of Southern California where surfing was on the rise as a popular sport and activity for all to participate in. Classified as a subgenre of rock and roll music, this style of music really helped surf culture to get its start. Instrumental surf music was popularized in the early ’60s and is most commonly characterized by its distinct guitar sound which typically stimulates the feel of surfing.
With the way that the guitars are played, they perfectly give off a sort of “wet” reverb sound; the technique of fast double-picking recreating a rushing water feel. On top of that, the surf guitar amplifiers created a reverb effect that mimics the sound of being underwater. The whammy bar would be used as a way to create wave-like effects to top everything all off, making the perfect surfing tunes. Pretty cool, right?
Unfortunately, even though surf music had an easy rise to popularity, it also had an easy fall as well. The British invasion and the rise of musicians like The Beatles took over the scene completely and surf music had been easily forgotten. This was known as the end of the first wave. Instrumental surf music was no longer popular, the guitar style that was loved so quickly had easily faded away and so had vocal surf. The style would be revived in later years, though.
Dick Dale – pioneer of surf guitar
Starting back in the late ’50s and early ’60s, during the first wave, Dick Dale is the name to look to for one of the biggest contributors to instrumental surf music, surf guitar, and surf culture. Dale himself was a surfer, and on top of that, he was a self-taught guitarist that played left-handed and upside down. He was most definitely a talented guitarist.
Dale is commonly known for creating the well-known sound of surf guitars. The styles and techniques mentioned earlier are almost entirely credible to him, but of course, other musicians such as the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean helped make vocal surf and surf music more popular. While Dale’s style of instrumental surf music was popular in itself, vocal surf groups and artists tend to have found more popularity.
Sticking with instrumental surf, one of Dale’s most popular songs you may have heard is “Misirlou” which took off in 1994 after its use in the widely popular film Pulp Fiction. Earlier, it was also a source for inspiration for the Beach Boys, who recorded their own version of “Misirlou” for their 1963 album “Surfin’ U.S.A.” which brought them national success. Another great hit which is also considered the launch of the surf music craze and culture in the early ’60s is “Let’s Go Trippin”, one of the first surf rock songs ever. Both of these songs came to not only a great success for Dale, but also a great success and popularity rise for this new genre of music and the surfer culture to follow.
Known as the King of Surf Guitar, Dale truly lived up to his name. In 2009 he was inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum, and in 2011 he was brought into the Surfing Walk of Fame. Dale had been an active musician, making new music and touring his entire life all the way up until the day he, unfortunately, passed away. On March 16th of this year, he passed at the age of 81, tour dates still scheduled for later this year.
Dale isn’t only responsible for the rise of surf music during the first wave though, he as well as many others were part of the revival of surf music in the ’80s and ’90s. Dale recorded new songs, and new bands were even forming. Bands like Jon & the Nightriders and The Mermen were some of the groups that were restarting and reviving the surf music craze.
Even famous musicians such as Keith Moon of The Who and Pixies guitarist Joey Santiago were influenced by the wave-like sounds of surf guitars. Though surf music and the uniqueness of the way the guitars were played was never extremely popular after its initial rise in the ’60s, the revival in the ’80s and ’90s definitely brought forth more talented musicians and interest in surf culture.
Surprisingly enough there was also a third wave of surf music, re-introducing the iconic sounding guitar to the scene once again. As mentioned before, one of Dale’s songs had been featured on the soundtrack of Quentin Tarantino’s movie Pulp Fiction. This is what led to there being another wave of surf music, old bands making comebacks and returning to the scene once again with their same tunes and new music as well.
Surf music may have been started in Southern California, but now it’s loved by cultures from all over the world. Bands continue to play traditionally, sticking to the sounds of surf guitars in the ’60s, while other groups continue to find new ways to combine it with other types of genres to create a more unique sound.
Though we might’ve just recently lost the creator and genius behind surf music and the surf guitar we know today, the culture still lives on and thus the music does as well. Who knows, there may even be a fourth wave of surf music to come our way and we may hear the iconic sounds of Dick Dale’s spring reverb once again.