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Surf music

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Surf music

Surf rock

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Surf music is a genre of popular music associated with surf culture.

It has three main streams or subgenres:

  • Instrumental dance music in which electric guitars with a distinctive sustained but undistorted sound predominate.
  • Surf pop music, including both surf ballads and dance music that includes a vocal line.
  • Surf rock, which overlaps both the other streams, sometimes even to the point of being used as a synonym for surf music generally.

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 in all three traditional subgenres are normally attributed to the bands that performed them, rather than to individual artists. A more recent development is the singer songwriter subgenre, which includes artists like Australian Beau Young, Jack Johnson, Donavon Frankenreiter, and Matt Costa, and overlaps the others in style.


Surf instrumental

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

Surf guitarists produce a distinctive tone colour not unlike a hawaiian guitar by use of the bridge pickup, lots of treble boost, much distinctive use of the tremolo arm, and medium to extreme sustain. However, it is rare to use any distortion, instead sustain is produced by use of the sorts of spring reverb and vibrato units built into the guitar amplifiers of the late 1950s and 1960s. Reverb is also commonly added to the rhythm and lead guitars by use of an external spring reverberation unit.

The basic surf instrumental band consists of:

There are many variations, particularly adding other guitars or instruments, or using hand drums or other percussion as well as or instead of the drum kit.

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, and in the process affecting each other.

Surf music was the first genre to universally adopt the electric bass; The upright or string bass has never been used to any great extent, as the more sustained and trebly sounds favoured by surf bands are not easily produced on it. The promotion of more creative uses of electric bass as part of surf music influenced both rock and jazz music.

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.


Dick Dale, 1960s to present.
Walk Don't Run, The Ventures, 1960.
Apache, The Shadows, 1960. (British group)
Bombora (single), The Atlantics, 1962.
Wipeout, The Surfaris, 1962.

Surf Instrumental Record Labels:

Surf pop

Surf pop music is in turn in 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.


  • Surfer Girl (single), The Beach Boys, 1963.

Surf dance music with vocals

This is medium to fast dance music which adds a male or female vocal line and often harmonies, and is otherwise very similar to surf instrumental music. Themes of the lyrics come from surf culture, teenage issues, and are often lighthearted or even humorous.


Surf City, Jan and Dean, 1963.
Surfer Joe, The Surfaris, 1963.
He's my blonde headed stompie-wompie real gone surfer boy, Little Pattie, 1963.
Fun Fun Fun, The Beach Boys, 1964.

Surf rock

Historically, surf rock is a contradiction in terms. In the 1960s when surf music was developing as a genre, surf culture and rock and roll culture were competing youth cultures, similarly to mod culture and rocker culture in the United Kingdom in the same period.

The dances closely associated with early surf and rock music were similarly in contrast. Surf music was associated with the Stomp, the Frug, the Watusi and similar dances suitable for beach parties, but in which the partners never touched. All these were danced to straight 4/4 common time. Early rock music was of course associated with rock and roll, which had heavy emphasis on leading and partnering and movements adapted from the Jive, Jitterbug and Lindy Hop. Although rock and roll is officially also a common time dance, its immediate ancestors were all danced to swing or shuffle 6/8 rhythm, and some early rock classics such as Bill Haley's Shake, Rattle and Roll and Rock Around the Clock, Buddy Holly's That'll Be The Day, and Elvis Presley's Jailhouse Rock were also in swing rhythm.

Musically there has always been a great deal of common ground between surf and rock music. The classic lead, rhythm, and bass guitar plus drums combo developed at the same time in both genres, using similar instruments and both contributing to the development of the instruments themselves. Some pieces of surf music have been an integral part of the sound of the rock bands that created them, and so are in both genres (see examples, below).

In that surf rock simply means surf music played by rock bands, with the ever broadening scope of the term rock music since the 1960s, in a sense surf music has become a subgenre of rock music. This is seen for example in the induction of classic surf band The Beach Boys into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A similar process has seen much country and western and even jazz music retrospectively termed rock. So, surf rock is not a new style of music, but rather a new name by which new fans know an old style and even the old music.

While known as a genre that developed on the west coast of the United States, a recent revival has sparked an insurgance of East Coast Surf bands. Some of these include The Howlin' Thurstons and Strange But Surf based on NY's Long Island. Which is also the home of a growing surfing scene.


Look Through Any Window, The Hollies, 1966.
Wedding Cake Island, Midnight Oil, 1975.

External links

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Music Sound, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.