surf music

Beach Boys album cover

Surf music was a short-lived but influential musical phenomenon – a regional scene associated with a subculture, which became a marketing label. The majority of surf music recordings were issued between 1961 and 1965, with their chart success largely confined to southern California. The style has continued as something of a cult genre.


Surf music was the most guitar-oriented style of early rock'n'roll, and had enormous influence on subsequent electric guitar playing styles. Dick Dale was the acknowledged father of surf rock, developing a reverb guitar sound which evoked the waves and "runs" of surfing, a teenage subculture which initially developed in California and Hawaii in the late 1950s. Dale developed a technique based on the tremolo playing used in Middle Eastern plucked instruments such as the bouzouki, sustaining notes by plucking strings up and down. The surf music craze was sparked by Dale and the Del-Tones' 1961 single "Let's Go Trippin'" (subsequently covered by The Beach Boys on their album Surfin USA), with hundreds of surf bands emerging.


Surf was Californian good time music, with references to sun, sand, and (obliquely) sex; also hot rods and drag racing. Surf music provided the soundtrack for the beach movies of the period, and for documentaries celebrating surfing and the associated lifestyle (e.g. The Longest Wave; Crystal Voyager).


There was a strong surf instrumental vein, with the Surfaris' "Wipe Out' (1963), the Chantays' "Pipeline" (1963), and The Ventures all making the national charts. The most commercially successful surf performers were vocal duo Jan and Dean, and The Beach Boys, who became the leading and most enduring of the surf bands. Creatively led by Brian Wilson, The Beach Boys were heavily influenced by the 1950s vocal group style and harmonies of the Four Freshmen and Chuck Berry's rock'n'roll. Their early hit "Surfin USA" is based on Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen". The Beach Boys largely abandoned surfing themes and broadened their scope after 1963, with the thematically linked album Pet Sounds (1966) and the single "Good Vibrations" (1966) their crowning achievements.


Surf music experienced a revival in the 1980s, and continues to maintain a cult status associated with specialist labels (e.g. Surfdog); though now only rarely played, it has become an element of more contemporary genres, while its guitar sound continues to be influential.