Surf music is a genre of popular music associated with surf culture. It has three main streams or subgenres:

  • Instrumental dance music, characterised by 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, Matt Costa, and overlaps the others in style.

Surf instrumentalEdit

The surf instrumental is generally 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, treble boost, and distinctive use of the tremolo arm. The use of distortion effects is rare; instead, sustain is produced by use of double picking and spring reverb. The use of vibrato units is also common; these were built into the guitar amplifiers of the late 1950s and 1960s, and more recently in effects pedals.

A typical surf instrumental band consists of:

The addition of tenor or baritone saxophone is a common variation. Additional guitars, organ, electric piano, or hand drums or other percussion are also frequently used.

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 favored by surf bands are not easily obtained from 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.

Early instrumental surf bands were formed in many geographic areas, most prominently from the Southern California area, such as the Beach Boys ,Surfaris and Dick Dale.While there are several examples of the style taking forms in other regions as well. Both the Astronauts (Boulder, Colorado) and the Trashmen (Minneapolis, Minnesota) played surf music and their Billboard hits Baja (Astronauts, #94, 1963) and Surfin Bird (#4, 1964) showed that the popularity of the genre was spreading widely.

An early surf instrumental hit, Bulldog (Billboard #24, 1960), was composed and performed by The Fireballs, a band that hailed from Raton, New Mexico. This recording could be considered a blueprint for the surf instrumental genre, with its sustained lead guitar picking, spare percussion and medium-fast tempo.

The Atlantics, from Sydney, Australia, were not exclusively surf musicians, but made significant contributions to the genre, the most famous example with being their hit "Bombora" (1963). Another Australian surf band who were known outside their own country's surf scene was the Joy Boys, whose hit "Murphy the Surfie" (1963) was later covered by the Surfaris.

European bands around this time generally focused more on the style played by the Shadows. A notable example of European surf instrumental is Spanish band Los Relampagos' rendition of "Misirlou". The Dakotas, who were the British backing band for mersey-beat singer Billy J. Kramer gained some attention as surf musicians with "Cruel Sea" (1963), which was later covered by the Ventures and eventually other instrumental surf bands, including the Challengers and the Revelairs.

While known as a genre that developed on the West Coast of the United States, a recent revival has sparked a resurgence among surf bands in the eastern U.S., including Man or Astro-Man? and Los Straitjackets.


Surf Instrumental Record Labels:

Surf popEdit

Surf pop music is in turn in two styles.

Surf balladsEdit

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.


Surf dance music with vocalsEdit

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 rockEdit

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 and the Surfaris in to the Hollywood Rock Walk 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.


See alsoEdit

  • Category:Surf groups for:
    • Bands and artists principally associated with surf music.
    • Bands and artists associated with several genres but who have made a significant contribution to surf music.
  • List of surf musicians

External linksEdit

See also Edit