Watch the Surf Guitar Primer online guitar lesson by Chris Buono from 40 Day Rhythm SWAT Camp
The early ’60s were make-it-or-breakit years for electric guitar. The instrument dominated rock and roll during the ’50s but by the end of the decade the future was not looking too rosy for our beloved canoe paddles. Between the acoustic purism of the burgeoning folk-music scene and the elaborate orchestrations increasingly favored by pop and rock producers, electric guitars were being pushed into the background. By 1960, even Duane Eddy’s pristine twang was smothered in strings. But thanks to a few visionaries and some ingenious marketing, instrumental guitar music and electric guitar sales were booming by 1963. The reason: surf music.
The surf craze reinstated the electric guitar at pop’s forefront-with a vengeance. Learning tunes like the Chantays’ “Pipeline” and the Surfaris’ “Wipe Out” became a rite of passage for budding rockers, but the key player was surf guitar guru Dick Dale. He and his group, the Del-Tones, virtually defined the genre on such early hits as “Miserlou” and “Surf Beat.”
Record companies cashed in on the craze with scores of cheesy instrumental guitar records by fictitious “groups” made up of studio musicians. Established acts also jumped on the bandwagon. While the Ventures’ wonderful Surfn’album features surf-style originals as well as a cover of “Pipeline,” the band wasn’t born and didn’t remain strictly a surf out&. And while the Beach Boys and other vocal groups were certainly influenced by Dale and company, the buJk of authentic surf guitar lies within the repertoires of the Del-Tones, the Chantays, the Surfaris, and lesser-known bands such as the Lively Ones, the Sentinels, the Astronauts (from Boulder, Colorado), Eddie & the Showmen (named after the Fender Showman amp), the Challengers, the Jesters (featuring a young Jim Messina of later “Loggins &” fame), the Avantis, and the Tornadoes. Rhino Records’ Guitar Player Presents the Legends of Guitar: Surf Vol. 1 collects gems by such groups, and with its superbly detailed liner notes by instrumental rock authority John Blair, the record makes a perfect starting point for newcomers.
Gear-wise, Dick Dale set the standard. Fender guitars, especially Strats, Jaguars, and Jazzmasters, were the weapons of choice, though the Ventures endorsed Mosrites. Fender amps were also a big part of the sound; Dale even helped design the high-wattage Dual Showman. Dale, who still kicks serious instrumental-rock ass, plays lefty without reversing his strings, a 1aAlbert King. He still wields the custom gold metal-flake Stratocaster he acquired in the early ’60s. Another important element of the surf guitar sound was liberal application of spring reverb, either from free-standing or built-in units.
Before you catch the wave, a few ground rules: Use medium- to heavy-gauge strings, don’t bend single notes much more than a half-step, use many open strings, and apply tremolo picking when appropriate (that is, wherever possible). Now crank your reverb to 11, empty your mind, and become one with this drum beat:
The Duane Eddy-style tremolo-bar dips in Ex. 1a served as the intro to many a surf tune. Manipulate the bar with either hand. You can transpose the lick to the open-d string to imply a change to the IV chord, and then to the fifth-string, 2nd-fret B for the V chord. For the fretted A try simulating the bar dips with half-step finger slides. You can also get the same effect without touching the bar: Bend the A string one and a half steps at, say, the 12th fret in place of the bar dips, while simultaneously picking the open-Eriff. Try it and amaze your friends. (Note: This only works if your trem system is set up to “float” on two or three springs.) Ex. lb is a typical two-bar surf riff; Ex. lc transposes it to A to cover the IV chord. The full-barre B (V) and A (IV) chord punctuations in Ex. Id recall those in “Wipe Out.” The rests between were usually the drummer’s spot to go fill-crazy. To form a 12-bar tune, play Ex. lb twice, followed by Examples lc, lb, Id, and la. You can preface this progression with an intro consisting of Ex. 1a played four times.
The tremolo-picked, palm-muted low-Eglissando in Bx. 2a pops up in tune after tune, most notably preceding the signature E-minor figure in the Chanteys’ “Pipeline” (Bx. 2b). This ultra-cool accompaniment, surf music’s most recognizable riff, also appears on the group’s follow-up, “Beyond,” as well as in the Ventures’ “Diamond Head” and the Avantis’ “Gypsy Surfer.” (Don’t worry about hitting each note in the glissando exactly; the transcription simply illustrates the distance it covers.) The riff is transposed to A minor in the second bar of Ex. 2b. Examples 3a and 3b, both played with identical fingering, are complementary lead-guitar melodies.
The use of 8- and 16-bar bridges helped surftunes escape the standard 12-bar rut. The simple melody in Ex. 4 outlines an Am-G-F-Eprogression (Im, bVI1, bVI, V), primarily in chord tones.
Shimmery, sustained chords with watery trem-bar dips were another surf hallmark. Ex 5a illustrates a ninth-position A triad voiced on the top three strings. Examples 5b and 5c follow suit, switching inversions to form D (IV) and E(V) chords in the same vicinity. (The depth of the bends are transcribed on the first string; they vary on the other strings because of the differences in string size.) Piece together a 12-bar form by playing Ex. 5a twice, followed by Examples 5b, 5a, 5c, and 5a again. For contrast, try replacing the last four bars with Ex. 5d. Ex. 6, also derived from chord tones, combines single-note and chordal bar dips in a typically cool melody with open strings aplenty, The bar dips applied to the ascending Am inversion are another surf staple. Tremolo-picked melodies (sometimes controlled, sometimes not) have graced many a surf tune. The manic minor-key excursion in Ex. 7 predates the now-cliche heavy metal rhythm gallop by a quarter-century. And the out-of-control trem-picked double-stops in Ex 8 out-shred many of today’s thrashers.
Departing from the previous minor- and major-key I-IV-Vprogressions, Ex. 9 grooves over an E-D (I-bVI1) Mixoiydian-flavored vamp. Drown the notes in reverb. Release the muting for the twin response phrases beginning in bar 5. And dig the cool lo-bar form!
The rhythm figure in Ex. 10 illustrates the quasi-Latin vibe evident in much surf music. Note the open-string, all-purpose passing chord on the last eighth-note of each measure. A Mediterranean influence is equally obvious in Ex 11, based on the A harmonic minor scale or, more specifically, its fifth mode, E Phrygian dominant. (Roll over, Yngwie!)
Ex. 12 features a frenzied Dick Dale-style combination of trem picking, glissandi, and shifting time signatures (though you can count straight through in 4/4). Ex. 13 coincides with my own passion for Martin Denny-style exotica. The arpeggiated C#m and Dm create lush E6 and F6 harmonies over the Phrygian-derived E-to-F background harmony. And you can almost hear the fake bird calls as you play through the exotic melody in Ex. 14.
Surf’s influence continued to show up in the music of composers as diverse as spaghetti-Western sonic architect Ennio Morricone, Frank Zappa, and Joe Satriani, and surf instrumental combos are riding a new wave of popularity. Not bad for a fad!