Hey there - I'm John, AKA Surf Llama.
I'm a big music fan and guitar player for 15 years. I also play a very poor harmonica.
I love all sorts of music include surf guitar, and personally I play a Eastwood Twin Tone electric and an old Yahama acoustic. Shoot me an email if you want to chat.
Sometimes when listening to a band, I wonder if it qualifies as “surf music.” So we’re going to try and answer the question of “what is surf music” here.
We’ll start with a look from ye old Wikipedia for a definition:
Surf music is a genre of popular music associated with surf culture, particularly Orange County and other areas of Southern California. It was particularly popular between 1961 and 1965, has subsequently been revived and was highly influential on subsequent rock music. It has two major forms: largely instrumental surf rock, with an electric guitar or saxophone playing the main melody, pioneered by acts such as Dick Dale and the Del-Tones, and vocal surf pop, including both surf ballads and dance music, often with strong harmonies that are most associated with The Beach Boys.
So there we have a basic definition. We focus mostly on the instrumental form on this site, so let’s look into that further. Here’s a little more on the types of sounds heard in instrumental surf music from Kahuna Kawentzmann, formerly of the German surf band The Looney Tunes:
This kind of reverb effect is seldomly heard in other musical styles, but can be found on the drum tracks of 1970s dub reggae recordings. With the connection to mid century surfing culture came influences from abroad in the form of Flamenco melodies, Polynesian inspired Exotica tunes and jungle mood drumming.
Taken in context of the music at the time, it’s interesting to look at how it evolved separately from similar music. A lot of influential rock music was coming out at the time, which splintered off indifferent directions. Leonard Lueras in Surfing, The Ultimate Pleasure writes:
Transition artists such as Chuck Berry, Duane Eddy and the inventive oldtimer, Les Paul, had long been experimenting with tremolos, echolettes and other such techno music toys, but these gimmicks were usually utlized for the odd temporary effect. Not until Dale began promoting himself as a surf guitarist and calling such sustained electro riffs ‘surf music,’ was this pecular sound given a popular or proper generic name.
Here again we see Dick Dale given a nod for both the sound, and the name of surf music. Wikipedia has a take on this as well:
By the early 1960s instrumental rock and roll had been pioneered successfully by performers such as Duane Eddy, Link Wray, and The Ventures. This trend was developed by Dick Dale who added the distinctive reverb, the rapid alternate picking characteristic of the genre, as well as Middle Eastern and Mexican influences, producing the regional hit “Let’s Go Trippin'” in 1961 and launching the surf music craze.
The Ventures, mentioned above, also had one of the first surf songs to make the Billboard Hot 100 chart with “Walk Don’t Run.” Another song often mentioned as one of the first surf songs is “Mr. Moto” by The Belairs, in the video below:
Beyond simply the sound of surf music, part of what made a song a “surf” song was the strong association with surfing, California, beaches, Woodie cars, etc.
Kahuna Kawentzmann also dives into this distinction between surf music and other forms of instrumental rock. He breaks them into surf, indo rock, eleki (largely Japanese), Asia a go go, European rock instrumentals, Latin American, biker movie soundtracks, and the pioneers. Definitely worth a read.
Fast forward to the present, songs are still being labeled as surf rock. A number bands, along with the surfy soundtrack of Pulp Fiction, helped renew surf music in the 90’s such as Man or Astroman, the Mermen, the Blue Stingrays, and many others. There are some bands, the Torquays and the Eliminators, for example, playing largely the classic surf sound. But there are also modern bands that have much in common with rockabilly, punk, space rock, and other genres. From Phil Dirt:
Many of the bands that perform surf now are pushing the envelope of what surf music is. To borrow a band name from Teisco Del Rey, they are the “Lords Of The New Surf“. These new bands have stayed with the original instrumental genre as a foundation, shunning the vocal pop that diluted and polluted it over 30 years ago. They have infused new life via the combination of their healthy respect and love for the pure instrumental form, and varied approach incorporating many influences.
Here’s a good look at what’s involved in being labeled “Surf Music” today from Pitchfork Media:
Somewhere along the line, surf music ceased to have anything to do with actual surfing and migrated to kitsch. But although shuddering tremolo bars fit the image of a guy in floral print trunks, the music is mostly instrumental and as such essentially abstract, so you can make it mean anything you want it to. Even early surf rockers like the Ventures and the Tornados realized this and began to incorporate the astronautical, lounge, and kitsch elements that color most efforts in the genre these days. So the term “surf” as it relates to music today basically just refers to music with lots of reverb and crazy guitar playing…”
Surf music today seems to have less to do with surfing than references to robots, monsters, outer space and any other weirdness you can think of. This is a good fit with what as El Surfadero said the other day – every surf band has a bit. So if you want to be a surf band today, slap on your Mexican wrestling mask, give yourself a cool name, and set your reverb on 11.
The Ventures are one of the classic surf bands, and “Walk Don’t Run” is one of the most classic surf songs. Because of the lasting popularity of the song, it’s one that’s been covered numerous times. Below are a few covers of “Walk Don’t Run” that I found worth a listen…
Here’s the original if you need a refresher:
Now here’s a version from guitar great Chet Atkins. It’s a cool acoustic, jazzy version:
And here’s a ukele version of the song, which is also very enjoyable. It’s done by a felt bear and rabbit apparently:
Another acoustic version, but with more guitar parts. This is by the California Guitar Trio, but the sound quality is pretty lousy:
And the final one, this is more of an update to the original version. It’s by the Shadows, and I like this version the best:
Give us your opinions on the best covers of this song…
The band of the week is a great group called the Vanduras. It reminds me of Vandelay Industries, so that’s already a good start.
The only album the Vanduras appear to have released was 2002’s In The Dark. The music is composed and most instruments played by father & son Geoff Brandin and Gary Brandin.
The album is hardly the up tempo, guitar-centric usual offering of the genre. It’s got a very laid back vibe, mixing ambient music, surf, and also western element. In The Dark is instrumental, with very prominent pedal steel parts, lending to the western feel.
I imagine the plan for the album went something like this:
“Hey I think we should do an album together.”
“OK. How about we play surf music?”
“Perfect. Hey do we have time to down some whiskey and pop a handful of Valiums before we go into the studio?”
“I don’t see why not…”
Just take a look at the band photo and guess what kind of music they play. How often do you see a Telecaster, cowboy hat and lap steel guitar in surf bands?
Interestingly, Gary Bradin is also in a well known contemporary surf band, the Blue Hawaiians. They are definitely worth checking out as well, and we will certainly write a post about them in the future.
With shows starting tonight, there’s a new set of tour dates for Dick Dale. He’ll be performing with his son Jimmy, who I believe plays drums. Here are the dates:
August 26, Wednesday – Stephen Talkhouse – Amagansett, NY. August 27, Thursday – The City Winery – New York, NY. August 28, Friday – The Birchmere – Alexandria, VA. August 30, Sunday – The Rams Head – Annapolis, MD. September 9, Wednesday – Santa Monica Pier – Santa Monica, CA
A lot of credit is given to Quentin Tarantino for reviving interest in surf music. With the release of Pulp Fiction, one of my favorite movies, the soundtrack was a big seller and full of surf music. The album included songs by Dick Dale, the Lively Ones, the Centurions and the Tornadoes.
The Philadelphia Inquirer said that Pulp Fiction “reinvigorated surf rock.” Inspired by the soundtrack, surf music started showing up in places like commercials, making surf music hugely popular again.
According to a recent interview, Tarantino uses the music to help influence his writing.
“When I actually sit down to write something, I go to my music selection and start finding the songs that will be the beat of the movie, the rhythm of the movie. In the case of Jackie Brown, it was ‘70s soul. In the case of Pulp Fiction, that would be surf music. That helps inspire me. Even as I start writing and going further on it, playing that music transports me into a movie theater. I feel like I can see it on a screen.”
During another interview, he gave his thoughts on surf music specifically.
“I’m using surf music as the basic score – from the 60’s, Dick Dale style. I don’t understand the surfer connection to surf music. To me, surf music just seems like rock n’ roll Ennio Morricone music, rock n’ roll spaghetti western music, that’s what it sounds like.
What guitars do popular surf rock bands play? Several come to mind – Fender Stratocasters, Jazzmasters and Jaguars, Mosrites, and Danelectros. Not only do they usually have a certain sound, but they also have a certain look. You don’t see a lot of Flying Vs in surf bands.
Let’s take a quick and unprofessional look at what popular bands of different eras played:
The Ventures – Fender Strats, Fender Jazzmasters, and Mosrites
Dick Dale – Fender Strat
Surfaris – Fender Strat
The Beach Boys – Fender Strat
Duane Eddy – Gretsch
Link Wray – Les Paul Goldtop, Gibson Firebird, Supro Dual Tone
The Shadows – Fender Stratocaster
Man or Astroman? – Silvertone Hollowbody, Epiphone Coronet, Hofner Hollowbody
The Mermen – Fender Stratocaster
The Blue Stingrays – Fender Jaguar (I think)
Los Straitjackets – DiPinto Galaxie
According to the book “Guitar Rigs” by Dave Hunter, “Fender’s Jazzmaster and Jaguar have been the dual lodestones of the retro surf crowd.” That certainly seems to be true.
Just from this small sample, Fender Stratocasters have been amongst the most popular as well. Today, of course, you have many more choices than early surf bands. I’d say there’s more than a couple of different “classic” surf guitars and rigs.
The Traditional surf guitars, like a surf green Fender Stratocaster or Jazzmaster, are no doubt cool, but they are definitely not the only option for surf bands today.
DiPinto, a smaller builder of lots of cool electric guitars and basses, has one of these modern surf guitars. The DiPinto Galaxie 4, pictured below, is attention getting for sure. Models come is sparkly silver, sparkly pink, orange and sunburst.
The only annoying part of this guitar to me is the name. Why can’t it be the DiPinto Galaxy, what is the need for the misspelling? For the specs, it has a mahogany body, 22 frets, 4 (four!) single coil pickups, inlays can be dots or stars, and a tremolo bar.
The Galaxie (in the silver) is the guitar of choice for Los Straitjackets. The bass guitar version of the Galaxie is also the bass of choice for them, which makes a cool looking live show. Here’s a look at these guitars in action: