Surf music is a genre of popular music associated with surf culture, particularly as found in 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. 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. During the later stages of the surf music craze, many groups started to leave surfing behind and write songs about cars and girls; this was later known as hot rod rock. Surf music is often referred to as simply surf rock, even though the genre has many forms.
Surf music began in the early 1960s as instrumental dance music, almost always in straight 4/4 (or common) time, with a medium to fast tempo. The sound was dominated by electric guitars
which were particularly characterized by the extensive use of the "wet" spring reverb
that was incorporated into Fender amplifiers
from 1961, which is thought to emulate the sound of the waves.
Guitarists also made use of the vibrato arm
on their guitar to bend the pitch of notes downward, electronic tremolo effects and rapid (alternating) tremolo picking
Guitar models favoured included those made by Fender
(particularly the Mustang
, or Danelectro
, usually with single coil
pickups (which had high treble in contrast to double coil humbucker
Surf music was one of the first genres to universally adopt the electric bass, particularly the Fender Precision Bass
. Classic surf drum kits tended to be Rogers
. Some popular songs also incorporated a tenor or baritone saxophone
, as on "Surf Rider
" and "Comanche".
Often an electric organ or an electric piano
featured as backing harmony.
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, following up with songs like "Misirlou" (1962). Like Dale and his Del-Tones, most early surf bands were formed in Southern California area, with Orange County in particular having a strong surf culture, and the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa hosted many surf-styled acts. In late 1961, the Beach Boys had their first chart hit, "Surfin'" which managed to reach the Billboard top 100. In mid 1962, the group released their major-label debut, Surfin' Safari. The song hit the Top 20 and helped launch the surf rock craze into a national phenomenon. Groups such as The Bel-Airs (whose hit "Mr. Moto" was released months before Dale's "Let's Go Trippin'"), then The Challengers released their album "Surfbeat", and then Eddie & the Showmen followed Dale to regional success. The Chantays scored a top ten national hit with "Pipeline" in 1963 and probably the single most famous surf tune hit was "Wipe Out" by the Surfaris, known for their cutting-edge lead guitar and drum songs, which on the Hot 100 hit number 2 in 1963 and number 16 in 1966. The group had two other global hits "Surfer Joe" and "Point Panic". In 1963, the Beach Boys released one of the most well known surf rock songs, " Surfin' USA" which incorporated surf lyrics and the melody from Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen".
The growing popularity of the genre led groups from other areas to try their hand. These included The Astronauts, from Boulder, Colorado, The Trashmen, from Minneapolis, Minnesota, who had a number 4 hit with "Surfin Bird" in 1964 and The Rivieras from South Bend, Indiana, who reached number 5 in 1964 with "California Sun". The Atlantics, from Sydney, Australia, were not exclusively surf musicians, but made a significant contribution to the genre, the most famous example with being their hit "Bombora" (1963). Also from Sydney were The Denvermen lyrical instrumental "Surfside" reached number 1 in the Australian charts. 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 Merseybeat 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.
The surf music craze, with the careers of almost all surf acts, was effectively ended by the British Invasion
beginning ca. 1964.
The emerging folk rock
and later psychedelic rock
genres also contributed to the decline of surf rock.
Only the Beach Boys were able to sustain popularity into the mid-1960s, producing a string of hit singles and albums including Pet Sounds
in 1966, which made them the only American rock or pop group that arguably could rival the Beatles
The use of instrumental surf rock style guitar for the soundtrack of Dr. No
(1962), recorded by Vic Flick
with the John Barry Seven
, meant that it was reused in many of the films in the James Bond
series, and influenced the music of many spy films of the 1960s.
Surf music also influenced a number of later rock musicians, including Keith Moon
of The Who  East Bay Ray
of the Dead Kennedys
guitarist Joey Santiago
During the mid- to late 1990s, surf rock experienced a revival with surf acts, including Dick Dale recording once more, partly due to the popularity of the movie Pulp Fiction
(1994), which used Dale's "Misirlou" and other surf rock songs in the soundtrack.
New surf bands were formed, including Man or Astro-man?
, The Mermen
and Los Straitjackets
In the 1980s, skateboard punk band JFA (band)
, combined the Dead Kennedy's "Police Truck" with the Chantay's "Pipeline" to create the revved-up surf/skate homage "Pipe Truck."