Nothing evokes California’s laid-back vibes and sun-soaked beaches more than surf rock. Guitar riffs, high harmonies, and the ability to turn into earworms characterize these tunes. But what exactly is it, and why does it continue to captivate listeners even decades after its heyday in the 1960s?
What is Surf Rock?
Surf rock is a subgenre of rock music originating in Southern California in the late 1950s or early 1960s. Its use of reverb-drenched electric guitars, twangy melodies, and driving rhythms makes the sound recognizable. Sometimes it has lyrics that praise the southern Californian beach lifestyle and catchy hooks. Take, for example, contributor BozzProduction’s song Coconut Bikini. It will have you instantly bopping your head and doing the Batusi with its rolling drums and twangy guitar, not to mention the beachy title. Other examples include MEMACMIDI’s aptly named Surf School Rock or ThatBeat’s Vintage Surfers. Gnarly.
Where did Surf Rock originate?
The genre evolved from rock ‘n’ roll and fused Middle Eastern and Mexican influences. Dick Dale, a Lebanese American, is credited with the invention of Surf Rock with his use of staccato picking and skillful manipulation of the reverb amplifier. He used the word “surf” because it was his favorite sport, and he was an avid surfer.
Dale was a guitarist and singer known as the “King of the Surf Guitar” for his considerable contributions to the genre. He started playing with guitar amplifiers and speakers, creating a strong and distorted sound ideal for surf rock. He rapidly established a fan base in Southern California, and many people consider his characteristic song with Dick Dale and the Del-Tones, “Let’s Go Trippin,” the very first surf rock instrumental.
“Misirlou,” a traditional Greek song that Dale reworked and released in 1962, is one of his most recognized tunes. The song regained popularity in the 1990s after appearing in the film “Pulp Fiction.”
An evolution, or off-shoot, of Surf Rock, is California Sound. This variation emphasized vocal harmonies, guitar-based music, lyrics that glorified California’s beaches, and a youthful, carefree attitude. No band has been more popular or influential than the forefathers of California Sound, The Beach Boys. Founded in 1961 in Hawthorne, California, the titles of some of their most popular songs scream California beach culture: “California Dreamin’,” Surfin’ USA,” “California Girls,” and “Good Vibrations.” These songs and many others contributed to the development of California sound, and their impact can still be heard in music today.
Other influential musicians include The Ventures, The Surfaris, The Chantays, Jan and Dean, The Pyramids, and The Bel-Airs. Make sure to give them a listen!
Where can you hear it now?
Surf rock has had a long-lasting influence on rock music. We still hear its elements and fragments in the music of many contemporary performers, like Wavves and La Luz. For a very comprehensive list, check out this Reddit thread.
The classics are also remixed. Have a listen to “Surf Rider” (Shimokita Import Remix) by The Lively Ones, “Misirlou” (Pumpkin Remix) by Dick Dale, or its sampled part in The Black Eyed Peas’s song “Pump It.”
Three tips for using Surf Rock in your creative projects:
- While it originated in the 1960s, don’t limit yourself to only using surf rock for period pieces. One could argue The Kids in the Hall theme by (punk band) Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet have a similar sound.
- Many Surf Rock songs have lots of energy and make you want to dance. Consider using it for dance or beach party scenes.
- This genre often evokes a carefree feeling making it excellent transition music between segments or as the theme song for your podcast.
Want your next project to have the good vibrations of a Southern California beach party? A Pond5 music subscription gives you access to original Surf Rock tracks, including music from the artists we’ve highlighted here and more of the world’s top musicians.
Visit the Pond5 Playlist to explore more niche and unexpected music. Each month will feature a different genre, and a new free track is available for your next project!