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How to play fast surf music

It's not easy, but it sounds great.

When I started playing Jazzmaster guitars, I researched the history instrument and found out it first became popular as a surf music guitar. The instrument was designed for jazz, but instead launched an entirely new music genre instead that doesn't sound like jazz at all.

Now of course, the Jazzmaster isn't the only guitar "built for surf". The Stratocaster was actually first used for surf, then the Jazzmaster, then the Jaguar. There are also several other guitars that capture the surf sound.

There are two required things for surf tone and two optional things.

Required thing #1 is a rear (as in bridge) pickup with a high treble response. If it's a single-coil pickup, it's already trebly enough. If it's a dual-coil (as in humbucker), it has to be something like a TV Jones pickup, e.g. something you'd see in a Gretsch guitar.

Required thing #2 is reverb for the "drip" sound. The best reverb for this is a real reverb tank, or a really good spring reverb emulator like the BOSS FRV-1.

Optional thing #1 is a guitar that has "slow" vibrato. The reason this is optional is because there are several surf songs that don't use vibrato at all, such as Baja by The Astronauts. "Slow" vibrato is on the Jazzmaster and Jaguar. It's also on any guitar with a Bigsby vibrato system on it. Epiphone has some good Bigsby-equipped options.

Optional thing #2 is a compressor effect such as a BOSS CS-3, MXR Dyna Comp or even a cheap Behringer CS400. When you need a little boost in your notes without using overdrive, compression is the best thing to use for that.

Playing fast surf music

Surf music is basically a mix of Mexican and Middle Eastern guitar styles.

The biggest difference to my ears between Mexican/Middle Eastern and surf is the former has a subdued even flow to the music while the latter is very in-your-face and brash.

Dick Dale, the man who started the whole instrumental surf music craze, has some songs that are really, really fast. One of them is The Wedge. This is a tough song to play.

There are a few different ways to play fast notes where you strike the string up and down using a pick. The way Dick Dale does it is what any guitar teacher would call the "wrong" way, which I call a strongarm method.

Dick strikes his strings hard and he uses his whole forearm to do it:

To note: Yes, Dick installs his strings upside down where the bass strings are on bottom and treble strings on top. You don't have to do this, but that's the way puts strings on a Strat.

My "modern strongarm" technique

This is still strongarm style but uses standard tuning with strings in standard locations and the picking is different.

I use light gauge 9-42 strings (Dunlop DEN0942, specifically) and a celluloid pick of medium thickness that makes a very pronounced strike when it hits the strings. I use Fender 351 usually, but recently I tried the Fender California Clear and really like that one too.

When I play fast up/down notes, it's a bit of a hybrid between the "right" (using the wrist) and "wrong" (using the forearm) way.

I can't play the way Dick does nor do I want to, because I'm not about to flip the string positions on my Jazzmaster, switch to strings that feel like bridge cables and use long forearm movements just to get a surf sound.

I find a combination of the "right" and "wrong" way to play fast notes works best for playing surf music today. It works on just about any guitar. The only guitar type it wouldn't work on is anything with a Floyd-Rose system on it. Everything else should be good, provided the rear pickup has a good treble response to it and you have some spring reverb ready, be it true or emulated.

It would actually be very difficult to play like Dick Dale on a stock Jazzmaster or Jaguar for one reason. If you play like Dick does and do the old-style strongarm thing, you'll knock the strings right out of the string saddle grooves. There are replacement bridges for Jazzes and Jags that cure this "problem", but it's only a problem for those that beat on strings like a barbarian.

In other words, don't play like a barbarian and you won't knock the strings out of the saddle grooves. If you do play like a barbarian, don't play Jazzmasters or Jaguars and stick to Stratocasters and Telecasters instead.

What can you do to play surf music fast?

My modern strongarm method uses a combination of wrist and forearm movement along with a pick with a very pronounced strike.

You can use that method, but there's also another you can try that I call "weight throwing".

Instead of picking notes strongarm style, you can alternatively use a 100% wrist movement and purposely use a very heavy pick with a smooth edge that has some real weight to it.

Now when I say "very heavy", I do mean something with some chunk to it where you can really feel the weight in your hand.

If this sounds like something you want to try, I recommend the Dunlop Big Stubby pick. These picks come in 1mm, 2mm and 3mm thicknesses. Skip the 1mm size entirely and going straight to 2mm or 3mm because you really want that chunk.

For some players, it's sometimes easier to up/down pick fast using a large, heavier pick instead of the smaller, lightweight variety. You may have muscles in your picking hand that react better to a pick with some weight to it.

Physically heavier picks may also help for those who experience numbness in the picking hand and/or wrist. Since you're literally throwing more weight around, this may help with actually feeling what's going on there more. I obviously cannot guarantee a super-heavy pick will help get any feeling back, but it's worth a try and hardly costs anything.

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