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How come there isn't more surf music?

As far as I know, there is no popular music genre that ever truly dies. For any genre you can think of, there are fans of it even if it's not the popular music of the moment.

What is surf music exactly? It's a weird combination of rock, fast-pace blues, Middle Eastern, Arabic, Mexican and Hawaiian styles.

The first name in surf music is The Ventures, and the second is Dick Dale, but there are many others such as The Chantays, The Beach Boys (obviously), Jan & Dean and so on. But when it comes to "the sound of surf", The Ventures and Dick Dale nailed it best.

While surf music was before my time, the more I research it, the more I understand how huge it was in the early 1960s. From 1961 to 1966, surf music was everywhere, or at least it was here in the US. It was the "rebel music" of the time that all the kids were listening to. Beach fun, fast cars and good times was what it was all about.

Everyone likes surf music because it just sounds cool and it's a happy kind of style. So why is it that people don't play it more?

Well, it's not that surf music is "too old", because every popular music genre resurfaces about once every 25 to 30 years.

The reason you don't hear surf directly has to do with the fact it's not easy to play and it's a tough sound to pull off.

The guitars

Surf is a 100% Fender sound, meaning it's either played on a Squier Jazzmaster, Fender Jazzmaster, Squier Jaguar or Fender Jaguar. And for a good long time it was very difficult to acquire one of those guitars. Today, sure, you can grab yourself one easily and buy one right now. But from about 1975 all the way up until 2000 it was next to impossible to find one because they either weren't made or were custom-order-only.

Yes, that means for 25 years these guitars were for all intents and purposes unavailable.

The Jazzmaster's original run was from 1958 to 1980, then production stopped, then resumed in 1984 and has been made ever since. However, you almost never saw Jazzmaster guitars after their heyday in the 60s. Only very recently, as in from 2012 to present, do you now see Jazzmasters in guitar stores.

The Jaguar's original run was from 1962 to 1975 and then production of the guitar was outright stopped until finally being made again in 1999. There are absolutely zero Jaguars that were made from 1976 through 1998. But even after the Jaguar was reintroduced to the market, many guitar stores were really reluctant to carry it. It really wasn't until there were affordable Squier versions that Jags started popping up more.

Was it grunge music that brought back the Jag? Unquestionably, yes. While that has nothing to do with surf music, were it not for Kurt Kobain playing a Jaguar, it's probably true Fender never would have made the guitar again. Seeing a top-selling artist playing a guitar Fender used to make got younger players everywhere buying up every single vintage Jag they could get their hands on as they were the only ones available. And because the Jag's shape is the same as the Jazz's, players were buying up those like crazy as well.

Anyway, for surf it's Jazz or Jag, assuming you even like either one of those guitars to begin with.

The reverb

Spring reverb was a new thing back when surf music was popular, so players used it like crazy, usually with the highest setting where you can hear spring clanging. My DigiTech GSP 1101 has spring reverb programmed to such a degree where spring clanging is actually included in the modeling. It's actually quite accurate. DigiTech really knows how to do spring reverb right in the digital domain.

The playing style

Even when you have the right guitar and the right effects, you have to know how to play the right chops.

Surf music sounds easy to play, but it's not. It's a tone that's clean and "bitey", so every single chord and note you play has to be dead accurate.

In the video above, I made a few mistakes. And they stick out like crazy. But I didn't feel like redoing the video so I posted it as-is. 🙂

The best way I can describe surf playing style is that it's a combination of full-bodied chords and fast single notes, jumping between those two constantly. There's a lot of minor chords involved, and those chords have to be struck with a pick at a fast-medium pace, like a wave.

Then, on top of all that, you have to make it work with a buzzy-by-nature guitar with in-your-face reverb.

Not easy.

Having the right guitar helps a lot. Jag or Jazz. Can be done with a Strat as an alternative, but not easily because you don't have the "slow" vibrato. Can't be done with a Telecaster because it has no vibrato.

Ultimately, it's the difficultly level involved with playing surf that makes it not heard more. Bands by nature stick to the easier stuff. And surf music is not easy.

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