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The two sides of surf music (I love one and hate the other)

Fender '60s Jazzmaster Lacquer

Surf music is a bit of a weird animal.

There are certain types of music that I absolutely cannot stand, and one of them is what I consider the bubble gum side of surf music.

Surf Music vs. Beach Music

A true surf music song is an instrumental with a very "wet" sounding electric guitar which is sometimes called a "drip" sound. Specifically, it's a Jazzmaster, Stratocaster or Jaguar that's "drowning" in spring reverb that has a liquid-like tone to it.

Some examples of surf instrumentals are:

The other type of surf music is one with vocals in it. This is technically not surf music at all. The song is only characterized as surf because of its lyrical content. An example of one of these songs is Surf City by Jan and Dean - a song I can't stand.

Why does the song bother me? Because it's bubble gum pop music of the '60s. Surf City does nothing but talk about surfing but doesn't have the wet guitar sound whatsoever. You don't even hear it. In fact, you struggle to hear any guitars in that song at all because the vocals are booming over so loudly.

True surf music is the Jazzmaster/Strat/Jag guitar with the wet sound along with obvious Middle Eastern and Mexican guitar influence. The other bubble gum pop stuff with lyrics in it should just be renamed to beach music. This is logical because surf music literally has the wet sound and beach music literally talks about the beach. Makes sense to me.

Anyway, for the remainder of this article, when I mention surf music, I'm specifically referring to the the instrumental stuff as that's the kind of surf music I like. The other side with the bubble gum vocals I really don't like at all.

The 2.5 year run that never ended?

Surf music's peak popularity was from September 1961 to February 1964, just shy of 2.5 years.

September '61 is when the first true commercially successful surf instrumental song Let's Go Trippin' was released, and February '64 is when The Beatles happened. Technically, The Beatles were introduced to America in December '63, but February '64 is when they made their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, and that's when Beatlemania and the "British Invasion" officially began.

The funny thing however is that even after surf music was pushed out of the limelight, it never completely went away.

To this day in many TV shows and movies, whenever there's an establishing shot of a beach, you hear surf music. Or even if the beach is not seen, if the intention is to make you think "this is a beach related thing" such as packing up a car to go to the beach, surf music is heard.

Surf music also goes hand in hand with vintage '60s American muscle cars. At just about any classic car show in America, surf music will inevitably be heard.

In the end, surf music is associated with beaches and muscle cars more than anything else. But there are two other associations. Mystery/intrigue and spooky/creepy.


The original movie theme to James Bond has a very prominent surf guitar sound in it; this is the best example there is of this specific style of surf music.


The American monster movie and TV era of the '60s had spooky/creepy music all over the place. The most prominent example of this is The Munsters TV show theme. Another example of this is Werewolf by The Frantics.

Modern surf bands mostly gravitate to the spooky style just because it's very fun to play and it allows you to be very cheesy in stage appearance because it totally fits the vibe.

If I'm fortunate enough to ever get in a surf band myself, I'd probably go for the spooky style just for the fun factor.

A musical genre defined by the guitar, weirdness and all

Instrumental surf music is defined by a twangy Fender guitar washed in reverb, with the most "authentic" of the surf guitars being the Jazzmaster.

You can use other guitars to get surf sound. Heck, all you really need is a cheap Bullet Strat and a decent spring reverb emulation pedal. Or if you have an amp with a real spring reverb tank in it, that obviously also works too.

Almost nothing about surf music is what anyone would consider normal and that's what makes it weird. It's almost like an anti-pop music of sorts.

The music industry tried to normalize surf music with the introduction of vocals and the whole bubble gum pop beach music thing. But the original instrumental sound is what has stood the test of time better. That is the sound you still hear in TV and movies to this day...

...because it just sounds cool.

Published 2016 Sep 12

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