Secrets of the Surf Guitar Sound

I don't surf. Growing up in St. Louis, Missouri, the opportunity to do so just never presented itself. Later I moved to Oregon, and although it certainly has a healthy surf scene, the ocean in these parts is usually frigid, steely gray in color, and full of sharp rocks and pointy-toothed great whites, among other life-threatening hazards. In short, surfing is done here, but it's strictly for the masochistic and/or suicidal. I am neither. Despite my ignorance of surfing and surf culture, I have, like many guitarists, fallen under the influence of instrumental surf rock and the loud, clean, 'verb and vibrato-drenched guitar tones that are an essential part of it. Surf guitar is one of the most distinctive styles in all of guitardom, and although the music fell out of popular favor in the early sixties when the British Invasion hit, the style and aesthetic has proven itself to be steadfastly influential—particularly in underground culture, where surf rock has maintained a close relationship with punk, garage, and other varieties of primitive rock 'n' roll.

Though genuine surf rock bands are something of a rarity these days, elements of the surf guitar sound continue to show up in many different styles of music, and a lot of non-surfing guitar players still like to cop a surf guitar tone now and then. Of course, doing this successfully requires both facility with the playing techniques specific to the genre, as well as a few key pieces of gear to get the surfy sounds coming out of the speaker.


Techniques

The nuts and bolts of surf guitar technique are somewhat beyond the scope of this article, but it should be noted that, even if you've got all the right gear, it's not going to sound surfy if you don't have the playing techniques down. Not that surf guitar is especially difficult, but there are certain elements that must be mastered to evoke a proper surf vibe. Tremolo picking, haunting minor chord progressions, exotic scale tones, and mastery of the whammy bar are all essential to nailing the sound. The best way to pick up these skills is simply to take some time to listen to a whole lot of surf music, and then after you've done some listening, sit down with a guitar and play along. The internet is full of lessons and resources as well, so Google hard, and you will be rewarded.


Surf Guitars

Surf music is very closely associated with Fender instruments, specifically the Jazzmaster, Jaguar, and Stratocaster, which were being manufactured a short distance from the beach in Southern California just as the first surf rock bands were blowing up. Of course, a Fender guitar is not a necessity for surf tones, as there are plenty of other options available today. The important elements of a good surf guitar are a set of bright, bold single-coil pickups, and a relatively stable vibrato system for the whammy bar action required. A locking system like a Floyd Rose is not required (or appropriate...yuck), just something that will stay in tune through the regular dips and warbles that are so indicative of the style.

Just about any Strat-like guitar that has these features will do the job, and plenty of companies, like DiPinto, Eastwood, Reverend, and Electrical Guitar Company, make guitars that fit the bill hardware-wise, and also happen to look really surfy. Metallic finishes, racing stripes, and vivid color schemes are always nice.


Surf Strings

Surf guitar is typically played on heavy-duty strings. The general consensus seems to be that anything lighter than a set of 11s is probably inappropriate, with 12s and 13s being standard. The reasons for this are partly traditional and partly practical. Light string sets are a relatively recent innovation, so most of the classics of the surf genre were played on beefy strings (usually flatwounds, by the way). The practical purpose for heavy strings is the big, bass-heavy tone that they generate, which matches nicely with bright single coils and a loud, clean amp. Also, surf guitar technique involves lots of fast, hard tremolo picking and whammy bar manipulation, all of which puts stress on strings. Heavy strings are harder to break.


Surf Amps

For proper surf tones, having the right amp is essential. The "right amp," in this case, is something loud and clean with tons of headroom. Surf guitar tones are not typically distorted, though a bit of warm tube breakup can be nice. The classic amps for surf purposes are, once again, Fender products, specifically blackface-era Showman, Dual Showman, Twin, Vibrolux, and Super Reverb amps. Besides being able to get brutally loud without distorting, these amps are also rather bright, with a big, tight bottom end. As with guitars, though, owning a vintage Fender blackface amp isn't necessary for getting a cool surf tone, as the modern guitarist has plenty of other options. Virtually anything that can be cranked up and kept clean will do the job, from modern tube amps like Mesa-Boogies and Randalls, to the higher-wattage solid-state and digital modeling amps.

As far as speakers and cabinets go, the surf setups of old often made use of large cabinets with 15-inch JBL speakers. Like the amplifiers they were paired with, these speakers were tough to distort, and could produce tremendous volume and big bass frequencies. Unless you're in a serious surf band, though, this is probably not a practical or affordable setup, so other speakers and cabinets can certainly be made to work. To prevent speaker distortion, something robust with a high power rating is preferred, and a big cabinet is nice for getting those thumping bass tones.


Surf Effects

Fender Reverb Unit

Where would surf music be without spring reverb? The drippy, boingy, wet qualities of the spring reverb evoked the sound of the ocean and crashing waves for the early progenitors of surf rock, and the effect (one of the earliest guitar effects, as luck would have it) was immediately incorporated into the music. Once again, Leo Fender was instrumental (pun intended) in the proliferation of this effect, first installing a spring tank in a Fender amp in 1963. The spring 'verb most closely associated with surf guitar, however, is the original Fender Reverb Unit, a tube-powered, outboard spring 'verb introduced in 1961. It looks like a small amplifier head, and its juicy tonal characteristics are considered definitive for fans of the sweet sounds of vintage surf rock.

For players who do not have a spring reverb on board their amps, and who are not prepared to shell out the bucks for an original or reissue Fender Reverb, there are plenty of spring reverb pedals available. Digital recreations from DigiTech, Wampler, and Subdecay (among others) are excellent, or there are even actual, analog spring units in pedal form available from Demeter, Van Amps, and Carl Martin. Whatever you do end up using for reverb, make sure your crank it up. In surf guitar, too much reverb is just the right amount.

Besides reverb, the other main surf guitar effect is tremolo, a feature which was also built into many Fender blackface-era amplifiers. Like splashy spring reverb, tremolo brings to mind certain natural elements one might encounter while surfing, evoking the rhythmic undulations of the water and waves. Tube amp tremolo is generally the most awesome for surf guitar, but there are numerous pedals that will do nicely as well. A few of my favorites include the Demeter Tremulator, the Catalinbread Pareidolia, and the Strymon Flint.

These are the fundamental elements of a convincing surf guitar tone, and are a great place to start for inexperienced players, or those just wanting to add a little aquatic vibe to their music. Many creative musicians have taken these elements and expanded on them, however, creating unique hybrids that incorporate classic surf sounds in a modern context. Bands like Alabama's Man or Astro-Man?, for instance, often take the fundamentals of surf sonics and run with them, putting a fresh and ass-kicking spin on a classic sound that may no longer be popular, but will never go out of style. ​

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