Surf Music History: The So-Cal Sound Of Dick Dale's Instrumentals

Music | July 10, 2020

Left: Dick Dale. Right: The Ventures. Sources: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; merchbar.com

The story of surf rock and surf guitar has one big hero: Dick Dale. Other surf rock acts scored big hits, like The Chantays' "Pipeline," The Surfaris' "Wipeout," The Trashmen's "Surfin' Bird" and The Ventures' "Walk Don't Run" and "Hawaii Five-0." But the sound, particularly the "wet" reverb-heavy guitar, was pioneered by Dick Dale and the Del-Tones. 

In the 1960s, Southern California was known for its sunny beaches, babes, and surfing. Out that culture of the endless summer came surf music - the soundtrack to days spent carving up the waves and nights cruising for a good time.

The new music that came from this era signaled the beginning of a new kind of youth culture. Many of the musicians involved were the same age as their listeners, and artists like Dick Dale and the Bel-Airs were making music specifically inspired by the one past time that they all shared - surfing.

Artists like The Beach Boys wrote about surfing, but they didn’t specifically play surf music. The artists who played instrumental surf music didn’t just play songs about surfing, they gave themselves over to the waves.

It all started in Southern California

source: pinterest

Surf music stems from the venues that sprung up in the small towns and suburbs outside of Los Angeles, the places that are just a little closer to the beach. The South Bay, basically the stretch of land along the southern shore of Santa Monica, and Balboa, California, which is about as close to the water as you can get when you’re in Newport Beach in Orange County.

Dick Dale hit the first notes of surf rock at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa. He didn’t realize it at the time, but out in the audience were a handful of people who would help bring surf music to the masses. As he played songs like “Let’s Go Trippin’,” with its tribal beats and brain crushing volume, Leo Fender watched and devised a new kind of amplification.

At the same time, the members of The Bel-Airs were still in high school and cranking out Dick Dale inspired tunes near Santa Monica. Inspired by Dale and the cool new sounds capable thanks to Leo Fender, bands like The Challengers and Eddie and The Showmen starting popping up all over Orange County and the outer Los Angeles area.

Dick Dale started it all

source: new york times

The Bel-Airs were still learning how to write songs when they got together around 1959, but by then Dick Dale was a seasoned vet. Hailing from the east coast, he brought the sound of his Lebanese ancestors to the rockabilly bars that he played throughout the ‘50s. Dale’s interest in Arabic music lead him to give him strumming and plucking a rhythmic feel that you really didn’t hear in western music until he hit the scene.

When Dale began playing at the Rendezvous Ballroom in 1961 he inspired The Bel-Airs to write their single “Mr. Moto,” which quickly became a hit on KRLA. Once this track made it to Top-10 status in the LA area more and more bands started forming across the world to put their spin on the surf sound. One of the most influential surf groups of all time, The Ventures, aren’t even from Southern California. Their home base of operations is Tacoma, Washington.

How to get the surf sound

source: san clemente times

With every genre there’s a collection of instruments and sounds that make up everything you hear. While you don’t have to go and buy this specific gear to sound like a surf musician, it’s what was used at the time to achieve some pretty specific sounds.

One thing that you’ll hear in just about every surf song is a bright, plasticine sound - that’s coming straight from a set of single coil pick ups run through a Fender amp. More often than not surf bands played Stratocasters, Jazzmasters, and Jaguars, also made by Fender. Those guitars run through a Fender amp create bright sounds that are perfect for soaring above any low end that the rest of the band is putting out.

Aside from using single coil guitars and Fender amps, most surf guitarists also use a healthy dose of reverb to make sure that their tone sounds like its soaked in the ocean. All of that put together with the machine gun plucking pulled from Dale’s arsenal and you’ve got the perfect surf sound. Dale told NPR:

My thinnest string is a 14 unwound, and then I use two 18 unwounds for my second and third string. And then my fourth string, I use a 38 wound. And my fifth, I use a 48. And then I use a 58 or a 60, whichever ones I can get… It gives you a real, real, fat, thick, thick sound, along with a combination of what goes into this amplifier and the guitar and the speaker. It's a combination of everything. But playing them is very hard. It's very painful because it's like sticking - taking your finger and going up and down, you know, the sidewalk with it.

The sound went down in teen clubs

source: reddit

Aside from the Rendezvous Ballroom, most of the surf music of the 1960s was played at teen centers throughout Southern California. This was a necessity as most of the genre’s fans and musicians were under the legal drinking age at the time. Bands like The Bel-Airs were in high school when they were releasing music, so they took to places like the Bel Air Club in Redondo rather than beg to play in a bar where there fans weren’t allowed. These dances did big business for a while and more and more teen centers popped up around the area where young people could go from the surf to the dance floor as soon as the sun went down.

Surf music lives on in TV-Land

source: Universal Television

Even though instrumental surf music died out from the mainstream in the 1960s, its distinctive sounds can still be heard on some of your favorite TV shows and in films to this day. Perhaps the most well known instance of surf music being used in film is in the score to Dr. No, the first James Bond film released in 1962.

As influential as the James Bond Theme is, it’s nowhere near as cool as the theme to The Munsters, written by Jack Marshall. This single theme has gone on to inspire punk, rockabilly, and any kind of gothy band with an affinity for jangly guitars. There’s also the theme to The Twilight Zone, and who can forget the heart pounding drum into to Hawaii Five-0? Surf music may have left the charts, but it’s never far from pop culture.

Dick Dale got a big boost in pop culture cred in 1994, when his signature song "Misirlou" was featured prominently in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, which introduced a new generation to the music of the man known as "The King of Surf Guitar." Dale has also been called the "Father of Heavy Metal" for pioneering noisy guitar and playing at ear-splitting volume. Dale died on March 16, 2019; though his health had been declining for years, he was still playing shows up until the end.

Tags: A Brief History Of... | Dick Dale | Music In The 1950s | Music In The 1960s | Surf Rock | Surfing

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Jacob Shelton


Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.