Not all genres in music are self-explanatory, just ask baroque pop or post-metal. With surf rock, however, it’s pretty much as advertised.
The sun-soaked sounds of the genre are very much the product of its environment. This is the music of southern California in the late 50s and early 60s, an adaptation of early rock ‘n’ roll influenced almost entirely by the beach life. Inland, the swinging sounds of Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, and more were defining new type of sound. Along the boardwalks and famous breaks of So-Cal, surfers were getting their own soundtrack.
A few major traits separate surf rock from rock in general. First, the reverb-driven guitar work inspired by the fluid sounds of the ocean. It’s the bubbly twang that sticks with the genre today, first popularized in 1961 when Fender amps first accommodated such an effect. The tempo and guitar-picking style is on the faster side, mimicking the adrenaline rush of riding a good wave.
Another major trait — one some argue creates an additional sub-genre within surf rock — is the layered vocal harmonies. The Beach Boys should jump to mind as Brian Wilson and Co. perfected the approach, with squeaky vocal stacking from all sides of the band. It’s a style that would go on to inspire so many other styles. It’s also one that borrows from old American folk elements, which in turn borrow from traditional communal African sounds.
Think of surf rock as the campfire sing-along-at-the-beach equivalent to American rock ‘n’ roll. Interestingly, the genre’s heyday was short lived. It faded nearly as fast as it exploded, going from mainstream in 1962 to nearly forgotten in 1964 thanks largely to the Beatles. But a second wave has bubbled to the surface lately, suggesting that surf rock may be here to stay. Here are some acts to explore as you look to better understand the summery feel of the category:
Dale is credited with bringing surf rock to the forefront, initiating the “wet” reverb sound by way of the electric guitar. His band, the Del-Tones, specialized in the pulsing, wave-like rock one could associate with the ocean tides. Born in Boston, Dale would go on to earn the title “The King of the Surf Guitar.” His band’s upbeat discography is a great look at the genre, kicked into gear by a dose of rockabilly and some grander sounds thanks to the incorporation of brass and even string sections. If you see a hot rod on the road, there’s a good chance it’s bumping some Dick Dale.
One of the greatest bands of all time responsible for one of the greatest records of all time in Pet Sounds. The Beach Boys were bonafide hit makers, sending the early southern California rock sound through FM dials all over the nation. While the band members’ surfing prowess has been debated (was it just part of the act?), the sound was undoubtedly informed by the beach. The Beach Boys sang of the sport and all its many details, from convertible cars to bikini-clad girls. And they did it with an uncanny and extremely characteristic vocal ability that added nuance to the ever-popular band.
Most famous for a pair of singles in “Wipe Out” and “Surfer Joe,” the Surfaris formed in Glendora, California in 1962. The band is a distilled version of the formative surf rock sound, equal parts eager and peppy and chilled out and beach bum-y. It’s also a keen reminder of a band beyond just the Beach Boys that was able to bring surf rock to the pop music crowd with some chart-placing hits.
Comprised of four extremely talented women, La Luz began in Seattle before settling in surfy Los Angeles. The quartet is responsible for some of the catchiest and most cerebral surf rock of the modern era. When La Luz released its first EP in 2012 via Burger Records, it became immediately clear that the band spoke fluent surf rock. Falling beautifully somewhere between Jefferson Airplane, Duane Eddy, and Beach House, the band is a must-listen for the surf rock crowd.
Portland’s Plastic Cactus is a rising act responsible for some of the best music in the city’s vibrant music scene. It’s like a female-led version of the Beach Boys on CBD, driven by breezy vocals and resonating guitar hooks. Plastic Cactus only has a few releases to its young name but look out for more as the band deftly leads the genre into its next phase.
Dead Coast is proof that surf rock can come from even drizzly, landlocked London. Very much influenced by The Doors, this band is drenched in brooding keyboard and electric organ, with jazzy interludes and a bit of psych-rock. Like an offshore thunderstorm, the act occupies the darker, more ominous end of the surf rock spectrum. While still rooted to surf rock, Dead Coast incorporates a lot of fuzzy, garage-rock elements. Try the band’s outstanding 2016 release, Shambolic.