The History of Surf Music

Dick Dale performing live

Jordi Vidal / Contributor / Getty Images

Surf music was a genre of rock that perfectly captured the fun and adventure of surfing while also enrapturing an entire generation. It reached its peak in the 1963 but remains an integral brick in the wall of 1960s rock. Critics broke surf music into two categories: instrumental and vocal.

Vocal groups include enormously popular bands like The Beach Boys and Jan and Dean whose harmonic voices told stories of days on the surf and nights full of parties and hot rods. The vocal genre saw its rise begin at the tail end of the '50s.

The other avenue for surf music came in the form of instrumental surf music, which blended twangy guitar hooks with a driving drumbeats. The Ventures, the Duals, Del-Tones, and, of course, Dick Dale all made up the spine of the genre.


As the ‘60s began, how did surfing explode among the mass? The book and film telling the story of Gidget (girl midget) of Malibu brought surfing to the world beyond the beach and new surfboard designs and construction made surfboards easier to manage. More people than ever were hitting the waves, so the atmosphere was percolating with energy, giving rise to the surf sound.

As the genre rose to prominence, two paths could be traced back to the start. There was the Orange County Sound thick with reverberation and the South Bay Sound which relied less on reverb and more on the lyrical melody of the music.

Strangely, few of surf music’s innovators were full on surfers. But their sound captured surfing at its most base existence. The Bel Airs kicked off the genre, building on the work of the Fireballs, the Gamblers, the Storms, and, of course, the Ventures. Somewhere in the musical energy Chuck Berry and the exuberant bounce of rockabilly, the seeds of surf music were sown and nurtured into a full-blown sound that would become fully realized by the early '60s.

Dick Dale was the guy who really coined the term as he was the first self-proclaimed “surf guitarist.” Although his roots were more Hank Williams than Chuck Berry, “The King of the Surf Guitar” would soon be headlining gigs over the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean. Critics would describe his music as a “pulsing,” “staccato attack” over “thunderous beats.”

Come 1962, the surf music equivalent of the moon landing occurred by way of the Chantays whose "Pipeline" became the go-to instrumental archetype for the surf music genre. Regardless of geographic location and knowledge of surfing, kids were buying into the surf music explosion. Classic tracks like “Wipeout” and “Let's Go Trippin” captured the soul of surfing, but the youth-based movement also crossed over into the indecent with themes of sex and partying that often caused it to be banned from radio play.

The Beach Boys, more than any band, made their mark via harmony and non-threatening feel-good energy. Hailing from the South Bay area, The Beach Boys created a surf world via word-scapes dripping with images of big boards and girls in bikinis that exposed to the world a tiny glimpse into life in Southern California. The instrumental groups were capturing a more instinctive feeling of what surfing was all about, sort of a soundtrack for the sport itself, but the public loved the whole Beach Boys package and they have gone on to become the face of the genre.

The End

By the late '60s, the surf music scene was toast. The Vietnam War, JFK’s assassination, and the British invasion created an atmosphere that relegated the surf music genre to a cultural checkpoint. But the music carries a certain appeal to this day as Dick Dale’s surf guitar in the opening sequence of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction proves, and while surf music is no longer a specific category, bands like Sublime (and of course the '80s Surf Punks) have carried the torch in relatively dignified manner. More than most, reggae has become sort of the modern surfer’s default genre as it embodies all the mellow vibes and tropical freedom that the culture represents.