Ah, the sound of surf guitar: a Fender Jaguar or Jazzmaster through the metallic sproing of a spring reverb unit set to full depth. After all, we call reverb “wet,” and surfing is certainly a wet sport, right? For many years this has defined the tone of surf and ’60s-era instrumental guitar music, but it was not always thus. As a matter of fact, the most notable name in all of surf guitar, Dick Dale, founded the sound using entirely different components, and he will tell you that the classic surf tone is something very different.
Some hardcore fans of the genre would credit the obscure garage band The Northern Lights with recording the first surf tune, “Typhoid,” in 1961, or The Bel Airs with being the first genuine surf band. Their “Mr Moto” single of 1961 is archetypal, although their sound was also heavily laced with sax and piano, not the instruments that have come to define surf music today, as viewed retrospectively (from a guitarist’s perspective, at least!). The entire genre was certainly prefigured by instrumental rock and roll and pop tunes from artists such as Duane Eddy, The Ventures, The Shadows (from the U.K.), Link Wray, Johnny and the Hurricanes and others, but many of these were tamer and, crucially, existed before the “surf” tag was coined — and didn’t entirely capture what we now think of as “the sound” anyway.
Amid all of this, though, Dick Dale arose from his roots as a country singer in the late ’50s to be hailed as the “King of the Surf Guitar” by many fans even before the turn of the decade. He created the most sensation for the sound by filling the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, Calif., and later the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, with standing-room crowds of 3,000 to 4,000 people every weekend night of the year in the early 1960s. He also arguably generated the most energy, with his furious vibrato-picked solos and frenetic musical embodiment of the whole surfer lifestyle. Dale really surfed, unlike many musicians, and at night he went out and played the guitar like a man on a two-hour adrenaline rush.
In laying one of the most recognizable foundations for “the surf guitar sound,” however, Dale initially didn’t use a drop of reverb. Both his first hit single, “Let’s Go Trippin’” (1961), and his first album, Surfer’s Choice (1962) were cut without any spring reverb on the guitar, and when he first sought out this watery effect it was to enhance his voice. The Fender Reverb Unit, the definitive tube-drive spring-reverb unit for surf guitar, only hit the scene itself in 1962, before which Dale was playing high-powered Fender Showman amps (a model he helped Fender to develop in 1960-’61), which lacked the built-in reverb that some other makers were already including in their products (Gibson and Ampeg among them), but did carry a hypnotic vibrato (tremolo) effect. Dale himself has attested on numerous occasions that the original classic surf sound is a guitar played loud, but still semi-clean, through a cranked amp with heavy use of onboard amp tremolo. He did take up the reverb with a passion on later singles and albums, and you also hear it on comeback hit “Nitro” from 1993’s Tribal Thunder. But that Fender Reverb Unit sound just wasn’t around when surf guitar was born.
It’s also worth noting that Dale always played a Stratocaster, not the Jazzmaster or Jaguar that would become the icons of the genre. The Strat was “modern” for 1954, when it was released, but didn’t have the stylish mod look that the Jaguar and Jazzmaster embodied in the early ’60s. Still, it had the bright, twangy, cutting tone that surf music required, and Dale used it to excellent effect. The final anomalies in the brew include, first, Dale’s use of an early left-handed Stratocaster, given to him personally by Leo Fender, but restrung “upside down” (with the low-E at the bottom) to give it the configuration of the upside-down right-handed guitars Dale had learned on; second, the fact that he entirely removed the vibrato bar from the guitar, since he never used the unit, although heavy vibrato action is also considered a definitive part of the surf guitar sound in other circles. Whatever your gear and ingredients, twang it up — it’s a compelling and even addictive sound, and sure makes for one hell of a party.
Read "3 Surf Bands for the 21st Century".