I spent the good part of 10 years as the guitarist (and chief songwriter) in an instrumental surf-rock band. We played for very little money ... drove for hours looking for gig parking on Manhattan's Lower East Side ... had people scream at us to turn down the freakin' reverb ...
As Slacktone's Dave Wronski asked in a GuitarWorld.com column a few years ago, will surf guitar be the last electric-guitar genre to earn some long-overdue respect?
Sure, Pulp Fiction elevated surf guitar from under the seaweed to a spot on the party-song playlists of hipsters around the universe.
But what is surf guitar? How does it differ from other styles of guitar playing? What equipment is used to get the sound?
"Fender-style guitars with single-coil pickups have typically been the weapon of choice, while vibrato bars are used to help express the rolling of the surf," Wronski wrote.
"Sometimes the vibrato bar is used very smoothly; sometimes it is shaken to the point of breaking off–enough to make Ike Turner proud! (Check out his instrumentals from the early 1950s). Big, gnarly guitar strings that, when played loud and proud through a huge Fender amp, could shake the building, even when drenched in reverb from a tube-driven Fender Reverb unit. Even with all that reverb, there's still enough bigness to the sound to do some major crowd control."
A lot of you—most of you, in fact—have heard the usual batch of surf-rock instrumental classics from the early Sixties. Things like "Pipeline," "Out of Limits," "Wipe Out" and my favorite, "Penetration." However, it's probably safe to surmise that millions of you might know almost nothing about the modern brand of instro-surf rock that you're likely to witness in a club in 2019. Or about the bands that play it.
Below, check out a guide to 10 surf-rock tunes—played by nine different bands or artists—that should be on your reverb-drenched radar. The good news is, most of these bands still exist! In fact, my band even performed with a lot of these guys back in the day. Ah yes, Slacktone at Asbury Lanes in New Jersey in '06 ... Insect Surfers at the Purple Orchid in El Segundo, California, in '07. Ah, the memories.
P.S.: Dave Wronski, who is mentioned above, is the guitarist in Southern California's Slacktone. You can check out two of their songs below.
CALHOUN SURF | Los Straitjackets
No, Los Straitjackets aren't strictly a "surf" band, but reverb-drenched surf rock makes up a good portion of their repertoire. This one was written by guitarist Danny Amis, who shows you how to play the song right here.
COFFIN CLOSER | Slacktone
For my money, Southern California's Slacktone is the most powerful instrumental surf band in the universe, bar none. A lot of that is down to their ace guitarist and songwriter, Dave Wronski, his modified Fender Jaguars and their hard-hitting drummer, Dusty Watson, who's now playing with the Sonics.
THE BELLS OF ST. KAHUNA | Slacktone
"Coffin Closer" (above) is from the band's 2000 album, Into the Blue Sparkle. "The Bells of St. Kahuna," which is probably Slacktone's best-known (and most covered) song, is from their self-titled 1997 debut. For more about these guys, head here.
SURF! SURF! SURF! | The Aqualads
Here's a bit of reverb-slathered mayhem from the Aqualads, a trad-surf combo from North Carolina with a trashy hot rod sound. Great melody and nice key change!
FLIGHT OF THE SURF GUITAR | The Atlantics
Here's a catchy tune with a "climbing" guitar riff, courtesy of one of the finest—and most legendary—Australian surf bands, the Atlantics. These guys actually scored their first hit, "Bombora," in 1963. These days, the lead guitarist is the very talented Martin Cilia, who also records under his own name. For more about these gents, visit theatlantics.com.
FATHOMIZED | The Fathoms
GREASE YOUR HAIR AND GET TATTOOED | The Razorblades
Sound advice indeed from this powerful German surf band! Be sure to also check out "Fasten Seatbelts" and "Jellyfish Race," two vintage Razorblades tunes that my band covered for years. For more about these guys, head in this general direction.
NITRO | Dick Dale
Though "The King of the Surf Guitar" sadly passed away last month, he left behind a massive catalog of remarkable music. "Nitro" is a blistering track from Dale's 1993 album, Tribal Thunder. This particular performance features occassional Slacktone bassist Sam Bolle.
VARYKINO SNOW | The Mermen
"Varykino Snow," a track off this Bay Area band's 1996 album, Songs of the Cows, is a departure from the rest of this list, which is pretty traditional (and or heavy traditional). Here's an example of surf rock that's not trying conjure images of bitchin' waves, Pacific Coast Highway or Cold War-era espionage. Instead, it stretches the genre to its limits with a Jimi Hendrix-style breakdown that sounds a bit like a whale song (as opposed to a cow song), then brings it all back home with flash and pure emotion, thanks to guitarist Jim Thomas. For more info, visit mermen.net.
MOJAVE | Insect Surfers
These gents are from Southern California.
MISTER NEUTRON | Comanchero
You know what? I'm including one of my band's tunes as a bonus track. Here's a Spaghetti Western thing we did in 2006 called "Comanchero" from the Red Triangle album (Deep Eddy Records). I love the trumpet, which I'm not playing. The guitar is a 1966 Gretsch Tennessean. Enjoy!