About the Author
Ethan Taylor is a freelance writer with a background in guitar and music. When he is not writing an article, he spends time writing music or brushing up his guitar knowledge.
You don’t have to live in Southern California to love surf rock.
Evolving from the pop sound of rock and roll during the 1950s, and paving the way for the rock, metal, and punk to come shortly thereafter, the exceedingly American phenomenon of '60s surf rock has had an important role in the development of today's rock music. The most alluring part of this music is its distinct percussive tone that runs under waves of cavernous reverb.
But, how can you achieve this tone?
We'll cover how to craft a surf rock sound by touching on following:
- The Guitar
- The Fingers
- The Amplifier
- The Effects
- The Settings
- The Approach
If you have questions for me, leave them in the comments section and I'll help as much as possible. Let's get started with our surf rock tone on the guitar itself.
While (technically) any guitar could be used to chase a surf tone, Fender guitars have been a mainstay in surf music since its inception, which makes sense seeing as Fender is a Californian company, and surf rock originated in Southern California.
These guitars will get you immediately in the ballpark of the surf tone, but even a metal-focused guitar with high-output humbuckers can be used, as the tone comes primarily from technique and what's in the signal chain after the guitar.
However, if you’re really trying to go for an authentic '60s surf tone, you’re certainly going to want a Fender of some kind and a single coil pickup configuration.
The original reason for using Fender guitars in surf rock was a matter of time and place. But now that the “cannon” has been established, the sound of Fender-style single-coil pickups has become a large part of what makes surf rock sound like surf rock.
Strings and Bridge
Aside from the guitar itself, the strings and type of bridge matter too.
Historically, heavier gauge strings were commonly used for surf music recordings. For example, Dick Dale is known to have regularly used .16 - .60 gauge strings.
While you can get away with using lighter gauged strings, using strings that are heavier than regulars (heavier than .10s) will make the guitar more conducive to the surf sound. If you want to use heavier gauge strings, that'll help get closer to a surf tone, but it's not a requirement, especially for something like a Stratocaster, which typically employs a much lighter string set.
A major characteristic of surf guitar is its use of tremolo bridges (which is a misnomer as the effect produced by the bridge is in fact called vibrato). These bridges will either cause the strings to stretch or contract, almost as if you were bending or detuning all six strings in unison, altering the pitch. They are primarily used in surf rock to add wavy vibrato to chords and notes, as well as to emulate the sound of waves with a calm “dive.”
There are two standout techniques that surf guitarists often use in their songs. The first is bridge picking.
Bridge picking is simply picking near the bridge. Picking as near to the bridge as possible leads to a twangier sound with less sustain and more of a “pop.” Because of the percussive playing style of surf rock guitar, this is ideal. When paired with reverb, bridge picking will accentuate the “drip,” which is a large part of what makes surf sound like surf and not classic rock.
The second technique is tremolo picking, which is essentially very quick alternate picking (a good example of this is “Miserlou” by Dick Dale). This comes from the Middle Eastern and Spanish influences on surf rock. As long as you practice staying in time with a metronome, you’ll get it down in no time if you haven’t already.
A good surf amp is clean and brisk, but with some warm layers on the low end. Think Fender amps or Dr. Z. Basically any American-voiced amp, or digital model, with a lot of clean headroom will do the job.
The amp is actually more important than the guitar, since the amp is what "decorates" the electric guitar’s tone, even if the pickups and guitar type color the amp’s sound in a certain direction.
British Amp Tones
You can get away with using British amps as well, but if you’re looking for a purist sound, it wouldn’t hurt to have a lush clean American amp in your arsenal anyway.
Modeling amps are also be a fantastic option, since they're typically more versatile and less expensive.
Many of them can craft any sound you want, surf or otherwise.
Modeling amps have come a long way in recent years, and sound more like tube amps than ever. However, these will still lack some of the tactile response of a true tube amp, but not enough to dismiss the idea completely.
Surf rock uses a lot of reverb, which you can often find integrated into your amp already. But if you don’t (or it just sucks), you can get a reverb pedal which usually have more algorithms (reverb modes) and adjustment options than what's on your amplifier.
If you go with a reverb pedal, aim for a spring reverb.
For some surf styles, a small amount of overdrive can be a good fit. It can be help add a new spin to your base surf tone, as long as you don't overuse it. Check out this article for some popular overdrive pedal recommendations.
A little bit of delay with a short decay to create a type of slapback echo can compliment a clean surf tone. Of course, this always depends on style and will be a matter of player preference.
Adding a bit of compression can help make the volume more consistent. Compression is typically used no matter what kind of music you play, especially in recordings. Surf music is no different. However, adding compression can take away from the dynamics of your playing, which may or may not be ideal depending on the sound you're going for.
Tremolo adds a shimmery in-and-out effect to your playing, basically a timed volume swell. It’s been used in some famous surf songs like “Rumble” by Link Wray (along with some of the aforementioned distortion). Tremolo is definitely not essential and something you only want to use when it really fits.
Dialing up the tone you're after is a skill in and of itself, and can only really be learned by trial and error and experimentation. But it doesn't have to be totally aimless, because surf guitar has clear qualities that can give you a target sound to aim for.
Starting with the guitar: Use the bridge pickup position for bright, punchy, and twangy, perfect for surf riffs. That doesn’t mean it’s the only position that you can get a surf tone with, but it’s likely the one you'll use the most.
On on guitars with a dual humbucker configuration, the middle pickup position (both pickups) will work well to get closer to a single coil sound. If you have a coil split for your humbuckers, experiment with those as well.
Another cool trick if you have higher output pickups, is to turn down the volume knob on the guitar and turn up your amp. This will lower the overall output of your pickups, sounding more vintage.
Throughout the whole process, you need to rely on your ear because every rig is different. Generally, you want the tone knob set fairly high, making the sound bouncier and brighter. On pickups that are already really bright, you may need to turn the tone down a smidge though, to even out the sound.
It sounds odd, but your amp should be set to a relatively thin sound. The bass shouldn’t be totally absent, and there shouldn’t be so much midrange that it sounds super punchy, but also not so little that it sounds weak. Find the sweet spot, where you have a fairly balanced sound, yet with a lot of treble.
On my amp, I can get a good surf tone from having the bass set at 4.5, the mid at 5, and the treble at 7.5.
- Bass: 4.5
- Midrange: 5
- Treble: 7.5
How you set this up will vary dramatically depending on what amp and guitar you are using, so listen to a lot of surf music and use your ear to get close. That’s what I did to get my tone on my rig.
Dial in a whole lot of reverb, more than almost any other genre. Turn it up. You want to feel like you're under a wave of water. However, you don’t want to feel like you are 10 miles away from the guitar, keep it reasonable especially when playing with other musicians, but you definitely want a good amount of reverb. If you are using a pedal with a wet/dry setting, you should set it to wet.
With delay, you want to go easy. You already have a lot of reverb, adding a lot of delay will cause your playing to become lost in the echo. A short decay, not a lot of intensity, and a very small amount of repeats is what you should aim for. With a slapback echo, you optimally just want to hear a single repeat shortly after a percussive slap of the string, not feel like you are on acid (it’s surf rock, not psychedelic rock after all).
Surf rock is a blues-based genre, relying on major and minor pentatonic scales. But many surf songs also incorporate exotic scales that give a non-Western feel. A fast tempo with more ambience is another feature. Though it often feels upbeat, dissonant intervals in the minor and exotic scales can give surf music an eerie vibe.
The best way to understand surf music though, is simply to learn and play well-known surf songs. Learning and emulating these songs, will give you more familiarity with the surf rock sound and allow you to replicate the elements that they use in your own songs.
If you have questions, feel free to drop them in the comments section below. I'll help out as much as possible.
Gear and guitar lesson reviews by real guitar players
We buy, use, test, research, and rate the guitar programs and gear we recommend. Sign up for our mailing list and we'll keep you up to date.
By clicking the "sign up" button, you are consenting to receiving updates about Guitar Chalk and recaps of what we publish. You can unsubscribe at any time.