(Excerpted from The Bassist’s Bible: How to Play Every Bass Style from Afro-Cuban to Zydeco, with some additional information taken from The Drummer’s Bible: How to Play Every Drum Style from Afro-Cuban to Zydeco, by Mick Berry and Jason Gianni)
Inspired by 1950s Rock n’ Roll, Surf music evolved in the early 1960s as an instrumental genre performed by artists such as The Surfaris, The Ventures, and guitarist Dick Dale (who cites, of all things, Greek folk songs as a major influence). Purists consider instrumental Surf the most authentic form of Surf music. It emphasizes drums and guitar, with the guitar(s) typically very trebly, somewhat overdriven, and with heavy reverb, to evoke the experience of surfing.
When vocal-oriented Surf groups such as Jan and Dean and The Beach Boys arose in the mid-1960s, and featured lyrics (of a teen-jock-oriented type, usually sung in a high tenor—or outright falsetto—voice, with often-extensive vocal harmonies), the style achieved mainstream popularity.
Perhaps the most popular instrumental surfing drum song is “Wipe Out” (which features the instantly recognizable Surf tom pattern–continuous 16th notes played on the floor tom with accents on every beat), recorded by the Surfaris in 1963 and further popularized by the Ventures, while the most influential guitar-driven Surf song is probably “Walk Don’t Run,” by the Ventures, recorded in 1960. Other instrumental Surf hits include “Pipeline,” by the Chantays, “Apache,” by The Shadows, and “Sleepwalk,” by Santo and Johnny. Vocal Surf classics include The Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ Safari” and “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” and Jan and Dean’s “Surf City.” Almost all instrumental Surf songs utilize the Mersey Beat (the same as the standard rock beat, with an added snare hit on the “and” of “2”); a notable exception is “Sleepwalk,” which is a slow shuffle. Vocal surf usually uses the standard rock drum beat, but can use the Mersey Beat.
Surf bands included bassists for both recording and touring. Not necessarily known for their virtuosity, some Surf bassists were initially entirely unskilled on the instrument and learned to play bass by playing in a band (similar to the path taken by many Punk bassists). This lack of formal training, along with the fast and complex guitar riffs endemic to Surf, served to inspire simple bass lines that supported the melody. The most important bassist of Surf’s golden age was Carol Kaye, studio bassist and educator.
In the mid-to-late 1960s, Surf’s popularity gave way to British Rock (The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, et al.) and, a bit later, to the Psychedelic Sound (The Doors, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, et al.). However, in the mid-1990s, the use of Dick Dale’s 1960s-era classic “Miserlou” (originally played in Athens, Greece in 1927 by the Michalis Patrinos Rebetiko band) in the Pulp Fiction soundtrack stimulated renewed interest in Surf music.
Modern Surf music is played across the globe. Jack Johnson, son of legendary surfer Jeff Johnson, plays Surf and writes the soundtracks for the Surf films he makes. The Surf tradition is carried on by The Phantom Surfer, The Mermen, The Aqua Velvets, Los Strait-jackets, the Russian-American band The Red Elvises, and the Greece-based The Invisible Surfers. Surf has also crossed over into other musical forms including Punk, Orange County’s Agent Orange providing an example. And to this day The Ventures remain enormously popular in Japan.
Often played with a pick. The bassist plays on top of the beat. Reportedly, Carol Kaye put foam between the strings and played with a pick for recording, muting the strings, and thus making each note sound more “definite.” Although this technique is somewhat unorthodox, it records well and remains useful in producing a Surf sound.
Surf music is melodically driven. Unlike Blues forms that rely heavily on chord progressions, Surf music is often based on the simple i – iv as the primary chord change. From there, a song may include a simple change or two, or modulate abruptly, generally a full step up, at the beginning of a new verse (as in the TV theme song and subsequent Surf hit “Hawaii Five-O”), but the chord changes are less important than the melody. “Pipeline” and “Sleepwalk” are prime examples of this melodic emphasis. An exception is “Walk Don’t Run, which is progression- as well as melody-driven, and even has a bridge.
But even standard 12-bar blues progressions (“Barbara Ann”) and blues-derived progressions can be found in vocal Surf. Whatever the harmonic structure, the bass patterns in Surf always resolve and repeat so that the bassist, after one pass, has the entire pattern set. Most chords are simple major and minor triads; even 7ths are relatively uncommon.