Wipe Out: Surf guitar and the cult of twang

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Just like the time, temperatures, and multitude of cross currents it takes to manifest the perfect wave, it took a similarly natural confluence of elements to create the “surf” guitar sound. Now, we’re not talking about Brian Wilson et al. here—though the Beach Boys’ melodies and harmonies be majestic in their innocence and complexity. No, we’re talking about instrumental surf, where twang is king and the limited reverb clause of 1989 is nowhere in sight. The wetter, the better.


The birth of surf music and the king himself, Dick Dale

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The surf sound was born pretty much right along with the 1960s—a sharp turn even from contemporary instrumentalists like The Ventures. Link Wray and Duane Eddy are both credited with helping presage the genre as well, but the crazed, Middle-Eastern-sounding staccato picking that came to define the surf guitar sound originated with the undisputed king of surf guitar, Dick Dale, and his Lebanese uncle (who’d taught him some Arabic melodies).

“I didn’t realize that I was creating a sound,” Dale says of inventing the style. “I played the way I felt. I called it surf music at the time because that’s the feeling I had when a wave came crashing down on me.”

Dale, himself a bizarre random element who arguably fell into pop by accident, was left-handed and played his ’57 Stratocaster “The Beast” upside-down—full-on upside-down, without stringing it opposite to accommodate his left-handed playing. He used heavy strings (.016s!) and heavy picks, and ripped his musical waves through a Fender Dual Showman amplifier and outboard Fender Reverb unit, through 15-inch speakers. His mirrored lefty style and equipment choice may have inspired fellow southpaw Jimi Hendrix, who later ripped popular music a new wormhole using a similar guitar/amp combo.


Surf sound goes mainstream

Dale’s “Misirlou” is perhaps the quintessential surf guitar tune, a traditional Eastern Mediterranean melody that probably originated somewhere in Greece or Egypt. Dale’s blend of the alien (to Western ears) sound with driving, tom-tom-driven drums went on to inspire other hyperactive gems like the Surfaris’ “Wipe Out” and a host of other copycat dance tunes of the day. It enjoyed a resurrection decades later in Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 film Pulp Fiction. In between, the sound resurfaced many times in pop music through novelty-esque tracks like The B-52s’ “Rock Lobster” and The Bangles’ “Walk like an Egyptian.”

The sonic elements of surf guitar tend to transcend both melodic sensibility and choice of equipment. Without both the dark, chromatic-dominated scale structures and the treble-fueled twang, the spasmodic staccato picking and diving neck slides, it doesn’t exist. The combination—a deep but somehow also ear-piercingly high tug-of-war mixed with sinister, moustache-twisting mystery melodies— brought a stamp of “noir” credibility to anything it touched, and does to this day.

Even prior to the sound’s ostensible 1980s revival, surf guitar successfully mounted a counter-offensive to the Beatles-led British Invasion. The so-called Invasion was blamed for quickly squashing the West Coast phenomenon in the mid-sixties. It wormed its way into the UK’s other big export of the time, James Bond films, via the Monty Norman-penned theme song to Dr. No. The 1962 theme song—which went on to musically define the entire spy genre—would accompany a dozen later films in the franchise and find itself echoed in television parodies like Get Smart (1965-69), the campy 1966 Batman, and the spook-tastic The Munsters.


Get that guitar twang at home

It’s hard to beat Fender for that original guitar twang and analog spring reverb sound for recording purposes, though arguments can be made for contemporary single-coil axes like Teisco Del Ray or Rickenbacker guitars. A nod to the Vox AC-30 is probably also in order. If you’ve got any kind of vintage Fender Twin or the like, it almost doesn’t matter what kind of room you’re recording in, as the 50-year-old magic box essentially creates its own vast chamber, even in a triple-carpeted iso-booth.

If you don’t have the room or the noise allowance in your city apartment, however, it can be challenging to conjure that big, echoing sound. Plug-ins are still trying to algorithm their way into this equation, but still struggle to reproduce accurately the wettest organic tones that are achievable in sculpting this retro sound (though some foot pedals have come pretty close, even incorporating actual springs into their units).

Other characteristics of the surf guitar’s typical sonic palette are equally hard to attain without the bona fide gear—vintage tremolos and vibratos—though these effects are perhaps a bit more replicable than a spring reverb via analog or sample-based synths like iZotope’s Iris 2, if you have the patience to build your sounds from scratch.

However you decide to construct your surf set-up, it’s critical to stay as faithful as you can to the original tones and playing style—remember, you’re carving waves here, and you want to hit the pipeline at just the right angle. Maybe that’s how you hold your clamshell pick, and maybe it’s how you slide your hand up and down the neck like your board’s getting serious air—as long as you’re crouching low, cutting crossways down something totally tubular, and not afraid to get wet.

 

To learn more about the King of the Surf Guitar watch his interview with NAMM, “Oral History: Dick Dale talks about the importance of savoring every moment.”

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