What Is Surf Music? And Some Classic Surf Songs

As any rock fan can attest, music genres are pretty diverse and confusing.

Is it heavy metal or hard rock?

Is it Gothic or Glam; Grunge or Punk; Grindcore or Metalcore; Speed or Thrash, and what the hell is Space Metal?

But some genres are much more clearly defined, and surf music is one of them.

If you ask the average Joe to name a surf song or band, they might be a little stumped.

After some thought, they’ll probably mutter “The Beach Boys”, and hum an instrumental from the 60s.

But if you play them the songs classically defined as “surf music”, they’ll almost instantly recognize it as such.

The surf music heyday was pretty short-lived, but it produced some fantastic songs and bands.

What defines surf music?

Surf music is predominately defined as an older genre of music that is associated with the surf culture of the early 60’s in Southern California.

Surf music is known for its reverb sound effect that is meant to resemble the sounds of breaking waves but may also contain lyrics about surfing.

What are the styles of surf music?

There are two styles of surf music. They are:

  • Instrumental surf music, which was popularized by Dick Dale, and
  • Vocal surf music which was more harmony centric and was popularized by the Beach Boys.

Dick Dale’s Misirlou

Dick Dale’s Misirlou was originally released in 1962 and was re-popularized by when Pulp Fiction hit movie theaters. It is probably thee most famous classic surf song there is.

The Beach Boys’ Surfin’ Safari

Here is The Beach Boys’ classic Surfin’ Safari from 1962 coupled with some pretty great modern surfing.

When did surf music originate?

Pipeline by the Chantays is often considered to be one of the first surf songs. It also remains one of the most classic.

The instrumental is just over 2 minutes long, but the unique use of reverb and tremolo creates a distinctive sound that became associated with the surfing scene in Southern California.

The “wet” bassy sound was adopted by other bands in the region, including The Surfaris, who released “Wipe Out” (better known as “the song with the cackling laugh”) in 1963.

Dick Dale, another surf rock icon, played with the Del-Tones in Orange County, California and blended Middle Eastern influences with heavy reverb to enhance the instrumental surf sound.

Dick Dale was punk rock before there was punk rock. He put on a great live show.

Although The Beach Boys are the band that many associate with the surf music sound, they developed a more traditional sound and one that many dubbed “vocal surf”.

The surf sound was huge during the early to mid-1960s, but it didn’t spend long in the spotlight.

Surf music was ultimately knocked from its perch by the British Invasion, which saw bands like The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and the Kinks capture the imaginations of the US public and turn their attention across the Atlantic.

The Best Surf Songs & Bands

Although the golden age of surf music was very short-lived, it did produce some great songs, and you can relive those years with the following classics:

  • Wipe Out by the Surfaris
  • Walk, Don’t Run by The Ventures
  • Surfin’ USA by the Beach Boys
  • Pipeline by The Chantays
  • Surfer Girl by the Beach Boys
  • Surfin’ Bird by The Trashmen
  • Miserlou by Dick Dale and His Del-Tones
  • Surfin’ Safari by The Beach Boys
  • Honolulu Lulu by Jan and Dean

​Modern Surf Music

Performers like Dick Dale influenced many great acts of the late 60s and 70s and had a big impact on the development of punk music.

For a long time, punk became the de facto surf music, becoming as influential in the surfing community as it had in the skating community.

Pop punk, soft rock, and even grunge have been associated with the sport as well, but these genres are distinctive from the “surf rock” sounds of the early 1960s.

Surf rock got an entire generation interested in surfing and rock and roll, and for many, it served as the segue to bands like the Beatles.

Today, however, it’s reserved for commercials, movie soundtracks, and the occasional cover.