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SurfGuitar101 Forums » Surf Musician »

Permalink How do you write a surf song?

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I'm having trouble trying to come up with an instro surf song. How do you guys and gals go about writing them? Thanks! Smile

Lately I've been coming up with melodies in my head. So I sing them into my phone to get a recording and then pick the notes out on guitar, often with little changes along the way.

The Spoils - FB - RN
Second Saturday Surf in Austin, TX - FB

Last edited: Sep 19, 2017 22:43:35

I like to come up with a chord progression first, then I try to weave my way through it with an interesting melody. Multitrack recording is a huge help in this regard.

Danny Snyder

aka El Gringo Viejo of Combo Tezeta
aka Mycroft Eloi of The TomorrowMen
aka Shecky Shekels of Meshugga Beach Party

It was the best of times, it was the blurst of times

It begins with two notes, that go together in a special way. And if you leave yourself open to help from above, and maybe sometimes help from below, it will come. Most of my best stuff starts out from something that I originally thought was a mistake. There is a point where you have to take over and use your skills and intuition to bring it in to the best light, but that's the last part.Until that part, the less thinking,the better.

bent playing for benter results
Do not attempt to adjust your TV set.


Start with the biggest and best surf sound you can produce and just start noodling. Let the sonic pleasure be your guide and the riffs will come. Find a good riff and develop the story with the verse, chorus and bridge.

The Kahuna Kings

And always steal from the best.

Da Vinci Flinglestein,
The quest for the Tone, the tone of the Quest

The Syndicate of Surf on YouTube

I had asked the same question to a guitarist I admired a lot. He told me "learn a lot of songs that kinda sound like you want to sound". I now regularly learn new music to play and regularly feel inspired to write.

A good knowledge of chords and chordtones was also incredibly useful.

The Obsidians! (Ottawa surf)
The Obsidians debut EP

humming in the toilet is a key

The Mentawais
The Rentones

I put the question to Paul Johnson when I met him at the Surfer Joe Summer Festival 2014 in Livorno, Italy.
He replied:"for me the best way to get ideas is walking around and saving his ideas until he gets back home to play it on his guitar."

Ever since I started using Guitar Pro 6, my writing output has accelerated. I have just enough theory to help me along but sometimes unintended errors sound so cool that I keep them or expand on them to take me in slight changes of directions.
I start out with a riff, a rhythm, a chord sequence, or a bassline and record that onto my tablet mic.
When I am ready to sit down to draw it out in the software, I do so without having a guitar in hand. So, by the time I have fleshed it out, I actually need to learn how to play it on guitar. With surf and trad rock n roll styles, I get better results the sooner I put down the computer keyboard and take these ideas to the band to play so it can breathe rather than sounding like it was cooked up in a laboratory. But having that command over the entire arrangement and instrument parts means that I can experiment with different versions of basslines, etc. very quickly.

Lorne (Shake_n_Stomp)
Mai Tai Surf:

formerly of The Hang-Ten Hangmen:

Last edited: Sep 22, 2017 01:20:40

I also use GuitarPro extensively. It's absolutely essential for my songwriting but I do understand it is not everybody.

The Obsidians! (Ottawa surf)
The Obsidians debut EP

Also, Band in a Box is amazing for exploring different rhythms and jamming out ideas. When you have something good you just ditch the backing track and work on making it sound like surf.

The Obsidians! (Ottawa surf)
The Obsidians debut EP

Last edited: Sep 22, 2017 09:34:39

When I joined SG101 in 2017, there was this thread about writing surf songs, and what peoples’ experience and recommendations were.

I started playing guitar 6 years ago, and have since learned many songs that I can play recognizably. For the past few years I’ve wanted to write a song, but nothing ever materialized. I made it a goal to write an original for the 2018 compilation. I’m happy with the result, so I thought I’d write out what worked for me in the hopes it might help someone out there also trying to write a first song. This is an expansion of what DannySnyder recommended above.

I’ll say that I’m melodically challenged. Tunes just don’t pop into my head, so I had to approach this more algorithmically. It was essential for me to start with a rhythm track, otherwise, I’d pick up my guitar, and no melody would come out.

I took the chord progression from a song I liked and massaged it just a little. I then looked for inspiration in some other song I liked in order to have a target sound in mind. I considered a James Wilsey sound, or something like Catalina by John and the Nightriders. I went with the former.

I would loop a few measures of rhythm and play notes until something seemed right and consistent with my target sound. I’d then loop a few more measures and add notes until it all sounded right. Once there was a feel developing, further measures were easier to come by. The verse came together fairly quickly, and with the repeats of verses in songs, most of it was done after a few hours. I tried to change things up for the bridge, treating that as something of a new song.

Since in my case the lead was relatively spare, I went with a walking bass, again looping through a few measures at a time, and building up.

I’m now doing the same approach with a target of the feel of Catalina, with its faster tempo and tremolo picking. We’ll see how that turns out.

If I'd stop buying old guitars to fix, I might actually learn to play.
Bringing instruments back to life since 2013.

ShaneHarkins wrote:

I'm having trouble trying to come up with an instro surf song. How do you guys and gals go about writing them? Thanks! Smile

Most of Surf Instrumental Music originated from Big Band (Swing) from the 30's and 40's along with some 50's Rock n Roll hits. Big Band robbed a lot from Classical music - but just lifted small sections of the works for hook line or leads etc...1920's Hawaiian music was inspiration for early Surf. I don't write music but I know that's how it's done, lifting sections of musical phrases and hooking them together in new forms and combinations.

Its much like writing novels - you have riffs that are like words hooked together to make musical sentences as musical phrases. There is a structure to songs much like all sellable novels have as well. Even Classical composers used earlier works to make masterworks. Surf instrumentals usually only have two basic changes Verse and Chorus that each can have the same type phrase and octave apart. Sometimes a Bridge like in Pipeline the B/C part. They can vary a bit but not much to be traditional Surf otherwise its Jazz to me.

Last edited: Jan 22, 2019 16:35:22

Thanks for sharing your approach Idk!

Site dude - S3 Agent #202
Need help with the site? SG101 FAQ - Send me a private message - Email me

"It starts... when it begins" -- Ralf Kilauea

One element that I've come to pay close attention to when songwriting, is the rhythm patterns of each instrument and how they interact. That includes both guitars, bass, drums of course and keys. When arranged well, it grabs the listener and hits them on a gut level. If ignored, often it puts off the listener instead.

Danny Snyder

aka El Gringo Viejo of Combo Tezeta
aka Mycroft Eloi of The TomorrowMen
aka Shecky Shekels of Meshugga Beach Party

It was the best of times, it was the blurst of times

Yeah and you have to have the Surfer Beat on the drums as well that
Boom Boom Bop Boom Bop Bop somewhere in the main pattern - seems like every good Surf song that makes people dance around has that drum pattern on the bass drum (Boom) and snare (Bop). Just incorporating this hit song rhythm works in other music too. (Its danceable). A few other like the Johnny B Good type drum backing track has a hit song potential (The Eagles Greatest hits songs all had that particular beat)

In believe the drums are the most important part of Surf Instrumentals - Like you can have a Lead Guitarist and a Drummer and you can play Surf, any other combination will not work without either one - so drums are as important as the instrumental melody - without those two your out of business. The drum track is very important and it should have the surfer beat somewhere in the drum trck as well.

Last edited: Jan 22, 2019 17:03:29

Surfing_Sam_61 wrote:

Most of Surf Instrumental Music originated from Big Band (Swing) from the 30's and 40's along with some 50's Rock n Roll hits.

Hi Surfing_Sam_61, I'll give you the "some 50's Rock n Roll hits" (I'd say more than some), but I'm going to need to see a citation for "MOST of surf music coming from Big Band (Swing) from the 30's and 40's."

John Blair's "Southern California Surf Music, 1960-1966" only makes only one reference to Big Band music as an influence,

"Between the late 1950s’ streetwise rock ’n’ roll of Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry and the “safer” teen idol recordings two or three years later by singers such as Bobby Rydell or Frankie Avalon, there was the “golden age of rock instrumentals.” The electric guitar became the “lead singer” in a large number of local and national hit records by artists such as Link Wray, Duane Eddy, the Ventures, and the Fireballs. This had a great deal to do with Dale’s choice of the instrumental medium to express his “surfing sound,” while his admiration for big band drummers such as Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich fueled his use of heavy, dance-tempo rhythms.

Blair, John. Southern California Surf Music, 1960-1966 (Images of America) (p. 7). Arcadia Publishing Inc.. Kindle Edition.

I think of SurfGuitar101 as being THE source for ACCURATE information for Instrumental Surf Music, and I would hate to see some teenager writing an essay starting with "Most of Surf Instrumental Music originated from Big Band (Swing).." and giving SG101 as the source of this definitive information. I don't mind informed opinions, but I would list Middle Eastern and Mexican influences before going to Big Band as the point of origin.

Anyway, I appreciate your enthusiasm for surf music and you've certainly pumped out a lot of information in the one week you've been a member of this forum, but I need to see from whence you are pulling your facts. Teenagers in early 60's California were probably exposed to all forms of music, but I would bet they looked at their parent's Big Band music the same way my kid's look at my beloved surf music. Whatever

SSS Agent #777

Last edited: Jan 26, 2019 01:18:44

Hey SJ1961 - you really need to learn the difference between stating your opinion, and stating your opinion as fact. With all the opinions you have, you really should learn this subtle but critical difference.

Also - as a MASSIVE music snob - I can say that as much as I wish there were, I have had to revise my opinion to “there really is no One Surf Beat.” If there was, in my world it would be the opposite of yours - the double snare comes first!

I've heard the classic surf beat as being described as "two on the two".

Site dude - S3 Agent #202
Need help with the site? SG101 FAQ - Send me a private message - Email me

"It starts... when it begins" -- Ralf Kilauea

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