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The Elements of a Surf Song
Greetings surf music comrades! I initially wrote this articleout as a mental exercise to gather my thoughts for a talk I was going to give at The Sierra Surf Music Camp. It turned out that I didn't give the talk, but I think this can still be useful for the newbies out there just discovering our little genre. What I'm referring to as the 'elements' are the basic components that together, or at least when several of them are grouped together, you have a song we can label as a surf song. Many of you may be thinking that you've listened to surf music for years, these elements should be obvious, and many of them are, but as musicians we can go a little deeper and try to tease out some of the more subtle ones.
First off, the term "surf music" has been a challenge in and of itself as a description for what it is we're doing. Historically, it's been often equated with The Beach boys. Now that has been debated endlessly, and I personally am willing to call it a draw. But when I try to describe what I do to the uninitiated, they invariably ask "like the beach boys" and I can't bring myself to say yes. Granted, The Beach Boys sang about surfing, so it makes sense that people ask do that. In fact, here's what happened to me the other day.
I've started going to a physical therapist because my neck and arm have been really hurting lately due to overuse as a contractor. I'm explaining to my therapist about how I play surf music, totally expecting to hear her ask "like the Beach Boys?" but she doesn't ask that. She asks, "Surf music.... is that with an E or a U?" Now that's one question I've never had before. I answer, it's with a U, like the ocean. "ooooh, you mean like the Beach Boys?" .... Turns out she was a classical music major and may have thought this was some kind of ancient music style played by serfs of the kindgom or whatnot. Also, I'd put her around 30 years old, at this point, even too young for the whole 90's pulp fiction fueled resurgence.
I've also found on craigslist and soundcloud and other musician's sites that a lot of vocal bands are referring to themselves as 'surf bands" or 'surfy". I'm not 100% sure at what they're getting at. My suspicion is they have a lot of reverb on their guitars and have a relatively clean guitar sound, which are 2 elements I'll discuss, but that alone isn't enough to warrant being a surf band by our standards. Not that they care.... but we do!
Here's my list of elements and then I'll go over each one in some detail.
You'll notice several of those elements are about the gear rather than the music. Unlike most genres, gear plays a big role in creating the surf sound. Perhaps it's a bigger factor than the music itself? Hard to say. I can tell you on SG101, the gear forum has by far the most activity, about 25% more than the next one, the 'general surf music' forum. And that's on the premier surf music website on the internet!
For our purposes, when I'm talking about surf music, I'm combining both the classic era and the modern era, which at this point is vastly longer than the classic era, which only lasted about 3 years. I submit that it started with The Belairs and ending with The Fender IV, with a few notable exceptions. Then our own John Blair picked up the baton some time around the late 70's and started the revival that goes onto this day. I'd say there's far more bands playing surf now around the globe than ever did in the early 60's. Now, it's my theory that the elements I'm to describe apply to both eras of surf music. Though you'll find more exceptions in the modern era as the boundaries are constantly being pushed wider - a good thing in my opinion, it keeps the genre alive and growing.
First, Instrumental music - obvious enough. No singing. Not such an easy thing to pull off. The typical listener likes to feel connected to a song, and the quickest way to make that connection is to hear words that convey some kind of emotional feeling. We don't have that option, we have to rely on the music to speak for itself. That is the challenge and the delight of it. There can be human voices and there's lots of examples, but mostly either humming in a chorus or shouting a word here or there. In surf music, the main substitute for the vocalist is the lead guitar.
Guitar melody. Simple enough - the main melody is played on a guitar. What's not so simple is actually writing a good guitar melody. Unlike singing, the melody has to be relatively.... well melodic. Generally, it needs to flow and carry the listener along to keep their interest in the song, and hopefully make that connection normally made by singing. We have a lot of tools at our disposal to help the listener and to convey that this IS a surf song. Some of those tools have to do with guitar 'tone', which is our next element.
A clean tone with reverb and/or echo. When I say a clean tone, I don't really mean a clean tone, I mean a comparatively clean tone, and this is one of the elements that there are a fair share of exceptions to, but for most of us the surf tone is relatively clean, and almost always has some reverb to varying degrees. Clean tone and heavy reverb go together for a reason, reverb and distortion just doesn't sound good. It squeezes the guitar tone and causes it to swell and sag too much.
Let me explain… One needs a fast attack when playing surf music (an attack means the speed that when you pluck the string, the sound produced comes out of the amp. It should be almost instantaneous, but there are slight variations). When you get a sag, there's a delay in the attack (amongst other changes), and when you combine the sag and the compression of an overdrive and add reverb, the note has a distinctive swelling, works for shoegaze bands, but not for a fast picking style like surf. So, many of us try to find that sweet spot with a little distortion (or as Iike to say "hair" on the tone) to give the guitar some character, but not too much as to sound muddy and have the notes lose distinction.
You'll also hear a fair amount of echo on the guitar on many songs. Often it's set low and is subtly giving the guitar a smooth, legato quality. Other times it's going full bore and can make a song sound like it's coming from outer space. It challenges the ear to pick out the actual melodic notes, one way of keeping the listener interested in what's going on.
Now about the reverb . Generally, there's two kinds of reverb we deal with in surf, onboard and outboard. Onboard means the reverb that is built into the guitar amp, and outboard means reverb that is provided by a standalone tank or pedal. The big difference is the outboard comes before the preamp, which is the first section of a guitar amp, and the onboard comes after - this has a big impact on the sound. The onboard tends to wash out the sound as you increase it, more reverb - less original signal, and isn't very pleasant. On the outboard, you have control over the balance of original signal and the reverbed signal, so you can have full reverb and still get some clarity. More so than onboard, being ahead of the preamp seems to keep the punchy attack you need for surf music. This doesn't mean onboard isn't any good, lots of players do just fine using it. In fact some players do fine with little to no reverb at all. One of my favorites is Phantom Frank of the Phantom Four from Amsterdam, NL, as well as the great Paul Johnson, but there's something about that "wet" signal that just sounds so right in a genre named after a water sport.
Next up - the drums. Surf drums aren't as easy as you'd think. I think most of us surf music fans can pick out a band that has a 'rock' drummer versus a 'surf' drummer. I think it comes down to a question of the drummer's intent. The true surf drummer realizes that in the absence of a singer, and with the guitar carrying the melody, that his or her job is to not only set the time, but to propel the music forward. This is not a style of music that plods, it's active, and engages the listener, even if it's slow, and thus it needs to push the listener forward.
There are several beats associated with surf, and the most common one is the one with the snare playing on 2, 2& and 4. Perhaps there's a name for this, I don't know it. There's a theory that this beat feels so natural because it mimics the heartbeat. That may be, but I have another theory. Music can be said to be a series of tensions and releases. You create tension in all kinds of ways, then release it and then build up again etc.... I believe that the 2& creates a tiny bubble of tension that the 4 hit releases. Try it yourself, tap out quarter note beats with your foot and clap out the snare hits. If you just hit the 2 and 4 it feels like a metronome, it marks time, but it doesn't grab the listener in and of itself, that's the job of a drum fill. However add the 2& and all of the sudden it's like you added a question mark to the 2 and the answer is the 4. It subtly pushes the beat forward. The addition of a good bass drum beat can really help push things along.
Another aspect of drumming is the liberal use of the ride cymbal and the toms. More so than most genres. I believe it's because with the absence of singing, there's simply more air in the song, more space, that allows the drummer to use these things and thus give more variety to the song. Generally speaking, for surf, the ride cymbal is favored over the hihats. I suspect it is the natural sustain of the ride, that has an almost "wet" quality to it, not unlike reverb. It just sounds right for surf. Again, this is just a theory on my part.
Simple song structure and chords. This is a big one for me. Surf music is simple music. On the scale of musical complexity, 0 being a blues progression and 10 being Coltrane or Zappa, surf is a 2, maybe 3. Though to be fair, so is the majority of most pop music. And it's simple for the same reason. To help the listener connect. We ask enough of the listener by eliminating the singer, go one step further and complicate the song with atonal melodies or a series of dissonant jazz chords, played over a surf beat? That's just going to alienate almost everybody. And it doesn't feel natural. So when I say simple, I'm talking about 2 key areas, chords and structure. The chords are almost always limited to major and minor, with the occasional diminished, dominant 7th and minor 9th thrown in. Many try to push this boundary, but few succeed.
When I refer to the structure, I'm talking mainly about the musical ideas or sections of a song. Typically called verse/chorus/bridge or A/B/C. Most songs will follow the structure of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus or A/B/A/B/C/B close to that. Start deviating too much or having too many distinctly different sections and again, you can lose the listener. This is the challenge of writing surf music, keeping it simple but interesting. The genius of it is often found in the ways to vary the parts so they sound like repeats but are changed just enough to be interesting.
Finally I want to address some guitar playing techniques that you'll often hear and are used to great effect. Learning how to do these may be the main reason some of you are here. That's great, as they're fun to do, and keep your interest up in continuing to play, which is just as important as the listeners interest. Here are 4 techniques that are often found. Muted picking, double picking, whammy bar dipping, and glissandos.
Muting is a very versatile technique, as it can be used for notes and chords, you can say the same for whammy bar dipping (what do you call that?). It gives you an immediate way to change the tone of your guitar, increasing the emotional impact of the changes in your song. Or it can be another layer on the song that gives a distinct texture. The Astronauts immediately come to mind. Notice on many of their surf tracks how the steady staccato muted drippy single notes on the guitar frees the drummer from playing a steady beat and allows him to play incredibly expressive drum parts.
The whammy bar really allows for expression in your playing. The trick is not to go too far, dive bombing is for harder forms of rock, we're looking for more subtlety here. Also the whammy bar can be pulled back and forth slightly to give a real shimmery effect, subtly reminiscent of the water theme.
Double picking - made famous by Dick Dale is one the most challenging of the basic techniques. It took me several months of practice until I was able to do it with any consistency, but once you do get it, it's kind of addictive. Be careful not to over use it :) And you'll need to know how to double pick in order to do a glissando. Which is basically double picking while pulling a note down the neck rather quickly. A great way to punctuate a melodic line, and also highly addictive.
So there you have it, the elements of a surf song. Remember there are lots of exceptions to these rules, and I hope you and others keep exploring new ways to play surf music while keeping true to it's intrinsic style. I'm hardly an expert on this stuff, so feel free to add your own thoughts or critiques in the comments below.
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