Surf music was a form of Rock and Roll popular in the United States in the early 1960s.
Generally upbeat in mood, fast in tempo, and played almost exclusively in 4/4 time, surf music could be easily played by minimally talented musicians.
The instruments most commonly used were lead and rhythm electric guitars, an electric bass guitar (which the form pioneered the use of), and drums. These were sometimes supplemented by saxophone, piano and other more unusual instruments, such as the French horn by the Marketts.
Many surf tracks are instrumentals, though audio samples of car noises and waves were frequently added for atmosphere. Vocal tracks often featured extensive harmonising.
An early pioneer of surf, Dick Dale fused instrumental rock and roll with traditional Lebanese and Mediterranean tunes, which he played at high speed on the electric guitar, giving some of his instrumentals such as Misirlou (1962) a characteristic Eastern feel. The local success of Dick Dale and his band, the Del-Tones, inspired numerous new bands, especially in California, who were predominantly young, male, and from fairly well-to-do white backgrounds. Most famous amongst these were the Beach Boys, but other notable surf artists of the era included Jan and Dean, the Surfaris, and Gary Usher, who recorded surf tracks with dozens of differently-named but identically-staffed bands for an assortment of different record labels.
As the surfing craze caught on, bands started up much further from the sea, such as the Trashmen, from Minneapolis, and in other countries such as Australia and South Africa. Some conventional rock and roll groups such as the Ventures made surf-styled records, while other bands were assembled by record companies from session musicians, such as Jerry Cole and his Spacemen, and the Marketts.
In keeping with the unpretentious nature of the music, common themes for surf songs were surfing (e.g. Bustin' Surfboards - The Tornadoes, Wipe-out! - the Surfaris) or hot-rodding (e.g. Mr Eliminator - Dick Dale and his Del-Tones, Hot Rod USA - The Fantastic Baggys), or (generally chaste) teenage romance (e.g. Girls on the Beach - the Beach Boys, My baby digs slot car races - The Revells) . Surf music was on the whole only minimally subversive; the only forms of delinquency promoted by it being the unlicensed racing of customised automobiles (Shut Down - The Beach Boys, The Little Old Lady from Pasadena - Jan and Dean), the occasional consumption of beer (e.g. Intoxica - The Revels) and the occasional avoidance of school when the waves were good for surfing (e.g. Tell 'em I'm surfing - the Fantastic Baggys).
However a number of death disks were also recorded, such as Jan and Dean's Dead Man's Curve, and their lyric "Two girls for every boy" in Surf City is an allusion to the dangers of the predominantly male pastime of surfing.
With the arrival of the British Invasion and the subsequent development of psychedelia, more sophisticated styles of music became popular. Few surf bands, with the exception of the Beach Boys, were able to adapt. As Jimi Hendrix (whose guitar was strung and played in the same way as Dick Dale's had been) said in Third stone from the Sun, "...may you never hear surf music again."
Although surf music rarely troubled the charts after the mid-1960's the simplicity and lasting appeal of the surf sound, means that it is still played today by many bands, and the stripped-down fast rock and roll of surf and related styles was influential upon the development of punk rock in the late 1970s, as well as upon later bands such as the Pixies and the Jesus and Mary Chain.
Dick Dale received a brief resurgence in popularity when his song "Misirlou" was used in the film Pulp Fiction.