The best instrumental surf rock songs

By Sergio Ariza

From Guitars Exchange we want to take advantage of what would have been the 85th birthday of one of our favourite guitarists, Dick Dale, to review our favourite songs from one of the genres that did the most for our favourite instrument - the electric guitar - surf rock. The genre was born in California in the late 1950s, being mainly instrumental, and having its period of glory between 1960 and the appearance in the US charts of the Beatles. During that brief period of glory, surf rock battled it out in the charts with girl groups and the Motown sound, with a sound in which one brand clearly asserted itself thanks to the partnership between Dale and Leo Fender. Having Fender gear was almost mandatory for surf bands, as the genre was defined by the crispness and clarity of their guitars through their amps, but also by the watery echo of the Fender Reverb that appeared in 1961. Here are our picks of the most representative songs of its heyday.  


10. The Atlantics - Bombora (1963)

Surf music fever was mainly experienced in its Promised Land, California, but it also reached another place with a long tradition of getting on a board to ride waves: Australia. That's where The Atlantics came from, and they had a massive hit with this song, in which Jim Skiathitis' 1961 red Stratocaster surfed the pounding percussion of his drummer Peter Hood, both being the composers of this song, Bombora, which was named after the term used by the Aborigines for the huge waves that crashed against submerged rocky platforms.


9. The Frantics - Werewolf (1960)

One of the first national hits of the style came by the Frantics from Seattle, one of the headliners on the Dolton Records label, which also included the Ventures. It's a spooky song, also perfect for Halloween, with various sound effects and a guitar totally associated with the genre: the Fender Jazzmaster. This guitar was released in the late 50's and didn't have much of a market among the people it was aimed at, jazz guitarists, but was an immediate success in the nascent rock & roll scene, mainly among surfers who saw how the meaty yet twangy sound of the bridge pickup was perfect for lead passages, the neck pickup was great for rhythm, and the smooth vibrato action was perfectly suited to replicate the rocking and crashing of a breaking wave. Although Jerry Miller and Bob Mosley, future members of Moby Grape, weren't around when The Frantics recorded this song, it's worth remembering that they were members of  this band.


8. The Centurions - Bullwinkle Part II (1963)

It was not a hit at the time (it was included on the Surfers' Pajama Party album), but Bullwinkle Part II gained fame when Quentin Tarantino incorporated it into the soundtrack of Pulp Fiction, his 1994 film whose soundtrack gave new impetus to the genre. What is clear is that it is a great song, with that start with the bass and a guitar using the tremolo very effectively with those chords, gradually raising the tempo and intensity, something that is achieved with the entry of another fundamental instrument of the style, the saxophone, which takes over from the guitar as the lead instrument.


7. The Marketts - Out Of Limits (1963)

Another of the genre’s biggest hits, Out of Limits used just four notes from the theme song of the TV series The Twilight Zone, which gives a science fiction feel to this song that sold more than a million copies. This led to the band being sued by the author of the TV theme song, although the only thing that was changed was the title of the song.


6. The Tornadoes - Bustin' Surfboards (1962)

One of the most legendary and significant surf rock songs, this piece opened with the sound of the ocean, a sound that was maintained throughout the rest of the song: transporting the listener to the beach. The drums, bass and, once again, those tremolo chords give way to the Fender Jazzmaster, which imitates the sound of the waves and sounds as refreshing as a dip in the sea on a summer day.  


5. The Surfaris - Wipe Out (1963)

Another of the undisputed classics of the genre, it's almost impossible to resist the familiar riff and that manic voice screaming "Wipe Out!". Only Stevie Wonder's Fingertips, at the time still Little, was able to knock this song off the Billboard charts at number one. Its appeal was so great that the song returned to the charts in 1966, when surf rock fever had long since faded. The guitars on which this classic was recorded were Jim Fuller's Stratocaster on lead and Bob Berryhill's Jazzmaster on rhythm.


4. The Lively Ones - Surf Rider (1963)

A spectacular song that, despite not being a big hit nationally, was a sensation in South California when it was released in 1963. Of course, 31 years later it was everywhere again when Tarantino decided to close Pulp Fiction with this song playing over the credits.

The Lively Ones didn't have much of their own material but they were very good at making other people's material their own, as is the case with this song, written by Nokie Edwards of the Ventures. Jim Masoner's echoey guitar (on another of the genre's seminal models, a Fender Jaguar) combines perfectly with Joel Willenbring's sax, in one of surfing's most perfect songs.


3. The Chantays - Pipeline (1962)

Classic among classics, a mythical song that opens with that bass that uses Alberti's bass arpeggios, like pieces from the romantic period of classical music, and has the lead guitar more buried in the production than usual. The band had originally titled this song Liberty's Whip, in reference to John Ford's film The Man Who Killed Liberty Valance, but decided to rename it after seeing a surf-themed film.

Since its appearance in 1962 it has become an absolute classic and has been covered by many of our favourite guitarists, such as Nokie Edwards of the Ventures, Dick Dale with Stevie Ray Vaughan, Hank Marvin with Duane Eddy and Johnny Thunders.


2. The Ventures - Walk - Don't Run (1960)

Dick Dale was the pioneer and the main driving force behind the genre but it was the Ventures' Walk - Don't Run that started the national surf rock craze in the US, climbing to number two in the singles charts. Bob Bogle and Don Wilson, the group's founders, decided they would release it as a single after having to play it half a dozen times at a gig by audience request. Their guitars of choice were a Jazzmaster for Bogle and a Strat for Wilson, with Nokie Edwards using a Fender Precision Bass, before swapping the bass for the lead guitar, mainly a Mosrite, on subsequent albums.


1. Dick Dale and The Del-Tones - Misirlou (1962)

Despite the great guitarists mentioned above, there is only one king of surf guitar, and that is none other than Dick Dale. We could have chosen the wonderful Let's Go Trippin' or King Of The Surf Guitar, but we have decided to use only one song per artist to give more diversity to this list, and so there could only be one song that would occupy the top spot in this small introductory list, and that is none other than this monument: Misirlou.

is a song that has its origins in a night when, charged with the adrenaline of a day of surfing, Dale decided to teach his musicians an old Greek melody, close to his Lebanese roots, and when he played it live for the first time it almost unleashed a riot in the room. It contains one of the most powerful riffs in the history of music and the best example of Dale's style. 'The Beast', his legendary Strat, unleashes a perfect wave that is impossible not to ride. With it Dale achieved one of his dreams, to sound as if Gene Krupa was playing his drums inside a giant wave. The song was released as a single on 21 April 1962 and, although it didn't appear in the charts, it soon became the artist's most popular song, with covers by the likes of the Beach Boys, the Ventures and the Trashmen.