Surf Music History: The So-Cal Sound Of Dick Dale's Instrumentals
By Sarah Norman | June 14, 2023
The story of surf rock and surf guitar has one big hero: Dick Dale. Other surf rock acts scored big hits, like The Chantays' "Pipeline," The Surfaris' "Wipeout," The Trashmen's "Surfin' Bird" and The Ventures' "Walk Don't Run" and "Hawaii Five-0." But the sound, particularly the "wet" reverb-heavy guitar, was pioneered by Dick Dale and the Del-Tones.
In the 1960s, Southern California was known for its sunny beaches, babes, and surfing. Out that culture of the endless summer came surf music - the soundtrack to days spent carving up the waves and nights cruising for a good time.
The new music that came from this era signaled the beginning of a new kind of youth culture. Many of the musicians involved were the same age as their listeners, and artists like Dick Dale and the Bel-Airs were making music specifically inspired by the one past time that they all shared - surfing.
Artists like The Beach Boys wrote about surfing, but they didn’t specifically play surf music. The artists who played instrumental surf music didn’t just play songs about surfing, they gave themselves over to the waves.
It all started in Southern California
Surf music stems from the venues that sprung up in the small towns and suburbs outside of Los Angeles, the places that are just a little closer to the beach. The South Bay, basically the stretch of land along the southern shore of Santa Monica, and Balboa, California, which is about as close to the water as you can get when you’re in Newport Beach in Orange County.
Dick Dale hit the first notes of surf rock at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa. He didn’t realize it at the time, but out in the audience were a handful of people who would help bring surf music to the masses. As he played songs like “Let’s Go Trippin’,” with its tribal beats and brain crushing volume, Leo Fender watched and devised a new kind of amplification.
At the same time, the members of The Bel-Airs were still in high school and cranking out Dick Dale inspired tunes near Santa Monica. Inspired by Dale and the cool new sounds capable thanks to Leo Fender, bands like The Challengers and Eddie and The Showmen starting popping up all over Orange County and the outer Los Angeles area.