Surf Rock experienced a Renaissance in the last few years, influencing a wave of new indie artists. The ultimate surf guitar tone has several elements: a guitar, the amplifier, reverb, tremolo, and vibrato, but the sound starts with the guitar itself. A Fender Stratocaster, Jaguar (pictured) or Jazzmaster would be my personal choice. One of the secrets to the tone are the single coil pickups. There’s quite a difference between the vintage ones and the new ones, the older ones sound more organic, with more of a bell tone, and more surf like. There’s also a difference in price, so you make do with what you can.
I highly recommend a Fender amp to get the signature surf sound (which is a clean one), one with a spring reverb tank in it. A Fender Twin Reverb, Super Reverb, Princeton Reverb, Dual Showman Reverb, etc. – the key is reverb. An Ampeg Reverberocket (picture) would also sound great.
For the best reverb tone, one can purchase a separate reverb unit. The very best is a vintage Fender reverb unit, which sits on top of the amp.
These have the warmest and most organic sound. One can also use foot pedals for reverb, the Electro Harmonx Holy Grail (pictured) is my personal favorite.
Tremolo units create a hypnotic quick increase and decrease in volume. Vibrato is a difference in pitch, up and down. Both these effects are often used on surf rock records.
I personally like a thin pick, a Dunlop light grey .60mm pick, it facilitates the quick, flutter picking so common on surf records.
For great surf tone, check out artists like Dick Dale, Link Wray, the Ventures, the Shadows, the Bel Airs and the Northern Lights.
You can have all the gear in the world but ultimately it’s all in the fingers!
By Howie Statland (Rivington Guitars)
Jul 30, 2014
its fender mustang in the picture
Angela Simmons says:
Sep 5, 2014
Man thats nice I want one!
silly surfer says:
Oct 6, 2014
Uh no its a jaguar…… unfortunately a ‘squire’ jaguar but definitely not a mustang !
Mojo Bone says:
May 12, 2015
The guitar pictured is a Squier Jaguar; the key is the three chrome control plates and dual, narrow single coil pickups-the Jazzmaster has dual single coils, a simpler switching/control layout and a similar twang bar and bridge, but wider pickups that look a bit like Gibson’s P90, but with sharper corners. Both Fender and Squier offer modernized, dual-humbucker versions of each model under various monikers.They’re suitable for punk and garage rock, but not so much surf, imo.
Original Jaguars and Jazzmasters had a flawed bridge design that wouldn’t withstand a heavy pick attack-this is one reason why Dick Dale employed a Stratocaster, among several.(his lefty, gold-sparkle ‘The Beast’ strat was already getting the job done very well, thank you-was another) If you picked hard, close to the bridge (as the surf style generally demands, particularly when tremolo-picking a la Dick Dale) the strings would pop out of their bridge slots, due to insufficient breaking angle towards the tailpiece, which also interfered with the strings returning to pitch after more than the subtle-est use of the tremolo arm. That aside, The pickups on Jags and Jazzmasters are probably superior to most Strat pickups, for the purest ‘surf’ sound. Fortunately, Fender and sometimes Squier offer ‘modern player’ versions of these guitars that offer an improved bridge design along with the period/genre-correct pickups.
In sum, I’d say this article is a bit light on ‘surf guitar secrets’, but the proper technique and attitude can still get you ‘the perfect surf tone’ for you, even if you play a Mosrite through a Vox. ;D
Sep 9, 2016
Dick Dale uses ungodly heavy strings compared with today’s common lights. He also plays left handed with his guitar strung righty. The difference in the bridge pickup angle, so he says, has a lot to do with his sound. Thundering reverb is key to surf music, but Dick Dale, recommends big amps. He had a lot to do with the development of big amps, because when playing at the Rendevous, the crowds were so large that he blew out amps trying to be heard above the crowd. Hence he and Leo Fender developed the first 100 watt piggyback set up in the Dual Showman amp.
Much depends on the amp and the reverb. I have used a Les Paul, but prefer my RatStrat which has single coils in 1 & 2, and a split HB in the Bridge. The whole genre developed out of trying to simulate the power of the ocean waves one experiences while on a board in the tube of the curl. Can do it with an old Peavey Backstage pumped through a 4-12, but my Vox 50 watt is better. THUNDEROUS!!!