How to Get a Rocking 60s Surf Guitar Tone

Surf Rock – it is as festive as it sounds. I’m sure you’ve heard some of the surf music in your life even without knowing. Dick Dale’s Misirlou – rings a bell? Of course, it does! Now, wondering how did Dick Dale create that rocking surf guitar tone in the 60s?

To get the 60s rocking surf guitar tone is not actually that difficult. Interestingly, surf rock guitar tone is not just about the type of guitar, amp, or effect pedal you are using; it is also about the playing style.

Once you understand the dynamics, you will be able to create one by yourself even create a different flavored tone if you like. By the end of this article, you will have an enriched idea of a rocking 60 surf guitar, how to create one and how to play the 60’s style surf rock!

Surf Rock in a Nutshell

You probably know about the surf rock I assume. However, it’s for your friends whom you are introducing the surf rock for the first time. Or you could be that friend as well.

Can you paint a picture of yourself surfing, at a sunny California beach and some background music is being played to pump you up?!?! That is exactly what surf music sounds like bright, lively, and giving out beach vibes.

The 1960s was the magical time when surf rock became the popular music of that time. Inspired by the beach, booze, girls, cars, surfing, party at the beach house, and a lot more vibrant aspects of daily Californian life – the surf sound precisely intends to capture or give out that vibe.

Although surf rock didn’t last that long, it stayed permanently in our lives. That’s why till today, we rock out Dick Dale and the Del-Tones, who were the pioneer in these musical styles, and the Beach Boys, who have carried the flame of surf rock significantly.

Hence, we have come to this point when we are still nostalgic about those golden beach times during the 60s and trying to live that nostalgia through music. So, let’s see how we can get our electric guitar sound like 60s surf rock.

How to Get a Rocking 60s Surf Guitar Tone

The easier way to create a 60s surf rock tone in your guitar is to emulate the tone of “Misirlou” by Dick Dale. Basically, I am going to describe how to get that tone, plus some bonus tips so that you know where to tweak in order to fine-tune it according to your preference.

  • Choose a single-coil guitar if you have one. For humbuckers, the compression needs to be adjusted.
  • Having a guitar with a tremolo is a plus. It is required for the vibrato effects.
  • Install heavy-gauged strings on your guitar.
  • Use a clean tone through the clean channel of your amp. No distortion is required.
  • Having an amp with sufficient clean headroom is a plus.
  • Use a compressor pedal to tighten up the tone. For humbucking pickups, the compressor is required to be dialed up less than a single coiled guitar.
  • The best effect for surf tone – the spring reverb, should be used prominently.
  • Add a mild delay into the tone.
  • Last but not the least, play the strings closer to the bridge pickup – using alternate picking is the key to a surf-rock riff.
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This should be enough to get you a killer tone for the 60s surf rock which is often defined as twangy, clean, and bright. Remember the magic ingredient for this tone, the Classic Spring Reverb.

Even if your guitar doesn’t have a tremolo bar, you can opt for a cheap tremolo pedal which is quite available in the market nowadays.

Best Gears for Surf Rock

It is possible that, with the gears you already have, you can create the desired guitar tone of any genre of your preference. And the guitar tone for the surf rock is not that exotic or complicated. Nevertheless, it won’t hurt to do a rig rundown to see which gears are the best compatible for it.

Guitar

Let’s start with electric guitars, the fundamental gear we require. And if you guessed that “Fender” would be the best choice for surf rock, you are absolutely right!!

Actually, Fender guitars have been the musician’s first choice since the classical era of rock music. For surf rock, Fender Stratocaster is a great choice. In fact, the Surf Rock king Dick Dale has used Fender Stratocaster for most of his career.

Among other Fender guitars, Fender Jaguar and Fender Jazzmaster are two other great choices. The Jazzmaster has been used by the “Queen of Surf Guitars” Kathy Marshall. And the Jaguar you might have seen in the hands of the legendary Curt Cobain. Carl Wilson from the Beach Boys ( another Surf Rock giants) used a Fender Jaguar as his Signature guitar.

There are other very prominent guitars that are absolutely delightful for eliciting the 60’s surf tone such as Gretsch Guitars, Fender Telecaster, Fender Squire, etc.

Amplifier

Again, we have to mention the name “Fender” as they had been dominating the music scene since, like, forever. And a Fender Amp would provide you the best result with a Fender Guitar for obvious reasons.

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Usually, most of the Fender amps that were built around the ’60s had a built-in spring reverb in them. As a result, contemporary musicians made the best use of it. Surf rockers dialed the spring reverb at a high level and that gave us the iconic “twangy” surf tone.

Apart from Fender Amps, any other amps with sufficient clean headroom would do the trick. So, don’t stress yourself too much if you don’t have a Fender Amp.

Effect Pedals

You might need some effect pedals for emulating the 60’s rocking surf tone on your guitar. If you have multi-effects digital pedals like line-6 or Zoom G series, then you would be good to go as well.

Although we’ve discussed the effects we would need, here it is elaborated.

Spring Reverb

As I said, it is the magic ingredient of surf rock. You should have it in your digital pedals. If not, you can buy one for a very cheap price.

There are cheaper options for most of the pedals in the market. There are also some pedals that have multi reverbs including the spring reverb, so you can get that one for more versatility.

Compression

To articulate your tone, you need compression. For a single-coil pickup on your guitar, turn up the compression to the point where it sounds sufficiently full and deep.

For a humbucking pickup, you don’t have to dial it up that much. However, the single-coil pickup sounds a bit better in this case.

Tremolo Effect

Just like the wave of the ocean that enables surfing, the surf tone also has a wavey feel using the tremolo effect. The tremolo bar of your guitar can be used for this purpose; however, an easier option is to use an effect pedal or digital effect.

The role of tremolo is very mild in this case, but you’ll definitely know it when it is missing.

Delay

Delay is needed in almost every genre, so I believe I won’t have to nudge you about that. Put a slight delay over the previous effects and you’d be good to go.

Overdrive

This is optional, just in case you want to make it sound a bit crunchy.

Surf Rock Playing Style

There is one important aspect of surf rock playing that we need to talk about, and that is fast alternate picking near the bridge pickup. You can play along the pickup areas to figure out the difference yourself.

Also, notice that surf rocks are mostly played on the diminished scale of whichever scale you intend to play. So, if you are familiar with that scale and its playing style, you should be good to go.

Some of the “Must Listen to” Surf Music Tracks

The way I see it, you can best acquaint yourself with a certain type of music by listening to its masterpieces. This would definitely give you a clearer idea about what a guitar tone should be like, what should be the guitar playing style, and so on.

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The beginning of Quentin Tarantino’s famous movie “Pulp Fiction” starts with Dick Dale’s “Misirlou”. You’ve probably heard “Wipe Out” by the Surfaris in numerous movie clips or commercials.

Here are some of the 60s surf songs which are masterpieces and are highly recommended.

  • Cecilia Ann – The Surftones
  • Wipe Out – The Surfaris
  • Misirlou – Dick Dale & the Del-Tones
  • Surfin’ U.S.A. – The Beach Boys
  • Pipeline – The Chantays

Best Surf Rock Guitarists

You’ve already guessed by now that, I am about to mention Dick Dale “the king of surf rock” as the best in this genre. You are absolutely right; he is the Jimi Hendrix of Surf Rock. He basically gave surf rock the definition it goes by.

Then we can mention Carl Wilson from the famous band “Beach Boys”, who were not limited to the surf genre only and had a huge influence in the surf rock industry.

We already mentioned Kathy Marshall who is also known as “The Queen of the Surf Guitar”. She was mostly a solo artist and collaborated with surf legends like Dick Dale, Eddie, and the Showmen, the Crossfire, and so on.

Last but not the least, the two guitarists from one of the legendary 60s surf bands “The Bel-Airs” – Paul Johnson and Eddie Bertrand will always be remembered for their hit Surf tracks.

FAQ

What is a Vintage Guitar Tone?

To be honest, surf tone can be referred to as a vintage guitar tone. Basically, any sort of classical guitar tone that takes you back in time in a memorable musical era, is a vintage tone.

Are Old Guitars Better than New?

This Is really debatable. In some cases, the old guitars are really well built and have the originality that modern guitars might lack. on the other hand, modern guitars have the technological upper edge. Therefore, whether the guitar is old or new, matters really a little when it comes to guitar quality.

Final Thoughts

There you have it. You are now equipped with the knowledge to revive the 60’s rocking surf guitar tone!! So, what are you waiting for? Let’s play Misirlou to start with, shall we?

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