I started playing guitar in 1984. Since then, I have learned flat-picking, pinching, slide blues, and three-finger styles of playing. I also started playing the banjo in 1986.

I grew up listening to mom playing old style country music on the radio as well as he autoharp.

Because of hearing her music, and playing the banjo, everything I play comes out country.

What I really want is to develop an ear for surf music...Ventures, Surfaris, Mermen, etc. Unfortunately, everything comes out country.

I even had an instructional album to play Ventures songs. Though I play it note for note, it still sounds country.

Am I stuck with what my fingers play or can I develop a new style?

  • 2
    Did you have the giant spring reverb going on? Jan 4, 2017 at 22:37
  • My amp does have a good reverb, but it still sounds like a cowboy on a surfboard. Jan 4, 2017 at 22:43
  • Sounds like it could be cool! Other archetypal aspects of surf are plenty of minor and exotic / middle eastern scales, very aggressive playing with the pick, and of course use of the whammy bar. It's one of those genres that is also very much concerned with instrument timbres - getting the actual sound is half the fun with surf. Jan 4, 2017 at 22:49
  • If I could get the surf sound, I would play nothing else, ever. As much as I love playing blues, and bluegrass, surf is like finding the Grail. (To me, anyway.) Jan 4, 2017 at 22:51
  • any recordings of your playing? It sounds like you know the path in theory so it would be interesting to hear if the execution was really as wayward as you feel it is! Jan 4, 2017 at 23:22

1 Answer 1


As you already know, A good spring reverb (or emulation) is an essential part of the sound. The reverb accentuates note attacks a little like a slapback delay in a way that's often described as 'drippy'.

Use of a guitar with a whammy bar is also important. Chordal and melodic parts alike are often quite elaborately and dramatically inflected with the whammy bar, allowing dips in frequency (in contrast to string bending, which pulls your frequency higher).

Tremolo picking is a trademark of some surf musicians.

The three aspects above - 'grungy' reverb sound, exaggerated use of whammy, and aggressive, sometimes tremolo playing - contribute to the ability to get a sound which is 'dirty' without being distorted. In fact, a clean amp sound is quite important to allow the note attacks to come through.

Surf music was one of the first electric-guitar based genres to enthusiastically explore territory away from the major scale. Not all surf music is minor but minor chords and scales are common, as is venturing into more exotic territory like the the Double Harmonic Major Scale in the traditional song "Misirlou" given its famous rendering by Dick Dale.

Simple riffs and repeating figures to animate baselines and accompaniment parts are also common.

One possible issue if playing solo is that surf music is probably more suited to full-band arrangements than solo guitar. Its focus on simple lines each played with energy and expression makes it quite easy and fun to play one surf part on guitar, but unlike folk or country, it's hard to make a full arrangement for a single guitar that still has all the trademarks of 'surf'.

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