The big twang of surf guitar is still an instantly recognizable rock and roll idiom today, more than 35 years after the style was developed. People who weren’t alive when the pounding tom-toms of “Wipe Out” hit the airwaves know what a “surf beat” is, but ask even the most well-schooled music fan to define surf bass and you’re likely to receive, at best, a blank stare.
In fact the surf/instrumental rock genres of the very early 1960s were crucial proving grounds for the still-newfangled electric bass, and many of the seminal records in these two interrelated styles are also early showcases for the Fender Bass sound. You can’t really imagine surf music without a Fender Bass – this is not true of any earlier rock and roll style. During this era, the bass guitar went from optional to essential equipment and set up the electric bass for its dominant role in the British Invasion, folk rock, and all that followed.
While the electric bass is thought of as a rock and roll instrument, the majority of ’50s classic rock records featured the unamplified upright. 1957’s “Jailhouse Rock” is the first Elvis disc to feature the new sound, and Eddie Cochran’s L.A.-studio rockabilly concoctions of the next year are notable for the prominent use of a plucked Fender, but even most late-’50s records still thump along with the bass fiddle’s less-distinct bottom. A notable exception is Duane Eddy; while the patented twangy guitar sound of his string of hits was influencing budding guitarists across the country, the bracing sound of his rhythm section, featuring a sharply defined electric bass, must have been subtly influential as well. Most records of the era were made by studio bands of one form or other; the self-contained band was not considered essential. While Bill Haley’s Comets appeared on his Decca records, major stars like Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Fats Domino recorded mostly with musicians working for the label, not the road band. These groups of experienced players invariably featured a bassist well-schooled in the upright. The bass is most-often recorded as something of a blurred boom on these discs anyway, making the type of instrument used rather a moot point!
The bass fiddle is not an easy instrument to learn – to the thousands of kids newly-interested in guitars and rockin’ out, it must have seemed quite a mystery. The electric bass required only a rudimentary knowledge of guitar to operate – yet there wasn’t likely to be one lying around in the school band room! Unlike the sax, drums or even the guitar, there was no academic tradition for the instrument – it must have been brave young souls who tried to get Mom and Dad to cough up or at least co-sign for that first Fender or Danelectro! Early on, there was no beginner’s Fender – it was either the $229.50 Precision Bass or nothing.
Nathan Daniel did the world’s budding bassists an enormous service when the cheap-but-reliable four-string Danos went on sale in 1958! Taking this instrument to at least connoisseurs’ immortality were important pre-surf instrumental hitmakers Johnny and the Hurricanes. Led by wailin’ saxman Johnny Paris, the Hurricanes’ 1959 hit “Red River Rock” featured not only powerful noise from the guitar and sax, but a booming bass from Lionel “Butch” Mattice’s Shorthorn Danelectro. “Tequila,” by the Champs, a instrumental smash just six months earlier, had prominently featured the upright bass. While never a surf band (predating the style anyway), the Pacific Northwest’s Ventures were widely-influential and gave solid exposure to the sound and the look of the Fender bass. Their first hit, “Walk Don’t Run” features a plunking electric bass, but the group’s first two album covers really drove the message home with full-color photos of the Fender-wielding band, noting of course that the “musicians” on the cover of that first LP are really Dolton Records mailroom workers – the instruments are real enough, anyway. The cover of the second Ventures album (featuring the actual band) is the classic turn-of-the-decade band shot and Nokie Edwards’ maple neck Precision Bass serves notice to teenage rockers everywhere that the doghouse is on the way out!
At about the same time in Southern California, the two major progenitors of surf guitar were starting to make noise. Dick Dale was the most important influence in the genre’s creation, but The Belairs would also lay claim to being the seminal surf band. Dale’s story is still ongoing, almost 40 years later, but his reputation is largely based on his early Deltone recordings and legendary shows at Balboa’s Rendezvous ballroom in 1961 to ’63. Dale’s sound was always fast, aggressive and phenomenally loud for its time, and depended heavily on the electric bass. A former bassist of his once remarked Dick had three requirements for his bass player: play a Fender P-Bass, with a pick, and use only downstrokes! The jazzy thump of the bass fiddle was useless in this context. Listening to those early records today does not really capture how different Dale’s Deltones sounded to the kids who began flocking to his shows in the early ’60s – the hyperamplified power of those live shows must have been like nothing heard before, and the electric bass was a crucial component.
The Belairs, kings of the South Bay surf scene, represent a different root in the history of the “surf bass” sound, for they had no bass at all! Starting as an amateur teen combo – albeit an excellent and ambitious one – the band relied on co-leader Paul Johnson’s powerful rhythm guitar playing to provide bottom for the entire group. The staccato chunk produced on his low strings defined the sound of the band at least as much as Eddie Bertrand’s lead guitar, and when other bands began to emulate The Belairs, the downstroke rhythm carried over to the bass as well. The style teenaged musicians adopted as they followed the lead of these bands was to use the bass as a double of the rhythm guitar, resulting in the characteristic “churning” sound that says “cowabunga” to the listener, even without the reverb-laden lead or pounding drums. A common device was to repeatedly hammer on to the tonic note in a flurry of downpicking – a trick first popularized by Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” in 1958, and used prominently in Dick Dale’s 1962 hit “Miserlou.” This is a more guitar-oriented approach to the bass, distinct from the riffy, walking jazz and R & B-derived styles prevalent before this in rock and roll.
Instead of having a traditional bassist’s conception, the young players who made up the instrumental bands forming in emulation of the Deltones and Belairs heard the electric bass in a new context, more allied to the guitars. While many surf tunes do feature moving basslines, the overall feel is less “swingy” and more agitated. Perusing photos of these first generation instrumental surf combos, it is evident the electric bass is considered an essential component of the band – not as some strange freak instrument, as it was still regarded by many “legitimate” players.
At this time a majority of mainstream pop, R & B, and rock and roll records made on both coasts still used the upright bass, and in Nashville, only the six-string “tic-tac” bass was used to supplement the bull fiddle. The surfin’ kids of California were growing up in Fender’s backyard, and his bass was the ideal sound to them, not a poor substitute for the “real” bass. The new Fender piggyback amps were widely influential as well. Finally, the bass could really compete in the volume stakes without fear of blowing out the amp at a crucial moment.
It seems strange, in retrospect, that neither Leo or the normally-astute Don Randall attempted to capitalize on the groundswell of interest in the bass guitar among teens, but while Fender sold truckloads of cheaper Musicmaster and Duo-Sonic guitars to beginners, the Precision Bass was given only a more-expensive relative in the Jazz Bass – no budget bass was offered until the 1966 Mustang. While Fenders are rightly always thought of as the surf bass, early photos reveal that many hitmakers relied on cheaper four-strings until the band was established, and there was at least a modicum of money coming in! When that happened, the entire group was quickly fitted out with the latest Fender gear, including what often looks to be the flashiest custom-color Precision or Jazz Bass available! The cover of the Surfaris Decca LP Wipe Out features beautiful Fiesta Red Fenders. However, pictures dating from the time of the original “Wipe Out” single feature bassist Pat Connolly sporting not a P-Bass, but a $95 Harmony H-22. Odds are that’s what’s thumping away on the single, as well.
While The Chantays, of “Pipeline” fame, are usually seen (in a publicity photo well-known to guitar collectors) with two tortoise-pickguard Stratocasters and a sunburst Precision, the earliest shots of them reveal bassist Warren Waters holding the same type of coppertop Danelectro as good ol’ Butch from Johnny and the Hurricanes! The Blazers’ John Morris started on an old Kay. For the non-professional, a Fender was the ideal but not always the reality, at least at first. The Nobles’ Paul Geddes went the furthest in this regard – instead of buying a “real” electric bass, he built his own, which featured all of two strings! For a lot of what these budding bands did with the bassline, one string would probably have sufficed, yet though perhaps technically primitive the sounds of these bands were a step into the future away from the piano and saxophone sounds of the ’50s and into the all-electric twang of the ’60s.
The guitar boom was building steam and the Fender bass going from novelty to necessity. The relatively-expensive Gibson basses of the early ’60s are sometimes seen in teen “garage” bands and R & B combos, but virtually never in true surf bands. As the surf sound began to be played in places where actual surf was as common as the dodo bird, the Fender formula was usually followed like a mantra – Denver’s Astronauts featured the most sublime lineup of matching white Fenders you’re ever likely to see, including Stormy Patterson’s Jazz Bass! The ever-bizarre Trashmen, from Minneapolis, started out as an excellent straight surf band, but found fame with the indescribably vocal “Surfin’ Bird.” Bassist Bob Reed defied convention by plunking on the ever-bizarre Danelectro Longhorn Bass alongside the band’s two sunburst Fender Jaguars – though when they went to a matching set of Candy Apple Reds, he switched to a Jazz Bass, as well.
The most prominent example of sustained use of a non-Fender bass in the surf idiom (does that sound scholarly or what?!) lies with an excellent Orange County band called the Lively Ones, with bassist Ron Griffith laying down his Lake Placid Blue Jazz Bass to play an early Mosrite Ventures Bass. Although Mosrites are now remembered primarily in connection with the instrumental rock sound, they were seldom used by true surf bands and in fact post-date the boom years of the surf era. While the guitars have proven popular over the years, the early single-pickup short-scale bass is more in the league of an EB-0 than a Precision.
Apart from anomalies like these, the basses used in surf bands were universally Leo Fender’s, and if you want to get the big bass sound of the surf era today, here are just a few simple steps to surf nirvana!
First, find an early-’60s Fender Precision or Jazz Bass, preferably in a custom color. Candy Apple Red, Lake Placid Blue, Fiesta Red or Olympic White would be ideal. 1961 through ’63 would be the best years for authenticity’s sake, although any clay-dot rosewood neck bass will do. A few players, including the Deltones’ Rick Rillera and The Sentinals’ Gary Winburne, were seen to use older maple-neck Fenders, but that’s a rarity. Make sure the strings are heavy-gauge flatwounds, the original royal blue silk-end LaBellas would be best, but if some modernist has removed them I find that Rotosound Jazz Bass flatwounds are the best currently available substitute. All chrome covers must be intact on the bass, as well, it doesn’t change the sound but will put you in the right mood (I call them the Funk Preventers)!
Next, plug into an early Fender Showman or Dual Showman amplifier – the only true surf amp! An early blond Showman would be the most authentic, but a later Blackface Dual Showman with two 15″ JBLs gives the most headroom. A blond Bassman will do in a pinch, but the reserve power won’t be there for a true surfer’s stomp ballroom gig. Don’t even think about non-Fender amplification – it’s almost unpatriotic! No outboard gear allowed, either. Put a pick in your hand and crank it up!
Based on pictorial and aural evidence, nearly every surf bassist played with a pick, with the guitar-like all-downstroke technique being most prevalent. Now all you need are a couple of guitarists and a drummer who can play “Wipe Out” correctly (do not trust any drummer with more than one mounted tom-tom in this situation!)!
The guitarist(s) should also be Fender-equipped, though there was a surprising amount of deviation from this in the original California surf bands, with Gretsches, Guilds and even Gibsons being occasionally spotted. A Stratocaster or a Jaguar would be perfect, along with the obligatory Fender outboard reverb unit and piggyback amp. Alright, we’re talking fantasy here for most people these days, but hey, if you can’t at least aim for perfection, what fun is it?
Like many vintage musical styles, Instrumental Surf is easy to approximate but difficult to master, as the true zen of the style lies in the tiny details.
The kids of southern California in 1961 had no such worries – they just wanted to rock out in the style of Dick Dale and the Belairs, and the history of the electric guitar and, in particular the electric bass, was profoundly influenced by those who brought home all those shiny new Fenders. As vocal surf music became the new rage the idiom’s guiding light, Beach Boy Brian Wilson was himself a bass guitarist – at least in public.
The British Invasion of 1964 swamped the Surf Instrumental style, and many bands mutated into vocal folk rock units in the wake of the Byrds’ success, the shining example being the Crossfires’ rebirth as the Turtles. The bass guitar made this transition, and to the thousands of garage bands of every style that sprang up all over the world, the old “doghouse fiddle” was no more than a dim memory. Surf bass may not be your bag, Ho Dad, but all of us four-string Fender thumpers owe those far-off pioneers a debt of gratitude – we’re all Leo’s children!
The Ventures were widely-influential and gave solid exposure to the sound and the look of the Fender bass.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s May ’97 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.