The Musical Roots of the Surf Sound

Essential Question

What is the Surf sound and where did it come from?


The Surf sound of the early 1960s was built on the interplay of different musical traditions that came together to form something new, something that in its heyday took the nation by storm. In the case of the Beach Boys’ early music, a mix of popular forms resulted in a sound with both black and white roots. Bringing together the R&B-inflected guitar of Chuck Berry with vocal-group harmonies associated with white groups like the Four Freshman, the Beach Boys hit their teen audience very directly.

In this lesson students will investigate the different elements of the Beach Boys’ Surf sound by visiting four listening stations and identifying some essential elements of their early music. These elements include rich vocal harmonies, a production aesthetic influenced by Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” recordings, Chuck Berry-inspired electric guitar riffs, and the liberal use of “reverb” effects facilitated by technical innovations to Fender amplifiers in the early 1960s.

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Upon completion of this lesson, students will:

  1. Know (knowledge):
    • The contributions of such artists as the Beach Boys, Dick Dale, and the Surfaris
    • The influence of technical innovation on musical expression, specifically the impact of reverb effects on recording artists using the Fender amplifiers produced in the early 1960s
    • The musical roots of the Surf sound of the early 1960s, including Rhythm and Blues guitar styles, vocal-group harmonies, and the “Wall of Sound” production technique
  2. Be able to (skills):
    • Develop listening skills by analyzing musical performances to identify common motifs and themes
    • Common Core: Students will evaluate music to build understandings and make connections between culture and technology (CCSS Reading 7; CCSS Writing 2; CCSS Speaking and Listening 2)