Looking for some surf guitar tones? You’ve come to the right place. Today we will talk about how you can achieve that dripping wet surf tone that will make you feel like you are riding waves in California. There’s really nothing quite like it. The sound alone makes you want to put on your sunglasses and float to the sounds of the ocean. It really does actually sound like the ocean somehow, especially when you have a good drummer who can stay on that ride. So lets get into it, here’s how you can achieve a good surf guitar tone.
Perhaps the biggest piece of the puzzle for a surf guitar sound is having a good reverb to your tone. It is what gives you that ‘wet’ sound. But since there are so many types of reverb on the market, I will make it really easy for you. The one you want is spring reverb. The reason for this is that this was the type of reverb used by all of the surf bands in the ’60s.
If you want pure authentic surf sounds, then the only way to achieve is with a real outboard spring reverb tank. The best one out there is a Fender Reverb Unit. These units feature a spring tank and real tubes. Today, Fender has made a ’63 Reissue Reverb Unit which is pretty good compared to the original that came out in the ’60s. If you spend an extra 30 bucks on NOS tubes for the reissue, it can actually sound amazing! I have one myself and cannot use anything else when I want to go surfing with my guitar. The Fender Reverb Units retail for about $699, and while expensive, definitely worth it. And if you don’t like it, you could sell it used for almost what you paid for it. Check out the Fender Reverb Unit on Musician’s Friend.
The next best thing to an outboard reverb unit is an internal spring reverb found in Fender amps. Vintage blackface and silverface Fender amps (from the ’60s and ’70s) have really good sounding reverb tanks. Many bands actually just used these amps to achieve their surf sound. So you can get a pretty good sound, but not nearly the amount of adjustability that the outboard Fender Reverb Unit offers. When it comes to modern production amps, their onboard reverb is decent for surf, but not great.
Finally, the last way to reverb if the above two ways won’t work for you is to get a reverb pedal. However these are digital pedals, meaning they are trying to digitally emulate a real spring reverb. The truth is that they’ll never sound authentic because they are a reproduction and a digital circuit brings a lot of shortcomings. One of which is that digital tries to make things too perfect. What makes a real reverb great are their imperfections and their unique interactions to every way you attack your guitar. So with digital, you won’t get authenticity and it will never get that true surf tone. That being said, many of these pedals have a lot more flexibility and dials to get all kinds of different tones. As well, these pedals have options to do other types of reverb other than spring, such as plate reverb. If you want to take the reverb pedal route, check out our list of the best reverb pedals on the market.
Surf Guitar Amp
Without a doubt, the best surf guitar amps are Fender tube amps, particularly vintage ones. The cream of the crop would be the Fender Showman as used by the legendary Dick Dale. But many different Fender amps will get you there like the Twin Reverb, Deluxe Reverb, Super Reverb, Pro Reverb, Vibroverb, etc. However, I’m getting a good surf tone out of a Vox AC-15.
When it comes to surf guitar amp settings, its all about dialling in a good clean tone. Pushed cleans work as well, which is a clean-ish tone but has some gain to it so it is more touch responsive. I personally like to set my treble pretty high and then wash it out with a good amount of reverb so it isn’t too bright. But other times, I like there to be less treble for a real low analog type tone. Best thing to do is to set your reverb to taste and then adjust your amp’s EQ to suit.
The last piece of the puzzle in great surf tones of course is the guitar itself. Fender makes great guitars for surf with one of the most popular being the Fender Jaguar, followed by the Fender Jazzmaster. Both have been used by countless surf guitarists. Also the Fender Strat will do an excellent job as well.
Aside from Fender, other great surf guitars are made by brands such as Mosrite, Murph, and Vox. Basically what you are looking for is a guitar that can get ultra-clean. Single coil pickups definitely help.
Then there is the 12-string electric guitar. This will get you some incredible surf tones. Allah Las, a surf band of today, uses a Murph Squire 12-string guitar to achieve some of the surfiest tones I’ve ever heard. I personally use a Rickenbacker 360-12 and when paired with my Fender Reverb Unit, the surf tones I get are incredible.
Surf Guitar Technique
Once you have all the equipment, you still won’t quite get there without having the technique down. Part of the sound is playing the guitar in a certain way. For example, many guitarists complain that they can’t get that “drip” sound. But in order to really achieve this, you have to palm mute the strings and pick individual notes. So definitely play around with palm muting. Another technique is tremolo, which is sort of like shredding but not quite. Basically you are picking the same string back and forth very quickly. If you do this while palm muting, you’ll sound just like Dick Dale.
Another amazing surf guitar technique definitely falls into the territory of psychedelic surf. If your guitar has a whammy bar, you can do some very surfy stuff by lightly using the whammy on chords. But do it very lightly and you’ll be rewarded with chords that bend into tune. Very surfy!
So I hope these suggestions help you achieve the wettest, drenched, and wavey surf guitar tones you can find!