10 Of The Greatest And Most Famous Surf Rock Bands

Written by Dan Farrant

Surf rock sprang out of surf culture, especially Southern California surf culture. It was at the height of its popularity between the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Surf rock consists of two forms. Instrumental surf rock used reverb-heavy guitars, bass, and drums to re-create the sounds of crashing waves. Vocal surf, on the other hand, made use of surf sound along with vocal harmonies.

If you want to know more about this genre, keep reading about 10 of the most famous surf rock bands. Enjoy reading!

1. The Beach Boys

It’s only right to start our list with The Beach Boys. While they didn’t invent surf rock, they were responsible for popularizing it. They were such a big deal that they were one of the few American bands to survive the onslaught of the British Invasion.

The Beach Boys formed in Hawthorne, California, in 1961. They’ve recorded 29 albums throughout their career, selling over 100 million records. Their biggest hits include “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” which reflected the culture of surfing. They also recorded “Surfin'” and “Surfin’ Safari.”

However, starting in 1965, they stopped with their beach themes and focused on more personal lyrics. The band enjoyed further success with their singles “California Girls” and “Wouldn’t it Be Nice.”

2. The Surfaris

Our next band, The Surfaris, is an influential instrumental surf rock band formed in Glendora, California, in 1962.

They released 11 albums during their career, but their hit “Wipe Out” made them famous and created a legacy. The members of the band themselves wrote the song. “Surfer Joe” and “Wipe Out” were the A-side and B-side of the band’s 45 rpm single. Both of these songs charted successfully.

“Wipe Out” became one of the most memorable instrumental songs, thanks to its drum solo. The single hit #2 in the U.S. charts in 1963 and became a hit internationally. For this song, The Surfaris were inducted into the Musician’s Hall of Fame and Museum in 2019.

3. Jan and Dean

The vocal surf rock duo Jan and Dean consists of William Jan Berry and Dean Ormsby Torrence. The two met in high school in Los Angeles, where they were both football players, and ended up harmonizing in the locker room.

If the Beach Boys made surf rock famous, it was Jan and Dean who cut the trail. One of their biggest hits is “Surf City,” the very first surf rock song to hit #1. It remained on that spot on Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks.

Jan and Dean’s peak commercial success fell between 1963 and 1964. They had an impressive 16 top 40 hits on the Billboard charts in their career together.

4. Dick Dale & His Del-Tones

Up next is Dick Dale & His Del-Tones, considered the true pioneers of instrumental surf rock music. Dale’s “Let’s Go Trippin’” was one of the first surf rock songs, and he was highly influential in the genre.

Dale used Middle Eastern music scales in his playing along with reverb. His tremolo picking and his quest to get the most out of amplifiers made him a significant influence on heavy metal as well.

Dale released six albums with His Del-Tones and four solo albums. Some of his biggest hits include “King of the Surf Guitar” and “Misirlou.”

5. The Astronauts

Our next band, The Astronauts, formed in Boulder, Colorado, in 1961 and was active until 1968. They assumed their band name in tribute to astronaut Scott Carpenter who was also born in Boulder.

Though The Astronauts were local celebrities, they weren’t as successful as the other bands on this list. Their first single under RCA Records, “Baja,” came out in 1963 to a lukewarm reception. It was an instrumental that reached #94 on the Billboard Hot 100.

They kept releasing singles, hoping for something to catch without much luck. They then released four full-length albums over nine months. Their album, Surfin’ with The Astronauts, made it to #61 on the Billboard charts.

6. The Trashmen

Up next is The Trashmen, a rock band with its roots in Minneapolis, Minnesota. They took their name from the Kai Ray-penned song “Trashman’s Blues.”

The Trashmen became interested in surf rock after listening to Dick Dale. They then conceptualized “Surfin’ Bird,” which their audience liked when they performed it. The song was a mix-up of The Rivington’s “The Bird’s the Word” and “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow.”

“Surfin’ Bird” became the band’s stand-out hit and their biggest claim to fame. It hit #4 on the Billboard Hot 100. The Trashmen never had wide commercial success after “Surfin’ Bird,” although they did have another single on the Billboard Hot 100 with “Bird Dance Beat,” reaching #30.

7. The Chantays

What made The Chantays different from other surf rock bands is their use of electronic keyboards and surf guitar. They were able to create ghostly sounds, unlike the other bands.

The Chantays were formed in Orange County, California, by high school friends. Just a year later, they recorded their hit instrumental song “Pipeline.” It reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100.

“Pipeline” is one of the most famous and iconic instrumental surf songs, second only to “Wipe Out.” It has been covered often and frequently appears in film and television.

The Chantays released four albums in their career together. Other famous songs include “Blunderbus” and “El Conquistador.”

8. The Challengers

Coming up is another instrumental surf rock band, The Challengers. The band formed out of Bel-Airs, a surf rock band that broke up following a disagreement over artistic decisions.

The Challengers used to play in high school dances and local clubs. Eventually, they had enough money to record their debut album, Surfbeat. The album contained songs that had influenced surf rock.

Shortly after its release, Surfbeat climbed the charts. It became the best-selling surf album of all time.

The band’s success continued as they released a few albums a year. This was surprising, considering that most artists produce an album every two years.

9. Man Or Astro-Man?

While surf rock had a very short time in the sun in the 60s, bands like Man or Astro-Man? drew heavily from its waters and kept it alive.

The band formed in Auburn, Alabama, in 1992. This primarily instrumental band performed under the guise of being aliens sent to Earth to play surf rock. The members have personas, which include Star Crunch (Brian Causey), Birdstuff (Brian Teasley), and Coco the Electronic Monkey Wizard (Robert Del Bueno).

Besides conventional surf rock sounds, they have a highly experimental approach. They used odd instruments and sounds that are not technically instruments. They also used samples and sound bites from old science fiction movies and television.

10. La Luz

Last on the list is the contemporary surf-rock band La Luz. They are a Seattle band formed in 2012 whose members were inspired by surf and rock and roll personalities such as Dick Dale.

They’ve released four albums on Hardly Art Records, all of which brought them acclaim. Their sound is often called surf noir and is heavily influenced by surf rock, do-wop, and girl groups. The heavily reverbed, recognizably surf rock guitars are all there, but so are almost haunting layers of vocal harmony.

La Luz’s most significant songs include “Call Me in the Day,” “Mean Dream,” “In the Country,” and “I Wanna Be Alone.”

Summing Up Our List Of Great Surf Rock Bands

Thanks to these extremely talented and hardworking bands, surf rock was born and became a genre that’s here to stay.

The British Invasion might have affected surf rock’s commercial popularity and success. But these bands are responsible for the genre’s evolution. Without them, we wouldn’t have known “Surfin’ USA,” “Surf City,” or other cool surf music.

So if surf rock interests you, check out the surf songs that made each band memorable in music history.

Photo of author

Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.