How to Play a Bass Surf Guitar

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Surf music was a popular form of rock music that flourished in the early 1960s. The movie "Pulp Fiction" used surf music for its soundtrack and this helped to popularize surf music and make it hip once again. Surf music was one of the first popular forms of music to make extensive use of the electric bass guitar. If you are interested in learning how to play surf bass guitar, take the time to study the music and find the right sound.

Things You'll Need

  • Bass guitar
  • Bass amplifier
  • Guitar pick
  • Surf music recordings
  • Metronome
  • Get the right equipment. Surf musicians rely mostly on Fender guitars and Fender amplifiers. Danelectro and Mostrite guitars were also popular because they were less expensive. Buy a Fender bass, or Fender copy, and plug it into a Fender bass amplifier.

  • Develop your right hand and timing techniques. Learn how to play the strings with your index and middle fingers, and with a guitar pick as well. Surf bass guitarists use both techniques. Play the open strings and don't worry about fretting the notes. Practice with a metronome to develop timing technique. Set the metronome at a slow pace to play in 4/4 time. The metronome will click 1-2-3-4. Play half notes, two notes per four-beat measure. Play quarter notes, one note per beat. Play a quarter note on the first and third beats while remaining silent on the second and fourth beats. Play eighth notes, two notes per beat. Practice the exercises with both your fingers and a guitar pick. The guitar pick works well for eighth notes.

  • Develop proper left hand technique. A simple exercise for the left hand is the chromatic scale. Play the first string open, then play the first fret with your first finger, the second fret with your second finger, the third fret with your third finger, and the fourth fret with your fourth finger while plucking the string with your right hand. Keep your thumb on the back of the guitar neck. Continue the exercise on the other three strings.

  • Study the Ventures and other surf music icons. Surf music is divided into two types, instrumental music and vocal music. The Ventures are an example of the former and the Beach Boys are an example of the latter. The Ventures used two guitars, a bass guitar and drums. Link Wray, Dick Dale and the Del-Tones also helped to create the surf music songbook. Study the recordings to understand the role of the bass guitar in surf music.

  • Learn basic chord theory and arpeggios. Since the music is heavily guitar based, most of the songs are in guitar-friendly keys such as E, A, G, C and D. The songs tend to be three-chord songs. Walking bass lines in rock music tend to stay with the primary notes of the chord rather than playing chromatic tones like jazz bassists. Chart out the notes for each chord in the primary key. For example, the primary chords for the key of C major are C, F and G (and G7).

  • Play walking bass lines. The bass guitar in surf music usually plays a walking bass line, playing one note for each beat. The simple way to play a walking bass line is to play the arpeggio and add the sixth or seventh note of the scale. For example, a walking bass line for C major would be C-E-G-A-C-A-G-E played over two measures.

  • Learn to play "Pipeline" by the Ventures, one of the most well-known surf music songs. It is relatively simple to play on the bass. The song has three parts: an intro, the main body of the song and a bridge. The song is in the key of E minor. The intro is all E minor. The bass guitar simply plays E on the first beat and B on the third beat. The main body of the song is divided into two parts. Part one is E minor for four measures and A minor for four measures. The second part alternates between B major and C major. Charted out it looks like Em-Em-Em-Em-Am-Am-Am-Am-B-C-B-C. Play E on the first beat and G on the third beat for E minor. Play A on the first beat and C on the third beat for A minor. Play the B and C for B major and C major. The bridge walks down from A minor, to G major, to F major to E minor. Simply play A-G-F-E on the bass.

  • Build a surf music repertoire. Listen to the recordings and figure out the bass lines that the bass guitarist is playing. Tweak your amp and bass guitar to match the tone of the bass guitar on the recording.

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  • Photo Credit Thomas Northcut/Lifesize/Getty Images
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