Surf Rock experienced a Renaissance in the last few years, influencing a wave of new indie artists. The ultimate surf guitar tone has several elements: a guitar, the amplifier, reverb, tremolo, and vibrato, but the sound starts with the guitar itself. A Fender Stratocaster, Jaguar (pictured) or Jazzmaster would be my personal choice. One of the secrets to the tone are the single coil pickups. There’s quite a difference between the vintage ones and the new ones, the older ones sound more organic, with more of a bell tone, and more surf like. There’s also a difference in price, so you make do with what you can.
I highly recommend a Fender amp to get the signature surf sound (which is a clean one), one with a spring reverb tank in it. A Fender Twin Reverb, Super Reverb, Princeton Reverb, Dual Showman Reverb, etc. – the key is reverb. An Ampeg Reverberocket (picture) would also sound great.
For the best reverb tone, one can purchase a separate reverb unit. The very best is a vintage Fender reverb unit, which sits on top of the amp.
These have the warmest and most organic sound. One can also use foot pedals for reverb, the Electro Harmonx Holy Grail (pictured) is my personal favorite.
Tremolo units create a hypnotic quick increase and decrease in volume. Vibrato is a difference in pitch, up and down. Both these effects are often used on surf rock records.
I personally like a thin pick, a Dunlop light grey .60mm pick, it facilitates the quick, flutter picking so common on surf records.
For great surf tone, check out artists like Dick Dale, Link Wray, the Ventures, the Shadows, the Bel Airs and the Northern Lights.
You can have all the gear in the world but ultimately it’s all in the fingers! – Howie Statland (Rivington Guitars)