When you tell people you like surf music, get ready to explain that you don't mean the Beach Boys. I like the Beach Boys just fine but we're talking about fast pickin', whammy swervin', reverb drippin' excitement! Dramatic guitar instrumentals are cool, and surf is the coolest. So where did this music come from? If you dig, here is my take, bay-bee.
You already know surf came from the music and culture of Southern California in the late 50s, early 60s. Economic growth freed people to pursue their interests and new forms of self expression. Here was Dick Dale, creating his own music scene in Balboa, Big Daddy Roth building cars, people learning to surf. Vets returning from WWII and Korea inspired exotic tiki culture. Teen movies about dance parties, monsters, and drag racing opened new doors for music. Finally there were advances in recording and electronics. The biggest one was the Fender bass. Here was a bass you could actually hear, that could keep up with the drums. Fender bass changed all music, not just surf.
Remember who the big dawgs were at this time. Django Reinhardt died in 1953. Les Paul played guitar very fast. SoCal was full of country swing and honky tonk. Oh, man! Listen to Bill Doggett's Honky Tonk Parts I & II, and Ernie Freeman's Raunchy; swings so hard you might need a neck brace. Listen to Jimmy Bryant & Speedy West, Duane Eddy, the Champs, Chuck Berry's in there somewhere, and of course, the Ventures. This is the cradle of surf music. Guitar instrumental bands exploded in other countries too, Shadows in the UK, Jokers in Belgium, Spotniks in Sweden, and the Rautalanka style in Finland which sounds a lot like surf.
Did the British invasion kill surf? Maybe not. It was already evolving into psychedelia and obnoxious pretend cowboy music like the Eagles. By the 70s it was gone. But then came punk, which revived the garage band ethos. Somehow, punk led to a rockabilly revival in the 80s and by the nineties, surf was back! Yeah, yeah... Tarantino, blah blah... he saw Surf was already on the rebound and followed the trend. Favorite bands of this era, Ramones, Clash, Cramps, Stray Cats.
Modern surf bands would include Eliminators, Mermen, Aquavelvets, Man or Astroman, Insect Surfers, Slacktone, Daikaiju, Surf Trio, Los Straitjackets and more. Just like before, it branches out to other genres. These would include prog-rock, metal, ambient and all kinds of genre bending fusion. What makes a surf music fan? I dunno.
So when you tell people you like surf music and they say Surf? Really? You can look 'em in the eye and say Surf! Really!