Stuck at home with your guitar, waiting for all of this to be over? If you took the lockdown as an opportunity to practice your instrument more, and to get creative, we might have something for you! As summer slowly unfolds itself, it is time to turn up the reverb and get surfing with Martin Schmidt’s aka The Incredible Mr Smith brand new Surf Guitar Book.
If you are a fan of the surf and mod culture, you will surely have heard of Martin’s band : The Razorblades (listen on Spotify). Originally from Wiesbaden (Germany), Martin founded his first band at the age of 17, turned pro a few years later and hasn’t put the guitar down ever since. Aside from touring the world, he worked as a guitar instructor, music journalist and composer. He also runs his own record label General Schallplatten and wrote the books Surf Beat (an encyclopaedia of surf music) and Der Gitarrenheld (a playbook for guitarsits), both in German. We recently had a little chat with Martin about his book, his advice for guitarists eager to start learning surf guitar and his love for English tea…
There aren’t a lot of books about surf guitar, and there certainly weren’t any books about surf guitar techniques. That was until Martin sat down and decided to write one! How long did it take? Martin says “I had the idea for a book like this in the early 2000s, when I really got into surf music. It turned out to be a project I never had the time for until last year. The actual writing took about three months, March to June 2019… In March/April 2020 I recorded all the backing tracks and audio files, did the final proof reading and started my Startnext campaign. That was finished on May 4 and we are now ready to print and ship orders!”
How did he get on? “I had no problems writing the book, since my concept was pretty clear and tried out on a few Surf guitar workshops. I just had to write down the stuff I was telling people at workshops or in guitar lessons and bring it into a reasonable order.”
Martin has been a professional musician for 30 years, focussing on surf guitar for 20 years now. Writing and structuring his book was natural to him. He explains : “It’s not really the first book that was written about surf guitar, but the first one that tries to explain the style in a way that is common for styles like blues, rock, jazz or classical music. You define the typical techniques, chord progressions and scales, then show how they are used in surf music and in the end, put them together in complete songs that you can practice with a backing track.
I learned to play surf music by doing it and talking to most of all active surf musicians. From 2003 to 2008 I was working for a fanzine called Banzai and interviewed tons of surf musicians about their history, playing style and guitar gear, so I got a lot of information from the people who invented and developed the style further. I’m also friends with a lot of surf guys and could use their songs in the book and ask them directly how the play certain things.”
What makes The Surf Guitar Book special, I hear you say? Can you really learn how to play a new style from a book? Martin says :“I think there are a lot of American guitar books that work the same way and explain styles like blues or jazz. This is a book about surf music that works in the way books about these other styles work. Personally, I don’t like books that waste too much space and time with theoretical explanations. It’s good to know the basics of a style, but it’s more important to be able to play something than knowing all the clever names how to call a chord or a playing technique. So I tend to have examples that sound good and are playable, if I want to show you a theoretical concept. If I explain a scale, I would name a few songs that uses this scale, show you how it’s used and if you can remember the name of the scale, it’s fine. Surf music is also a very melody-orientated style and therefore it’s good to learn full songs instead of short licks or riffs, like you might do in Metal or Blues. That’s why I featured 20 complete songs in the book.”
Who was it written for? Can a beginner pick up the book and start playing? Martin’s answer is encouraging : “you should know the basic elements of guitar playing to benefit from it. But it has simpler and more advanced songs in it and you can improve your allover playing level with surf music, no doubt about that. The book can be an entry into the world of surf guitar, but also has more advanced concepts for players that already are active in surf music.”.
If you’re only starting learning guitar, and are eager to get into surf music, Martin’s advice is simple : listen to the music, learn the most famous surf songs, try to understand the technical and theoretical side of it and then keep practicing! “Surf music has a very flattering sound and offers a lot of musical possibilities, from super simple to very complicated. It’s also a style that hasn’t been overdone, so it’s much easier to put your own ideas and spin in it than for blues or rock, where you have to compete with all the great players…” says Martin.
As a professional guitarist and a surf music specialist, Martin told us about his influences and favourite surf heroes : “my favorite surf guitarist of all times is Dave Wronski from Slacktone. I heard their album Warning! Reverb Instrumentals in 1999 and it really shook me and made me want to play this style of music… I really got a lot of information and advice from him, about playing and the gear involved, he really shaped my playing. I transcribed a lot of his songs, tried to get a similar sound like him and was hugely inspired by his way of composing and pushing surf music into new territory. I also became friends with Slacktone’s drummer Dusty Watson and recorded an album with him in 2006, which was also a great experience…
…Other guitarists I like a lot are Brian Connelly from Shadowy Man On A Shadowy Planet/ Atomic Seven and Dave Arnson from the Insect Surfers. I’m also a fan of Dick Dale and Link Wray. And of course, the German band called Fenton Weills. I played as a support act for them, when I was 18 and it was the first time I heard surf-related music. They did old movie themes, Hawaii Five O, some Link Wray in their own way. They had a cool Indie-meets-Cowboy-Movie-meets-Twang-Guitar style and after that concert I started to write music like that. So hats off to the FENTON WEILLS! Without them, there would be no surf guitar book!”
Eager to get your hands on the Surf Guitar Book? You can order it here. Martin is hoping to return to the UK soon : “I must admit that the UK plays a big role in my musical life. I love touring there, have a lot of friends in England and really like the friendly way the Brits have. There’s a Brighton inspired song in the book and my friend Jon Fagg from Los Fantasticos helped to put my English writing into shape. So I hope to inspire a British surf music revival and then we can tour there all year long!”
Find out more about The Razorblades‘ upcoming album Howlin’ At The Copycats in another interview to be published soon!
Interview with Martin Schmidt by Pauline Di Silvestro, May 2020.
Photos of The Razorblades at the Prince Albert (Brighton) by Pauline Di Silvestro, October 2018.