The hidden guitar genius of the Beach Boys: five essential tracks for guitar lovers

The hidden guitar genius of the Beach Boys: five essential tracks for guitar lovers

The Beach Boys came to prominence in the golden era of guitar music, but while they were a band with two guitar players, it’s doubtful you’d ever call them a capital letter Guitar Band. But as with much about California’s favourite sons, when it comes to the guitar, things aren’t always what they seem.

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Undoubtedly, in an era when guitars and guitar players were defining music in the 1960s and 70s, The Beach Boys’ arrangements were so rich and dense and original that the guitar didn’t have the same prominence as was found in much of the music of the day.
They were employed as melodic foils or timbral additions, rather than the thrusting focal point of songs (as with The Beach Boys’ peers such as The Beatles, The Kinks, and The Rolling Stones).
But that’s where the genius and brilliance of the Beach Boys guitar parts is found. Your typical guitar heroes might teach you what to play, but The Beach Boys will tell you how to play. Their guitar parts are tasteful and elegant; they fill a space rather than demand attention.
The Beach Boys on a beach holding a surfboard. (L-R) Dennis Wilson, David Marks, Mike Love, Carl Wilson, Brian Wilson. Image: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
In truth it wasn’t always the case that guitars were secondary either – especially in the early days. After all, albums such as Surfin’ U.S.A. and Shut Down Volume 2 helped popularise – if not partly reinvent – surf music, with Carl Wilson’s rolling guitar lines (inspired by Dick Dale’s liquid playing) perfectly evoking the waves they sang about.
As the 1960s progressed, though, Brian Wilson (the group’s musical director) began to experiment more and more with arrangement, constructing increasingly ornate works such as Pet Sounds and the infamously shelved SMiLE album. Listen to anything from their underrated late-60s to early-70s period, where they cycle through an array of styles, and you’ll often have to strain to hear the guitars.
But they always had a role to play – even if it wasn’t at the forefront. Album liner notes will show that they even crop up in the most unlikely of places, from the baroque majesty of God Only Knows to the thrumming musical odyssey of Heroes & Villains. They’re on the bedroom pop psychedelia of Smiley Smile, the AOR of Carl And The Passions (So Tough), and even the underrated late 70s easy-listening efforts M.I.U. Album and L.A. (Light Album).
It might be said that The Beach Boys’ guitar parts play a role similar to the bass does for other artists – they might not take centre-stage, but they would be noticed in their absence. Indeed, the following guitar parts might not seem complex or virtuosic, but their deft interplay with the songs shows real mastery of the form, and the hidden guitar genius of The Beach Boys.

Lonely Sea (1963)

It’s always interesting to hear musical themes and ideas that will be explored in later albums. Lonely Sea (from Surfin’ U.S.A.) is one of the first signs that the group would not always be all about cars, girls, and surfing. Lonely Sea anticipates the darkness that would subsequently permeate much of The Beach Boys music – you might even see it as an embryonic version of 1971’s Til I Die. This track’s delirious melancholy is served perfectly by the wobbly, underwater-style tremolo effect. The simplicity of the guitar arpeggios acts as an anchor for the swelling choir of voices.

California Girls (1965)

The soaring orchestral prelude of The Beach Boys’ 1965 classic California Girls is built around one of the most iconic 12-string parts of all time, and is a perfect example of the group’s attitude to the guitar. Lesser groups would milk this crystalline riff for all it’s worth, but Brian Wilson simply allows it to play for twenty seconds then lets the rollicking arrangement take over. Somehow it sounds like the sun rising over a shimmering sea. Of all The Beach Boys’ pristine guitar parts, this one might be the most perfect. What a triumph.

Add Some Music To Your Day (1970)

Sunflower is one of the many Beach Boys albums that has been reevaluated in the years since its release. Despite setting a career low in terms of sales, the twelve tracks are some of the most well-crafted examples of sunny guitar pop ever created. Dennis Wilson’s Forever might be the best non-Brian composition committed to tape, while All I Wanna Do predates chillwave by about 40 years. Another highlight is the delightfully uncynical Add Some Music To Your Day. One of Brian Wilson’s most life-affirming tracks, the wide variety of vocal lines (each member takes a verse) is underpinned by a 12-string legato part chiming underneath. The subtle syncopation and flowing, liquid style is more difficult than you think.

Steamboat (1973)

Despite an Apocalypse Now-style development hell, Holland is one of the most consistent albums in The Beach Boys canon. Brian Wilson had very little to do with it, but Mike Love, the remaining Wilson brothers, and Al Jardine more than picked up the slack. Steamboat was written by Dennis Wilson (who was blossoming into a real creative force) and Jack Rieley, and features a scuzzy slide guitar solo that cuts through the track’s woozy, narcotic haze like a knife. The Beach Boys’ adherence to songwriting efficiency means that guitar solos are rare, but this incendiary example in Steamboat serves the song perfectly.

The Night Was So Young (1977)

The Night Was So Young, from The Beach Boys’ proto-synth punk album The Beach Boys Love You (seriously, if you haven’t heard this album, find it, and listen to it immediately), is one of Brian Wilson’s finest late-1970s compositions. Featuring thick analogue synths and a devastating chord progression, this song is perfectly complemented by two guitar lines woven inextricably around the vocal melody. The first is almost like the cry of a baby, while the second plays a meandering counter melody. They’re almost as singable as the heartfelt vocal parts, and it’s hard to imagine the song without them.
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