When he was just 15 years old, Bob Berryhill wrote one of the most iconic rock riffs of all time.
As a member of The Surfaris, known for the smash hit “Wipe Out,” the guitarist is a living legend of surf rock who inspired countless kids to pick up an instrument or hit the waves—and, sometimes, both.
These days, The Surfaris is a family affair, featuring Berryhill’s wife Gene on bass and sons Deven and Joel on guitar and drums respectively.
“You gotta be careful what you do when you’re young—you might stick with it!” Berryhill laughs, remembering the early days.
His parents were country musicians whose friends often jammed at the house. Berryhill found himself being handed a guitar and instructed to play along.
When he was 13, the family took a vacation to Hawaii; while there, Berryhill saw a great ukulele player and fell in love with the instrument.
“The next morning,” he recalls, “I saw the young man that had played the ukulele walking across the lanai. I ran up and said, ‘Hey, can you pick out a ukulele for me? I want to learn to do this.’”
The musician agreed. He and Berryhill went downtown to a music store and chose the perfect model. For the rest of the trip, Berryhill sat in the hotel lounge playing the ukulele with his case open.
“I had candy money for the whole trip!” he chortles.
When he returned to California, Berryhill wanted to learn more. When his local music store told him they didn’t have a ukulele teacher, he was pointed in the direction of a guitar teacher, a woman with a blonde Fender Stratocaster electric guitar. For two years, he learned and played in recitals. Eventually, Berryhill’s teacher invited the budding musician to perform in bands.
“I was really excited about playing instrumental rock music,” he says.
He wasn’t the only one; many kids Berryhill’s age were forming garage bands and playing Fender instruments, which Berryhill’s played his whole life and continues to rock to this day.
“The garage was the only place our parents would let us play,” he says. “We played so loud we had to shut the garage door before the cops showed up! There were lots of kids playing drums, kids in marching bands, kids who played saxophone, trumpets. And Fender started as an economical way for kids to get into music...the Strat, Tele, Jag, all designed so kids could afford it. Kind of like surfboards—they started big and heavy, then made them small so kids could ride them. It was a guitar that was simple and tough and could be beat up. It was loud, it was inexpensive, but fun. We’d sit around and play music for all hours.”
The Surfaris—Berryhill, Pat Connolly, Jim Fuller, and Ron Wilson—played their first gig at a high school sock hop (they hadn’t played with Wilson, the drummer, until the event itself).
“We showed up and we just hit it off,” Berryhill says. “It happened naturally.”
In December 1963, the band headed to neighboring Cucamonga to record an original song, “Surfer Joe.”
“Once ‘Surfer Joe’ was recorded, [the producer] said, ‘Boys, you need a second song for your 45!’” Berryhill recounts. “We’d never written a second song! So Ronnie starts playing this drumbeat, which was exciting. I put some chords, we got a bass, melody line—gotta be more than a drum solo—and we start playing.”
Fuller pulled a switchblade from his pocket and clicked it open over the microphone.
“‘He said, ‘Let’s call it ‘Switchblade!’” says Berryhill. “Then the recording engineer said, ‘Why don’t you go out, get a piece of wood, break it over the mic, and get a real noise?’”
Berryhill’s dad did just that.
“It sounded like a busting surfboard,” he explains. “But there was already a song called ‘Bustin’ Surfboards.’”
That’s when the studio owner, Dale Smallen, ripped a big laugh and cried, “Wipe out!”
“Two weeks later, we had a 45,” Berryhill remembers. “‘Surfer Joe’ on one side, ‘Wipe Out’ on the other. It came out January 1962. In April, it was Number One in L.A.”
Life changed quickly for the California teens.
“You look at any boy band today, it’s the same,” says Berryhill. “Suddenly, your phone starts ringing—they want you to come play with The Beach Boys, come on TV shows. It’s a whole lifestyle change. Suddenly, you’re going to Hollywood—razzamatazz! Suddenly, you’re hanging out with old people! With Glen Campbell, with stars! You create something, it’s like inventing the hula hoop—it changes a guy’s life.”
“Wipe Out” rose to No. 2 on the Billboard charts and spent four months total on the national Billboard chart. It’s considered one of the greatest instrumental songs of all time and has been played on the radio over five million times. This year, Berryhill’s 1962 Fender Reverb Unit was featured in the Musicians Hall of Fame Museum.
To this day, “Wipe Out” can be heard in countless movies and television shows, including Dirty Dancing, Surf’s Up, The Sandlot, and more, which Berryhill loves.
“I just love the creativity,” he says admiringly. “People take the song and put it in so many creative endeavors.”
After all these years, Berryhill still enjoys shredding and even teams up with old surf pals like The Ventures; they’ll tour Texas and the Midwest once The Ventures return from their Japan tour.
Above all, Berryhill loves meeting fans and hearing the stories of “Wipe Out.”
“We really love playing and really want to hear their stories,” he says. “People love this song. Guitar teachers, drum teachers come up and say, ‘I teach this—it’s a cadence that’s really straight-forward that my students need to learn.’ It’s beautiful, well-thought out, well-orchestrated music, and it’s very entertaining. We look forward to spending the next ten years giving everybody a dose of what it really sounds like to make this dance surf music.”