Fun, Fun, Fun: Carl Wilson's Life as a Beach Boy

The Beach Boys are often considered Brian Wilson's personal vehicle, as if every bit of the group's music sprang directly from his head. It's true that Brian's songwriting, arrangements and production dominated these California dreamers, separated them from the pack and drove them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But it's also true that the Beach Boys would have sounded quite different if Brian's two brothers and cousin hadn't been involved.


It was Brian's cousin Mike Love, after all, who sang most of the lead vocals, and it was his brassy, R&B-flavored delivery that made those early surf and car songs so exciting. And Brian's middle brother Dennis was the one who was out riding the surfboard and racing cars. He gave the songs the authenticity they required. Other members -- co-founder Al Jardine and such later additions as Bruce Johnston, Glen Campbell, David Marks, Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chaplin -- all left their mark on the band as well.

But it was Brian's baby brother Carl who created and played most of those famous guitar riffs which combined the twang of Dick Dale with the voicings of Chuck Berry. And it was those guitar parts that made the Beach Boys a rock 'n' roll band rather than a jazz vocal group. Thousands of aspiring rock guitarists have learned Carl's licks off Beach Boys records, making him one of the unsung heroes of rock-guitar history.

Carl, who was also a brilliant harmony singer and underrated lead singer, died of lung cancer in 1998 at age 51. Back in 1982, however,'s Geoffrey Himes interviewed him and captured some revealing comments about his guitar style and his role in the Beach Boys.

At the time Carl had stopped touring with the group to focus on his second, and final, solo album. The following year Carl would rejoin the Beach Boys only to suffer through his brother Dennis' drowning in 1983. Carl, who remained with the band through 1997, was always the most sane and lucid member of an extremely eccentric group. How did you first start playing guitar?

Carl Wilson: The kid across the street, David Marks, was taking guitar lessons from John Maus, so I started, too. David and I were about 12 and John was only three years older, but we thought he was a shit-hot guitarist. John and his sister Judy did fraternity gigs together as a duo. Later John moved to England and became one of the Walker Brothers. That was really a beautiful time; David and I would go to John's house after school for our lessons. He showed me some fingerpicking techniques and strumming stuff that I still use. When I play a solo, he's still there. Did the surf-music scene in Southern California influence your playing?

Carl Wilson: Absolutely. A lot of stuff that people thought I invented was just the way people played guitar in L.A. At that time Dick Dale was really happening. He played at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Newport Beach. The Belairs were playing big dances. Surf music wasn't vocal then; it was guitar bands playing instrumentals in the style of the Ventures. Surf guitar was a real simple, hokey guitar style; they'd play the melody down in a lower register. These kids would buy these huge Marshall amps, crank them up and those simple little melodies would just roar. But Dick Dale was different from the rest, because he had more control and more bite. Ooh, Dick Dale; that's who you wanted to sound like if you were a guitarist in L.A. in those years. [Editor?s note, 7/8/00: Watch for upcoming video guitar lesson with Dick Dale.] How did the Beach Boys begin?

Carl Wilson: Brian had been fooling around at the piano for years, picking apart those Four Freshmen songs and putting them back together again. He would make me, my mom and Mike sing the harmonies he had figured out. He'd make us do that for hours. Then one day he got it in his imagination that he could do simpler, more direct music, rock 'n' roll. He thought he could put together a band and make music like we heard on the radio.

In the fall of 1961, my dad and mom went down to Mexico City on a business trip. They left us with $80 for food, spending money and emergencies. As soon as they left, we all got into Brian's car and went down to this music store on Hawthorne Avenue and rented some instruments. Alan's mom rented us a big acoustic bass, an amplifier, a couple guitars. I already had a guitar, a Kay that my dad had got me in Los Angeles. Alan had wanted to start a folk group, so he had been in touch with my dad's publisher, Hite and Dorinda Morgan. So we took our rented instruments down to the Morgans' home studio where they made their demos. In one afternoon, we recorded four songs: a song by the Morgans' son Bruce, one of Alan's folk numbers, one of Brian's Four Freshmen tunes and a song that Brian and Mike had made up called "Surfin'." I played guitar, Alan played upright bass, and Brian played snare drum with a pencil. In fact, he took his shirt off and put it over the drum because it was too loud. Mike was on one microphone and everyone else was on another mic. We sounded so shitty at first; we were so shaky and lame. After all, I was just 14 and a sophomore in high school. But "Surfin'" was released as a single.

Carl Wilson: Yes, and it became a local hit. I remember Dennis was so thrilled, because he was the only one of us who was actually living the surfing life. He went to high school, and his friends told him, "We were on the way home from the beach, totally exhausted from riding the waves all day, but when we heard your record on the radio, it turned us on so much we all went back to the beach." When the band signed with Capitol, how much of the guitar playing was you and how much was session guys?

Carl Wilson: A lot of it was stuff I came up with. On "Surfin' U.S.A.," for example, Brian wanted an opening lick and I just did this Duane Eddy riff. I was worried that it had been on another record, but what the hell. That was the first time we were aware we could make a really powerful record. For the first time, we thought the group sounded good enough to be played with anything on the radio. Instead of a hokey California style of music, Brian had moved into mainstream rock. Around the time of "Summer Days and Summer Nights" in 1965, Brian started using a lot more session players. A lot of times, I would share parts with Ray Pohlman. Brian also used Glen Campbell, Barney Kessel, Al Casey and Tommy Tedesco a lot on guitar for those sessions. We first started using session players on songs like "Fun, Fun, Fun," but I played that Chuck Berry riff from "Johnny B. Goode" on the intro and Brian played that rolling bass line. Why is that such a special song?

Carl Wilson: Because it starts so simple with that three-chord verse, but when you get into the chorus, the harmonies really stretch. It goes E to A-Flat Minor to A, B, A, A, A-Flat Minor and then a B suspended over the A. It spreads the harmony because it doesn't do what you think it should do. It resolves but it doesn't. The song is in E, but the instrumental break is in B and then it flip-flops to end the song. My dad said, "That tag sounds too funny; that high part sounds too weird. That part might make the song only go to number 13." What was Brian like in the studio?

Carl Wilson: He was a perfectionist. He had the whole song in his head before we started recording. Some of the other guys would take hours to learn their parts, but it was easier for me because I'd been singing with Brian since I was nine. Then we'd go into the studio, and he'd teach parts to the session musicians. Even though the music was written out, Brian would want something unorthodox, something special from each instrument. Sometimes the parts would seem weird, but when you put them all together, they fit perfectly like a puzzle. He knew every particle of music that was supposed to go down. I remember one session when there were a lot of players in the room making a big sound and Brian went, "Whoa!" Someone hadn't played an orchestra bell at the right time and naturally he heard it, so we had to start over from the beginning. I remember another time we were recording "Little Honda." He said, "Turn the amp up more," and I'd say, "Brian, it sounds horrible." He told me to play it like he wanted and I bitched at him, but when I heard the record, I said, "God, Brian, you were so right." I thought it sounded really fuzzy and distorted, but when I heard it in context, I realized it was perfect for the song.

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