Whimsical Surf
(Surf Insanitizers)


Released in time for Summer 2010, The Insanitizers have a rave up on Whimsical Surf. The 17 cut all instrumental CD is just the ticket to get things moving in this summer heat. Interestingly, all the tracks were written and/or arranged by Insanitizers guitarist Conrad Swartz, who really cuts loose with a blockade of power chords and roaring surf-rock licks while getting some rocking support from Tim Ennis and Mike Martin (percussion) and Ralf Palin (bass). In addition to a love of The Ventures and Dick Dale, Conrad and company also like to surf out on vintage classical melodies from classicists like Tchaikovsky, Rossini and Grieg while also sporting some interesting influences like Alfred Hitchcock’s theme song! All done surf-style, Whimsical Surf is pretty authentic from start to finish. The CD sounds great and the band has done a super job packaging their silver disc CD with excellent digi-pak graphics. Check The Insanitizers out on and and Facebook!

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with CONRAD SWARTZ of The Insanitizers

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Musical Background

My mom insisted on piano lessons when I was young. Playing our piano was like running in sand. It had been a motorized player piano, but the automation was removed. Striking notes took fingers of steel and that’s what I developed. Later, in junior high typing class, classmates would gather to watch me type a hundred words per minute on our manual typewriters.

My first guitar came from a department store. It too needed steel fingers. After plunking through “Alfred’s” book series I took lessons from Sid Margolis, Arthur Godfrey’s guitarist. My second guitar was a 4 pickup Zim-Gar with a Louisville Slugger neck and chrome like a ‘60s Chevy. Friends and I put together a band and played at the New York World’s Fair several times.

Fighting with these guitars remained a hobby as I pursued a Ph.D., an MD, and then a career as a med school prof. I listened to the Ventures and the Shadows while toiling through manuscripts. In 1989, in a waiting room, I read a hospital administration magazine feature about a doc who enjoyed playing guitar like Yngwie. This led me to buy a good guitar and develop my skills.

In 2000 I started recording on computer. This strongly improved my skills. In 2002 I started recording with another doctor who plays drums, Mike Martin. Then I would add bass and nearly always a track or two of guitar or guitar synth. It became fun to develop original songs this way. I found engineering the recordings to be as complex as guitar playing, but my engineering background helped me learn.

New CD

My plan was for listening to be fun. For this I must have fun playing the songs. So, most of the songs are uptempo, lively, vigorous, and energizing, and the two slow songs are sardonic. This is why the CD is named “Whimsical Surf.” There is no wondering when a vocalist will start, it is immediately clear that the guitar is the focus. Recordings were made in my home studio, now a huge room with a 16 foot ceiling. I recorded 15 songs with drummer Mike Martin on Roland V-drums; these give consistently clear recordings of every drum and cymbal. I handled percussion on “Waterboard Surfing” and “Dance Like A Robot.”

Guitar timbres vary widely among the songs on the CD, to suit the mood of the pieces. Some guitar leads are squeaky clean and shimmering, others use mild overdrive, and the bridge in “Head-Spin” uses a sizzling smoky distortion. Five songs use an unusual multi-drive effect. When two or more notes are played together the multi-drive effect sounds brassy or woody, not thick or fuzzy. If I bend several strings it sounds like a violin ensemble.

Five songs are based on classical music. The main theme of “Sugarplum” is as Tchaikovsky wrote it—with the same sequence of diminished chords—but the duet, surf style, intro, bridge, and ending are original. The variations I wrote in “Mountain King” avoid the repetitiousness in other versions I’ve heard. “Polkzart” plays the theme of Mozart’s 40th Symphony as a polka. Gounod’s “…Marionette” march, famous as the Hitchcock theme song, accounts for most of the main theme in "Puppetor". The other themes are impressionistic variations. This song was originally scored for bassoon, and the multi-drive guitar sounds similar to it here. With manically vigorous drums and bass, “Masked Man” has galloping energy beyond Rossini’s symphonic scoring. This is the piece I always wanted to play on the guitar; when I play it I am “The Lone Ranger.”

Experiments with the vibrato arm led to “Froggy’s Magic Twanger.” It has a series of riffs with almost continuous twangy string bending or vibrato. Sometimes I floor the vibrato with my left hand while picking with my right, all tunefully of course. Despite Duane Eddy I’ve never heard another piece with this much rocking twang. I love performing this because the eyes of the audience widen into saucers.

Another fun performance piece is “Surfin’ the Stars.” It takes me all over the neck and has showy riffs that must be played above the 12th fret on the lowest three strings. This is because open strings are essential to the riff. I posted a video of a different version of this piece on YouTube (under the name VentureShadow). I also entered this video in the 2010 Guitar Player instrumental competition and it ranked #6 in viewer ratings against all entries from classical to heavy metal; another recording of mine ranked #4 (“Surf Wall Street”; it’s not on this CD).

“Fantwango” was the most technically challenging piece. I played it thousands of times before this recording. This piece is unusual for combining finger picking with distortion. This is workable only because the distortion is multi-drive type, so there is no interference among multiple notes ringing at the same time. I posted a video of performing an earlier clean version on YouTube (again as VentureShadow).

“Head-Spin” earned its name in several ways. I once worked at St. Louis University, where the events associated with The Exorcist occurred. The song gives the image of escape on a speeding motorcycle, with heads spinning watching it go. It displays a dramatic contrast between the brassy multi-drive distortion of the main theme and more typical tube distortions, one sizzling and the other smoky.

Another song that uses guitar effects as sound effects is “Undertow.” Applying a phaser effect to the guitar chord riff shuttling between B and A chords and then between A and G chords produces a giant vacuuming sound. This doesn’t slow the pace at all, and this song barrels along with numerous double string glissandos that span 16 frets. There are none of the ordinary—even mundane—single string 12 fret surf glissandos here.

Still further down the guitar effects-sound effects path is “Hot Sauce,” which uses a Roland guitar synth to play rhythmic human voices. The synth human voices seemed both hilarious and sexy. The song also suggests traditional Eastern North Carolina clear hot sauce, so hot it can squeeze your voice. These voices are on top of a guitar riff intended to give a feel similar to the organ on “Green Onions,” although the note patterns are quite different. Of course there’s mysteriousness about what the hotness and the sauce are.

By recording all guitar parts myself, I myself keep all the instruments in harmony and balance. For example, in “Waterboard Surfing” the bass plays an unusual pattern of alternating notes an octave apart. At the same time the drums bang out a non repeating riff 8 measures long, while the guitar alternates between an oscillating Am-Bb-E-Am chord riff and six open strings. These mesh because of steady 8th notes on the bass with on-every-beat chords from the rhythm guitar.

As another example of harmony and balance, in “Dance Like A Robot” the robotic feel comes from similar but not identical parts on the two guitars and the bass. Probably because I play both parts of duets, they are strikingly synchronized even when at rocket speed, as in “Beerocracy,” “Sugarplum,” and “Last Laugh.” “Last Laugh” portrays a contrast between surf riffs and blues riffs. “Beerocracy” gives me the image of drunken Cossacks knee dancing in a tavern. It is followed by “Fowl Ball,” which gives me the image of drunken poultry knee dancing in the hen house. “Fowl Ball” contains my fastest improvisations. Unlike jazz, the surf genre does not give the opportunity to leisurely deliberate about improvised notes. You decide as fast as you can, plug it in, and barrel ahead.

In contrast, “Lost in the Third Dimension” has no improvised notes, but it contains a wide variety of improvised expressions. I do not recall being consciously aware of the expressiveness and its variations while I was playing the song, but the recording clearly shows them. Appropriately, this song is about the mysteriousness of the present. This song gives me images of craggy cliffs towering over crashing waves, of vast caves, and finally of mysteriousness.

A bassist friend said that I play bass guitar like a guitarist. This is probably because I play lots of 16th notes and note sequences that resemble lead guitar more than traditional bass riffs. I record with a 33-inch medium scale bass guitar. The two inch difference from standard length bass makes it much easier to play quickly.

Whimsical Surf is about art as well as music, and I’ve received many enthusiastic comments about the three paintings. The front cover and the disc use a painting I bought from artist D.R. Mullins of Bristol, Tennessee in 1998; he played bass guitar and I suppose the painting is biographical. The painting is large and hangs in my living room. The rear cover and the image under the disc use a painting by Sally Sherwood of Portland, Oregon. I was lucky to find it in an art exhibit there earlier this year. My wife Cynthia painted the picture of my surf guitar playing conjuring up rolling surf and fantastic creatures. It hangs in my music studio.

These recordings are used by the Insanitizers performing band for their parts. It has been straightforward and efficient for the band members to start learning a song from parts that work well. They can change their parts, but a reference that works well has been established. With me in the performing group are Ralf Palin on bass, Tim Ennis on drums, and Chad Van Dyke on guitar. They are excellent musicians with terrific positive attitudes and deep personal sincerity. It is a great pleasure to associate and perform with them.

Favorite Guitars

My feelings fluctuate, but I always like and trust my Steinberger USA GM guitar with built-in bass and treble boost/cut circuits. It stays in tune, the action is low, nothing ever needs adjusting on its bridge or composite material neck, the vibrato is smooth, it’s not heavy, and its humbuckers sound superb clean or dirty. It also has 3 single coils but I find them thin and shrill.

Another favorite is a Switch brand guitar made of an undisclosed dense hard plastic, with 3 pickups. It had two severe flaws that took about 5 minutes and $2 to fix: it wouldn’t stay in tune and it had the sustain of a mandolin, i.e., none. With a screwdriver I adjusted the vibrato to float; then it stayed in tune even with extreme whammies. With a few cents worth of epoxy I glued stacks of washers and quarters onto the vibrato arm block, and later I added some lead rod I bought from a fisherman’s store. These weights added wonderful sustain and note stability. Its stock single coil ceramic pickups sound sweet and surfy; I replaced the middle pickup with a humbucker for versatility. This guitar now has the same physical virtues as the Steinberger. It’s too bad Switch went out of business; the flaws I fixed may have contributed to this.

For recording I often use a Washburn Idol WI-64 guitar with a Bigsby I added. I replaced the bridge pickup with a double lipstick pickup. The action is mediocre but the double single-coil tone is superb for recording, chimey with depth. Another favorite is a guitar I radically surgerized. It started as a budget Kramer with excellent vibrato but weak everything else. I replaced pickups and saddles, epoxied weights onto the vibrato arm block, dressed the frets, and thinned the neck in half lengthwise using a rotary hand tool. Luckily I didn’t hit the truss rod. I installed four pickups including a long lipstick, with an 11-position rotary selector knob to engage any one or two pickups at a time.

My showiest guitar is a Goya Rangemaster full hollow body I bought new in 1965. It had the same mandolin-like sustainlessness as the Switch guitar, and I fixed it in the same way; now it sings with sustain. Its single-coil pickups have an unusual raucous growling twang.

Some of my guitars sound best with flatwounds, others with half-rounds, and some with regular wound strings. Differences among these three are enormous. Matching string type with guitar was trial-and-error, but the results were clear. The only flatwound set I’ve found with enough treble for my music is D’Addario ECG23. For regular wound strings I prefer a 9-46 set, but some of my guitars need a 50 or larger low E string to prevent buzzing or keep the string on the fretboard.

Pedal-wise I use digital multi-effects boxes by Line 6, Yamaha, and Roland for recording, and by DigiTech and Zoom for performing. I use an original Japanese Ibanez Tube King for sizzling or thick overdrive; I was lucky to buy one during their limited availability. For recording I use the effects that come with Sonar Producer.

I usually perform with a Traynor YCV20 tube amp, an equalizer pedal for finer tone control, and a multi-effects box for reverb, delay, and occasional phaser. This setup goes from saccharine clean to edgy to smoky harmonic distortion and anywhere in between.

Musical Influences

Classical music came first chronologically in my life. It is the basis of my awareness of all music. The straight-ahead feel of ‘60s rock and surf-rock music resembles early and middle classical music, such as Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. I guess this is why I quickly developed a liking for rock-n-roll in the 1960’s. When I was young I listened to classical music to saturation. Now I hardly hear most of it because of over familiarity. The same goes for the recordings of the Ventures and the Shadows. Buying the Ventures’ LPs as they came out in the ‘60s and ‘70s was as basic to my life as eating meals.

I have listened to the recordings of many recent surf-rock groups. For the past several years my favorite albums are Mission to Mir (2001) and Scandinavian Interlude (2004) by the Beat Tornados, an obscure foursome from Norway. They are fun, they have a good beat, and I like the recording mix—percussion is clearly present but does not dominate. I used to listen endlessly to Wishbone Ash’s all instrumental Nouveau Calls until I noticed that ninety percent of the sound was percussion and the lead guitar track had the lowest volume. Now I avoid such mixes. Another favorite is Moving Target by Jon and the Nightriders; its sound is gorgeous. Get Bach! self-released by the Baronics is a fun combination of classical music and surf-rock. Their version of Vivaldi’s “Summer” is the only waltz time energetic surf-rock I can point to.

For vocals I like witty lyrics, so Weird Al, Green Day, and The Polkaholics. My Polkaholics friend Don Hedeker is encouraging me to sing. I have been writing song lyrics. He’s a dangerous musical influence because I might start singing them. I did post one vocal on Jango, in sympathy with our soldiers overseas, “The Sandbagged Bagdad Blues.” Its guitar track is very peculiar but fits perfectly, with a sardonic play on “Caissons…Rolling.”

Upcoming Plans

I am half a dozen original recordings into another instrumental CD. These recordings sound and feel different from each other, from the Whimsical Surf CD, and from everything else. Still, I will wait for sales of Whimsical Surf to develop before producing another CD. The Insanitizers band has been performing in the Portland, Oregon area, including the annual Hawaiian festival. We are on the lookout for more gigs in Oregon and Washington State. I toured parts of Asia and Scandinavia as a professor, lecturing to enthusiastic audiences, and I’d be delighted to tour there with the band.

Web Site

The Whimsical Surf CD is available at: and

Our website is Some free MP3 downloads are available at You can find my videos on by searching on VentureShadow. You can contact me at:


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