Don Wilson, surf music pioneer, dies at 88

Rhythm guitarist Don Wilson, co-founder of surf music staple the Ventures, has died at age 88, his family said Saturday.

He passed peacefully of natural causes in the early morning with his four adult children at his side in his native Tacoma, Washington, his family said in a statement.

“Our dad was an amazing rhythm guitar player who touched people all over world with his band, the Ventures,” son Tim Wilson said in the statement.

Wilson was the last of the band’s surviving original members.

The Ventures have sold more than 100 million records and are the best-selling instrumental rock group in history, according to the band’s and Wilson’s websites. Among the band’s most notable and familiar records is its version of the theme to television’s original “Hawaii Five-O” show and its trademark, left-breaking wave.

Despite being based along a stretch of Puget Sound that’s nearly 100 miles from icy ocean waves and nearly 2,700 miles from surfing’s birthplace in Hawaii, Wilson and construction coworker Bob Bogle, both budding rockers, founded the band in the Pacific Northwest in 1958.

That was the year before the movie “Gidget” helped surfing culture explode across the nation and three years before the Beach Boys started harmonizing about beach life from its Hawthorne, California, base. The Ventures even predated Dick Dale’s early 1960s evolution from country musician to “king of surf guitar.”

Dale has described his screaming licks as so rhythmic that it’s “like I’m playing drums.” Perhaps it’s no coincidence, then, that Wilson had anchored the Ventures with rhythm guitar.

When he inducted the Ventures in to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty said, “The sound of it became surf music, and the audacity of it empowered guitar players everywhere.”

Wilson seems to agree with that statement. He’s argued in the past that the Ventures were adopted by the ’60s surfing craze, not vice-versa.

In a 2020 email interview with People to publicize the release of his documentary, “The Ventures: Stars on Guitars,” produced with the help of family, the band’s co-founder said, “We never set out to be a surf band.”

“Honestly, I love playing surf music — it’s very fun and it makes you feel good,” Wilson said. “But we never really considered ourselves a surf band. It was just all these things coming together — the surf culture, the electric guitar, Americana — when we were coming up in the early 1960s.” 

Still, the act wasn’t above capitalizing on the craze. Wilson and Bogle later performed and recorded a version of the Surfaris’ classic, “Wipe Out.”

Wilson, a fan of country and Western, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, and Tommy Dorsey, began plucking chords on the ukulele -like Spanish tiple as a boy. After high school he served 19 months in the U.S. Army. When he returned, he gravitated to guitar, like many in his generation.

It’s been said the Ventures first formed about 30 miles north of Wilson’s hometown, although Tacoma and Seattle news media have each claimed the band as its own.

The band-endorsed book, “The Ventures Essential Albums Discography,” said Wilson’s mother, Josie Wilson, helped the duo record their first music.

Wilson and Bogle used the name the Versatones for their initial gigs but, according to the book, they discovered that name was taken. They settled on the Ventures to represent the duo venturing into a new career.

The duo was joined by yet another guitarist, the late Nokie Edwards, who is credited more than anyone else with the band’s surf guitar sound. With the Oklahoman’s influence, the Ventures’ version of jazz guitarist Johnny Smith’s “Walk Don’t Run” reached the singles pop chart in 1960 and eventually rose to No. 2.

Bogle played bass and guitar. Mel Taylor on drums and Gerry McGee on yet another guitar rounded out the group, which found a niche in instrumental tracks.

When the group performed “Walk Don’t Run” on Dick Clark’s eponymous television show in 1960, he introduced the tune, with its go-go drums and familiar surf melody as “probably the biggest instrumental record of the day.”

The band survived changes in its lineup and even deaths by moving on with new members, including drummer Leon Taylor, who joined in 1996 to fill the shoes of his late father, Mel. Wilson kept performing with the touring act until his 2015 retirement.

With his passing the Ventures may have ridden their last wave.

“He will have his place in history forever and was much loved and appreciated,” son Tim said. “He will be missed.”