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Laser-induced transient gratings (LITGs) at surfaces of absorbing materials were utilized to generate narrowband surface acoustic waves (SAWs). In these experiments, SAWs were excited thermoelastically by two crossed picosecond laser pulses and detected with an actively stabilized Michelson interferometer by measuring transient surface displacements in the sub-angstrom range in real time. In addition, coherent broadband SAW pulses with frequencies up to 350 MHz were excited by sharply focusing the laser beam with a cylindrical lens system onto the sample surface. The LITG experiments provide an extension of the frequency range achieved with the broadband SAW pulse technique. From the measurements of the dispersive SAW phase velocity for a 650 nm aluminum film on fused silica in the frequency range 10 MHz–1 GHz the density and elastic constants were determined by fitting the experimental data to the exact solution of the wave equations taking into account the boundary conditions. © 1997 American Institute of Physics.