Systematic variations in P-wave radiation patterns, evident in a data set of 400 central California earthquakes, have been analyzed for variations in velocity contrast across the San Andreas fault zone. Vertical strike-slip faulting characterizes the region, with radiation patterns well constrained by the dense local seismographic station network. A discontinuity in crustal velocity occurs across the San Andreas fault. The distribution of systematically inconsistent first motions indicates that first arrivals observed along the fault plane within the northeastern block have followed refracted paths through the higher velocity crustal rocks to the southwest, retaining P-wave polarities characteristic of the quadrant of origin, and thus appearing reversed. A simple geometrical interpretation, with P waves refracted at the fault plane near the focus, yields the velocity contrast across the fault zone; the distribution of hypocenters allows its mapping in time and space. The velocity contrast so determined ranges up to 15 per cent, for a depth range of 1 to 10 km. The observed pattern of contrast values is coherent, with the greatest contrast related apparently in space, and possibly in time, to the larger earthquakes occurring on the fault. We suggest the phenomenon reflects changes in stress state at the fault and, by virtue of its ease of measurement, offers a new and valuable technique in earthquake studies.