One of the most memorable moments in the film of the 1969 Woodstock Festival was Santana’s voodoo-tinged Soul Sacrifice, with massed Latin percussionists and a blistering solo from a drummer who looked as if he’d bunked off school for the day. But it was the band’s eponymous guitarist who became the star. In fact, nearly 40 years later, Carlos Santana, who sits at number 15 in Rolling Stone's list of all time great guitarists, remains one of the favourites picks on LickLibrary.com, the world's leading online guitar tuition resource.
Carlos Augusto Santana Alves grew up in Mexico and was the son of a traditional ‘mariachi’ violinist. He took up violin at the age of five, switching to guitar when he was nine and moving to San Francisco – against his wishes – as a teenager. However, while that might suggest a natural affinity with the Latin American influences that became the hallmark of the early Santana line-ups, even as a youngster in Tijuana he was more drawn to R&B, rock’n’roll and the blues.
His band (at first a collective rather than simply a showcase for Carlos Santana’s guitar-playing talents) was originally called the Santana Blues Band. And Santana’s recording debut was as a stand-in for America’s foremost ‘white blues’ guitarist, Mike Bloomfield, whose drug problems had got the better of him during the recording of The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper at the archetypal hippy venue, Bill Graham’s Fillmore West.
Although the band had always used a percussionist, both Santana himself and keyboard player Greg Rolie, the band’s other driving force, were more interested in hard rock. It was only upon winning a recording contract and realizing that the rhythm section left something to be desired that the Latin American influence arrived, with José ‘Chepitó’ Areas joining Michael Carabello on percussion and Mike Shrieve taking over the drum chair. A new genre, Latin Rock, was the result, with Santana’s screaming bluesy guitar laid over a congas, timbales and kit-based rhythm section.
The promoter Bill Graham was a fan from the beginning, persuading the Woodstock organizers to put the band on the festival line-up even before they had an album release, and getting the band to cover Evil Ways – which got to number nine on the Billboard chart – for the first album, Santana.
That album made it to number four in the American charts, but it was the follow up, Abraxas (number one in the US, number seven in the UK), that really established Santana as a major force. The standout tracks are all Latin Rock: a latinesque version of Peter Green’s Black Magic Woman, the Tito Puente classic, Oye Como Va, and the Santana-penned instrumental, Samba Pa Ti. But for all its success, Abraxas also exposes the tensions in the group, with Rolie’s preference for straight ahead rock sitting uneasily alongside the jazz-influenced Singing Winds, Crying Beasts and Incident At Neshubar (guitar lessons available online for Santana tunes).
Santana had become fascinated by the music of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, which virtually ensured that straight rock lost out. Rolie duly left after the fourth album to found Journey. That fourth album, Caravanserai, is also a metaphor for a journey, in this case Carlos Santana’s increasing interest in spiritual religions. Though Latin rhythms still predominate, the new direction is obvious from the title of the opening track, Eternal Caravan Of Reincarnation, and its incorporation of modern jazz textures. Moreover, the Santana that plays on the album’s best cut, a cover of the Jobim classic, Stone Flower, is now plainly a jazz-latin rock fusion outfit, with guitar soloing to match.
Critics praised the album and it sold well, but it marked a departure from the formula that had won the band its fan base, and that continued as Carlos Santana was increasingly drawn to mysticism, especially through his admiration for the fusion virtuoso guitarist John McLaughlin and his band, The Mahavishnu Orchestra. For the next few years, the band’s sales fell steadily as its original fans were alienated by the sudden shift in direction. By 1976, Carlos Santana – by now owner of the band’s name and outright leader – had recognized the signs, and the albums Amigos and particularly 1977’s Moonflower marked a return to Latin Rock and commercial success.
Despite adherence to commercial advice from the Bill Graham organization, Santana could not hold back the tides of musical fashion, and gradually slipped out of favour, only to return in 1999 with Supernatural, which yielded Smooth (12 weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100) and sold over 15 million in America alone. A solo album with guest appearances from Eric Clapton along with a host of young stars, it won Album of the Year, Record of the Year, and Song of the Year among its nine Grammy Awards.
Santana’s style remains instantly recognizable in its use of humbucker-equipped guitars, and high gain settings to generate long high-pitched sustained notes interspersed with bluesy fills. His typical early setup comprised Gibson SGs through Fender Twins or Mesa Boogies (he is credited as the source of the ‘boogie’ element in the brand name), while he later became the first and most prominent endorser of PRS guitars. PRS now makes a Santana signature model.
For those wishing to learn more about Santana’s style, LickLibrary provides Santana tuition DVDs and video tutorials for downloading (including free samples), as well as TAB and sheet music options.