When it comes to the nebulous, poorly-defined term fusion, nobody has given the indistinct genre term more muscle and distinctive power than Carlos Santana. Beginning with his eponymous pioneering Latin rock outfit, Santana has blazed a trail so unique and singular that anyone attempting to play furious Dorian scales over Afro-Cuban percussion basically has to pay him restitution.
Even after the hippie-powered heyday of Santana in the late 1960s and early ’70s, the guitarist never stopped expanding the musical horizons of himself and those around him. Whether it was pairing up with jazz great like John McLaughlin and Alice Coltrane or channelling his work through the meditative guidance of Sri Chinmoy, Santana always seemed to be pushing past the constraining barriers of rock and roll.
As his fame faded throughout the ’80s and ’90s, Santana was part of a plan concocted by Clive Davis, who had signed Santana to his original recording contract to record a star-studded album that would feature a blend of contemporary and classic styles. The result, Supernatural, would once again catapult Santana to global guitar hero status. ‘Smooth’ might be a cliche at this point, but the power of Santana’s soulful playing keeps the album buoyant and joyful over two decades later.
Today, Santana focuses equally on the past and the future: a reunited version of the original Santana, featuring drummer Michael Shrieve, guitarist Neil Schon, and vocalist Gregg Rolie, continues to occasionally perform record, while Santana keeps a more modern version of the band on the road as well.
To celebrate the guitarist’s 74th birthday, here are six of his most stunning guitar solos that solidify his place among the legends of the six-string.
Carlos Santana’s best solos:
There’s a lot that goes on during a standard Santana song: crashing cymbals and a dense mix of percussion, garage rock-adjacent Hammond B3 organ, and chanting vocals are some of the features on ‘Jingo’ that can crowd the arrangement. But the one force that drives a straight line through all the disparate elements is Santana’s guitar.
Although he doesn’t get as much of an opportunity to show off on ‘Jingo’, Santana’s blistering lead figure is the glue that holds all of the other instruments together. And because this still is Carlos Santana, after all, there’s still time for a few mind-bending runs.
‘Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen’
One of the most indelible aspects of Santana’s music mind is his desire to meld some of the most dissimilar musical forms into a strange sort of harmonious cohesion. While the blues and traditional Chicano don’t necessarily share a ton of similarities, Santana sees the folk traditions of both and bridges the gap through a screaming amplifier.
You will be unlikely to find a more legendary or startling example of Santana’s incredible playing than in the intro to perhaps his most famous reworking of ‘Black Magic Woman’. Taking the bluesy strut of the Peter Green-led Fleetwood Mac original, Santana infuses his own sense of menace and tension, creating a beautiful, dark song of mystery and intrigue.
‘A Love Supreme’
Santana was always looking for inspiration beyond the standard rock and roll format of his namesake band, and some of his best work transcended the genre altogether. His dedication to jazz was obvious from his choice of notes and scales, but his first major forays into the art form came when he teamed up with guitarist John McLaughlin.
Taking on a titan of the genre, John Coltrane, Santana and McLaughlin dive headfirst into jazz guitar nirvana with their cover of A Love Supreme‘s ‘Acknowledgement’, here named solely after the album. Trading lines like their collective lives depend on it, Santana is able to show off his astute knowledge of the jazz form while McLaughlin gets to loosen up and play some hairy rock and roll.
By 1976’s Amigos album, the original Santana lineup had long since disintegrated. A number of members splintered off to create the first version of FM titans Journey, and Santana was collecting and dropping new members with each subsequent release.
Amigos is a disjointed effort, but it does hold one of Santana’s greatest compositions, ‘Europa’.
Based on descending chord progressions and largely abandoning the freeform jams of the past, ‘Europa’ is a laser-focused jazz-inspired instrumental built around Santana’s guitar. Featuring some of his most passionate playing, ‘Europa’ is a hidden gem that any Santana fan should know by heart.
‘Blues for Salvador’
The ’80s were a fallow period for Santana: none of his signature guitar prowess had diminished, but his commercial success had faded and he began to embrace more modern forms of production that have not aged well. By 1987’s Blues for Salvador, he turned to more adult contemporary instrumentation, and apart from his fiery signature six-string, the album sounds mostly like a collection of instrumentals by Sting.
An exception is the title track, where Santana’s wild and emotional style is fully unleashed, erupting so furiously that it propels even a meandering backing track.
Well known for melodic lines and unique scales, Santana allows himself to instead go full fast-fingered guitar hero here, with a style that even glam metal shredders couldn’t compete with.
Yes, really. OK, is ‘Smooth’ a hacky and obnoxious late-90s jam? Sure. Does it sound more like a Matchbox 20 song than a Santana song? Yeah. Does it exist solely in a bizarre time capsule that gave Carlos Santana an insane amount of cultural relevance and cache roughly 25 years after his prime? Of course. Is that a bad thing? Hell no. Does his guitar still rip? Absolutely.
If you can divorce Rob Thomas’ voice from the track, or even you like Rob Thomas (no judgment here), you’ll still find Carlos Santana in prime form, with electric tremolo picking lines and a riff that still sounds fresh two decades later.
‘Smooth’ was his commercial peak, but Santana didn’t have to sacrifice any of his guitar god showmanship or signature mixture of sounds in order to get there.