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How to play guitar like Carlos Santana

No matter who they are, it’s rare to recognise a guitar player immediately. When you don’t have to know the song, the band, the album, the project, or the context to know exactly who is playing, that’s when you know you have something special. Even guitar greats like Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton have occasional moments of mundane anonymity in their playing. Carlos Santana, on the other hand, can’t seem to do anything but play fiery Carlos Santana licks.

Immersed in his family’s traditional Mexican culture from an early age, Santana took inspiration from his father’s mariachi background and began picking up music as a child. Although his heritage would prove to be invaluable to his signature playing style, it was actually blues music that first enticed Santana to begin taking his guitar practice more seriously.

By the mid-1960s, Santana had found himself in one of the most exciting burgeoning music scenes in America around the San Francisco Bay Area. The diverse array of genres being explored by his peers began to inspire Santana to add eclectic styles to his own early blues-based sound.

“If I would go to some cat’s room, he’d be listening to Sly [Stone] and Jimi Hendrix; another guy to the Stones and the Beatles,” Santana explained in a 2014 interview. “Another guy’d be listening to Tito Puente and Mongo Santamaría. Another guy’d be listening to Miles [Davis] and [John] Coltrane… to me, it was like being at a university.”

Replicating Santana’s guitar style is almost impossible. When most artists attempt his songs, the results end up sounding like bad caricatures and pastiches of Santana’s sound. How can that be? If you assemble the right equipment, practice for hours every day, and take in the same influences that inspired Santana, how is it still not possible to achieve the same sound?

That’s because Santana’s playing is so tied to his own personality, spirituality, and outlook on life that it will always sound slightly off when someone tries to step into his shoes. Santana’s ability to create an unreplicable sound is second to none in the history of rock music. In order to play like Santana, you have to be Carlos Santana.

But that’s not to say you can’t get pretty damn close if you pay close enough attention. The easiest place to start with is equipment. Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, Santana was most notable for playing a Gibson SG Special with P90s as his pickups. These guitars were durable and could produce screaming tones, but when Gibson changed the way they manufactured these models, Santana began exploring other options. He eventually landed with custom-made PRS guitars, the likes of which he still uses today. If you want a Santana-like guitar tone, either an SG or a PRS Santana signature model is the best way to go.

Most of Santana’s signature cutting tone comes from the guitar itself, the amplifiers he uses, and the way his hands attack the strings. His legendary sustained notes usually came from overdriven amplifiers, specifically the Mesa Boogie that has become prominently associated with Santana. If you’re going specifically for Santana’s early Woodstock-era sound, Fender Twin amplifiers will help get you there, but Santana’s manipulation of tone is best achieved with a Mesa Boogie.

Effects were never really a major part of Santana’s sound. All you really need on your pedal board is a wah-wah, which Santana uses relatively sparingly. More recently, a tube screamer helps his already biting licks cut through a bit more, but if you can’t get your sound from twiddling the knobs on your guitar and amplifier to dial in that iconic Santana tone, then you’re not really doing it the way that Santana himself is doing it.

Now comes the hard part: actually playing the material. Early in their career, most of the Santana band’s songs were either in the keys of D or G or their relative minors. This might have had to do with Carlos Santana’s SG, which had 22 frets and topped out at a high D note. Reaching to the very top of the fretboard is a classic Santana move, and make sure you’re fingers are ready to bend beyond what is normal.

In terms of soloing style, Santana made his name on trills, double stops, and syncopated rhythms. Cover songs like ‘Oye Como Va’ and ‘Black Magic Woman / Gypsy Queen’ already had built-in licks, but Santana managed to make them his own through attack, sustain, and volume control. But what makes Santana’s playing style sound “Latin”? That would mainly be the atypical scales, most notably the dorian mode, that he takes into the stratosphere. Even when he’s playing minor pentatonic scales, the quick trills an judicious half-step-heavy melodic lines are what Western ears usually pick up on as sounding “Latin”.

Perhaps most importantly, Santana is a melodic player. He very rarely shows off or unleashes a random flurry of notes while winding his way through a solo. Instead, he goes searching for phrases and unique ear-catching lines that add new hooks to songs. If he likes a particular riff, there’s a good chance that you’ll hear it more than once. Repetition is a major element of Santana’s playing – it’s why you can remember the lead lines to songs like ‘Evil Ways’, ‘Soul Sacrifice’ and ‘Smooth’ even though they aren’t necessarily meant to be the main melody of the song.

Where Santana’s playing style gets frustrating is in the intangibles. These include his philosophical approach to music, his wild detours into classical and jazz, his immediate switches between delicate phrases and extreme bends, and a whole host of other mental approaches that only exist inside Santana’s mind. Part psychedelic acid trip, part spiritual awakening, part blues purity, and part traditional Mexican stylistics, everything in Santana’s playing always comes back to his unique personality and approach to life. That’s wonderful to listen to, but beyond frustrating when attempting to replicate him.

In the end, much like his peers like Jerry Garcia and John McLaughlin, Santana’s approach to guitar comes from a place of exploration and personal creativity. I’m sure if you asked Santana how to accurately repeat his work note for note, he wouldn’t be interested and would encourage you to find your own voice. That’s the main legacy of his guitar playing – nobody can sound like Carlos Santana because nobody else has lived the life of Carlos Santana. But it’s still fun to try and get as close as you can.