Author Archives: Michael Caroff

How to play Santana music properly

In the last 30 years there’s been a virtual explosion in the amount of tribute bands in the marketplace. Every well-known band (and even some pretty obscure ones!) have at least one, and often many bands that offer a tribute to their music.

Like most other music fans, I have seen and heard a number of these bands. And although there is infinite variation on a theme, the one common factor seems to be that a tribute band makes it its mission to cover the original music as closely as possible.

Except Santana tribute bands.

What makes Santana Tribute Bands the exception?

That’s a good question, and one for which I can only guess at the answer. My instinct is that guitar players playing in other Santana Tribute Bands feel that because Carlos is essentially an improvisational player who never repeats the same phrase twice, they (the ones offering a tribute to Santana) should do the same thing.

I don’t agree. In fact I feel very strongly about it.

What happens when a tribute guitar player doesn’t “get it right”?

In my opinion, when a guitar player takes this approach within a Santana tribute band, it doesn’t capture the freewheeling, melodic improvisation body by Carlos; it just sounds sloppy.

It is my contention that as a player in a tribute band, you are not there to “be” the artist, you are there to produce the music from that artist exactly the way that the audience is used to hearing it. So while it is okay for Carlos to change up his arrangements, solos, etc. during his own show, I do not believe that is what audiences come to hear when they attend the performance of a Santana tribute band.

From what I have been told, the fans that go to see a tribute band expect to hear the songs exactly as they always have, either via LP or CD, or on the radio. If that recorded version has a certain solo, they want to hear the same solo. Exact. Note-for-note.

Is it hard to cover Santana’s solos?

Yes and no. Re-creating the notes of his melodies is fairly straightforward. He is not a “technical” player, and they are not at all complicated. In that sense, it is not difficult at all. The challenge comes in duplicating his phrasing: the way he times his melodies.

Latin jazz rock phenom Al DiMeola  once stated in an interview that any guitar player should be able to write his solos out in musical notation. This is true. However, some solos would be more difficult to transcribe than others. In the case of Santana, what sounds “natural” when he plays it would not be simple whatsoever on the page.

Carlos has a complex way of organizing his phrasing — sort of the guitar version of what Frank Sinatra was famous for — that works, and is deceptively complex.

So the first thing in the guitar player must do when learning Santana’s solos is to get that phrasing (timing) and his (or her) head. After all, you have to understand the melody before you can play it. Once you have that, it is a matter of practicing it until it becomes innate. What Carlos does naturally, you must reproduce intentionally.

Finally, you must pay attention to the small details

There are any number of seemingly trivial techniques that when added together, gives any guitar player — and Carlos Santana is no exception — their trademark style. Where on the neck they play the notes; whether they pick, hammer on or pull off, if they slide into or out of notes, and how far.

While you would be hard-pressed to find an audience member that would understand all these things, what they can hear, is when it sounds authentic. And that is what they come for.

Authentic. That’s what we aim to deliver.

Santana’s legacy: More than 40 years of great music

Guest post: Christine Fasick

The name Carlos Santana is synonymous with a unique genre of music that features Latin and African percussion instruments married with the smooth and melodic tone of the blues guitar. Although Santana’s sound has evolved over the past four decades, his style remains a constant, his passion for the music apparent in every note he hits and sustains. From the raw, improvised riffs of the band’s first album, featuring songs such as Evil Ways and Soul Sacrifice, to the more polished sound of their later works, the guitar legend’s keen sense of timing and classic Latin twist are ever present.

Santana Tribute guitarist and keyboardist

The son of a mariachi musician, Carlos Santana was born in Jalisco, Mexico in 1947. He first learned to play the guitar at the age of 8. Although he retained a feel for and love of the Latin music with which he was raised, Santana was heavily influenced by Latin pop star Ritchie Valens and blues greats B.B. King and Muddy Waters. But his musical style truly began to take shape when his family moved to San Francisco at the height of the hippie movement, and a young Carlos was exposed to a number of new musical influences, including those of jazz and folk. The resulting syncretic sound made the band widely popular on the San Francisco club circuit, and earned them an eventual spot at Woodstock.

The guitar heard round the world

Named by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the twenty best guitarists in the world, Santana continues to evolve and explore new avenues in music. In the late 1990’s, at the age of 52, he collaborated with a host of popular artists, including Matchbox 20’s Rob Thomas, Wyclef Jean, and Dave Matthews, to write and record Supernatural. The album, which was produced by the legendary Clive Davis, won an unprecedented 8 Grammy awards, including Album of the Year and Song of the Year (Smooth), and sold 30 million copies worldwide. More importantly, it introduced Santana’s trademark guitar sound to a whole new generation.

Carlos in the new millennium

Having gained musical immortality with classic Santana songs, such as the energetic Black Magic Woman and Oye Como Va, and haunting ballads like Europa and Samba Pa Ti, Carlos Santana has turned his creative attentions toward other pursuits. He has lent his name and signature style to a number of products, including an exclusive line of women’s shoes, several specially designed Paul Reed Smith guitar models, headwear, sparkling wines, and colognes, among others. Perhaps closest to his heart are his humanitarian pursuits. The Milagro Foundation, which he founded along with former wife Deborah, works to improve the lives and opportunities of young people all over the world.

Santana’s storied career and contribution to the arts led to his selection as a Kennedy Center Honoree in 2013. But it is doubtful that the iconic guitarist will sit back and rest on his laurels. With an unparalleled musical ability and the eye of a true artist, there is very little that Carlos Santana cannot accomplish. The world looks forward to seeing what he will do next.

Santana’s Oye Come Va: Why it works

After leading a Santana Tribute Band for more than 15 years, I have played dozens of his songs for hundreds of thousands of audience members. During those performances, it is obvious which songs connect with people more than others. To that end, one song stands above the rest:

Oye Como Va

Time after time, whether or not we have been able to stir an audience for whom we are performing, when we arrive at the closing number (Oye Como Va), people invariably get up to dance. Not only that, but they begin to interact with the band more than they have for the entire show. Let’s face it, there is something about that song. After so many years, I believe I understand what causes this phenomenon.

The power of this Latin song

Like many of Santana’s hits, this song was penned by someone else. In this case, Latin music percussion legend Tito Puente was the songwriter. Again, like many of Santana’s biggest hits (Evil Ways, Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen, and others), Oye Come Va was not only written, but originally performed by someone else: in this case, Tito Puente and his band.

As with the other cover songs which Carlos Santana has made his own, the original rendition of the song is quite different than the one we know and love today. In the case of Oye Come Va, the lead instrument is a flute instead of a guitar, and the whole feel is much lighter.

(It is interesting to note that the other songs were once quite different as well. Evil Ways was a very dark blues song, with the vocals sung in octaves. Black Magic Woman, written and initially performed by Peter Green in Fleetwood Mac, was also more of a blues song. The second half, Gypsy Queen, was a much sprightlier version written and played by jazz guitarist Gabor Szabo.)

However, in the original version as in Santana’s well-known recreation, there is no denying the potency of the main riff: a chord progression played on the organ. Based on the core rhythm of Latin music called the “Clave,” that progression contains powerful rhythmic and melodic hooks that are instantly recognizable.

Carlos makes it his own by adapting the melodic motif to the electric guitar, phrasing it in his inimitable style. While he does capture the essence of the flute melody, he also adds in his trademark guitar style and — let’s face it — completely owns this riff.

Santana’s arrangement: The secret sauce

The band also tweaks the arrangement and gives it that famous Santana oomph. Dave Brown on bass plays a wickedly simple line that has as much or more space as it does sound — one of his trademarks. And the rhythm section, led by pint-sized phenom José “Chepito” Areas, provides a rock edge that is lacking in the original version. (Part of this is due to the fact that Santana uses a traditional Western “kit” drummer, while Latin music does not.)

Along with all these factors, the band cleverly weaves parts in and out in a subtle fashion that keeps the song interesting throughout the entire six-minute length.

Why Oye Come Va is such a draw to the dance floor

There is no doubt that Latin music tends to make people dance — and this song is no exception. My theory is that the rhythmic complexity of Latin music puts in beats before listeners expect them, which mentally pushes people forward. Think of a time when you were running and your torso got ahead of your feet. You had to move your feet faster, to catch up and not trip. That is an analogy to how Latin music pushes you forward while you are dancing.

With all these aspects working together, it becomes more clear why this song in particular has become the perennial favorite among Santana fans the world around. And explains why we always close the show with this particular song!

Playing Santana music made me a better songwriter

It was that focus on the basics that really helped to propel my growth as a songwriter. This growth made itself evident in two principal ways.

Melody, melody, melody

First, when creating the original song, it has forced me to focus even more than I did previously on a strong melody. This is a point to which I was first introduced some years earlier, listening to a very successful songwriter while attending a songwriting convention.

This songwriter recounted his process: he would write without any instruments whatsoever. Since he was a vocalist, he would produce the words and melody a cappella. Huh? At first I was quite skeptical, but once he explained, I understood the concept.

To paraphrase his words: “When people are singing along to my songs in their car,” he explained, “they don’t have a keyboard, a guitar, or any other instrument with them. They are singing along with, and relating to the melody. The melody is the primary device a song uses to communicate to a listener.”

Sounds obvious, right? But like many, many songwriters, I had always fallen into the trap of creating a musical background, and then “fitting” a melody to that harmonic pattern. After all, it’s much easier to do that way.

What playing Santana’s music brought home to me was just how powerful a melody could be, even when it was a guitar player playing it as opposed to a singer singing it.

Gibson SG on stage playing Evil Ways by Santana

The unsung skill: Arranging

When creating a song, the songwriter generally comes up with a chord progression and a melody. The kind of thing you can play on a piano or a guitar, for instance. But for at least the last hundred years, songs have involved much more than that. The bass line, keyboard parts, guitar riffs, and even drum parts, all form a very rich tapestry.

Again, what diving in so deeply to Santana’s music reinforced was just how integral each of those parts — both alone, and as a combined unit — could be to the impact of the song. The example I always use to demonstrate this point is the very first track on the very first Santana album: Jingo.

Jingo is not a 3-chord song, or even a 2-chord song. It is, believe it or not, a ONE CHORD SONG! Not only that, but there are only four SYLLABLES in the vocal part!

What makes this song work is how deftly the band introduces instrumental elements and grooves throughout the tune. They build it up and create an ebb and flow that — to my ears — renders this song fresh, even today. Impressive!

The benefits of playing in group that is a tribute to Santana

So besides all the fun of delighting audiences in three different states, I have been able to integrate my own songwriting and music into the mix. For that and everything else, I will always be grateful to that musician that suggested that I start a Santana tribute band!

Santana tribute band takes on a life of its own

Naturally, it was much easier said than done, but after a lot of effort, a fair amount of time, and a pretty substantial financial investment on my part, I was able to form a band that offered a fitting tribute to the legend of Carlos Santana. Of course not only did I have to learn the material, gather the band members, and put together a pretty hefty rehearsal schedule, but I had to market and book the band, as well. I had never done that!

However, I had an advantage. For more than 10 years, I had run a successful Web marketing company. It turned out to be the key to the whole operation. Understanding marketing in general, I was able in fairly short order to get the band booked on a pretty busy schedule, working for summer festivals, fairs, concerts, and casinos.

Fender Strat on stage at Santana Tribute show

It took several years, but I was also able to write and record an entire album worth of material with the band members in the tribute band. That was certainly very satisfying. But there was another effect to the whole process that I had not anticipated: I really began to appreciate and enjoy playing Santana’s music.

I don’t know why this was such a surprise. It’s true that Carlos Santana had never been one of my favorite guitar players; actually, he wasn’t even in the top 10. But when you really dig in and take the time to learn material at that level, you can’t help but appreciate and admire its genius. And I definitely did; and still do.

While I have certainly learned a number of things from playing this music, the biggest lesson I have taken to heart is the power of stripping the complexity away. Not only is Carlos, in many ways, a minimalist as a lead guitar player, but his band’s musical arrangements are brilliant in their simplicity.

After all, who hasn’t heard the famous acronym: KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid!)