Author Archives: Steven Elowe

Sounding Like Carlos Santana

Five years ago, I started a Santana tribute band, with the idea that once I had a Latin rock band (complete with percussion), I would have a ready-made unit to play the original songs that I was writing in that vein. Little did I know that the Santana tribute band would take on a life of its own.

Now, having been through more than 30 keyboard players, timbaleros, congueros, bass players, and singers, I have an idea of what it takes to make a band like this work. (I also do all the booking.) Just learning Carlos Santana‘s guitar parts — including his solos — note-for-note, has been an education in itself. Hopefully, in sharing what I’ve picked up, I can help others trying to learn Santana’s riffs.

Tone: How Important is Santana’s Gear?

It’s pretty well known — and in fact I cover it on different pages of this site — that Carlos Santana plays a PRS Santana Signature model guitar through a Mesa Boogie amp. Earlier, he played a Gibson Les Paul Special, and then a Gibson SG, through a Fender Twin amp. He even played a Yamaha SG guitar for a number of years. The question is: in re-creating Santana’s tone, how important is it to use the exact equipment that he uses?

My answer is: it matters, but is not the most important factor.

As an example of what I mean, let me share the story of when I started playing electric guitar, at 38 years of age, after a 10-year hiatus. A bass player, drummer and I put together a 3-song set for a work retreat, including covering the Jeff Beck tune “Freeway Jam.” Not having much equipment at the time, I used a Korean-made knock-off of a Gibson 335, as well as a cheap Crate amp. A fellow guitarist (who had a big-time record deal in the ’80s) asked me after the show: “How did you nail Beck’s tone with that setup?” He knew as well as I did that Jeff Beck had never played through anything even remotely resembling that combination.

After he had asked me that question, I thought about it. The fact was, my specific guitar tone probably wasn’t exactly like Beck’s. But because I was playing his guitar part note-for-note, it sounded like Jeff Beck’s tone. That is how it works when I play Carlos’ guitar parts in my Santana tribute band.

In my band, I use one amp: Fender’s Hot Rod DeVille 4×10 (four 10″ speakers). For the early Santana, I have a Gibson SG ’61 Reissue, while for the later material I use the same Korean-made knock-off of a Gibson 335 that was mentioned earlier. Neither combination is what Carlos has ever used, and yet almost without fail, a guitarist comes up to me at every gig and comments on how much I sound like Santana.

Again, the reason is that I play Santana’s guitar parts note-for-note. In the next post, I’ll explain why I believe I can do that.

Playing Like Carlos Santana

As I mentioned, I play Santana’s guitar parts note-for-note in my Santana Tribute Band. I’ve been told — by people that have seen numerous other Santana tribute bands — that I sound more like Carlos than any one else they’ve seen. To tell you the truth, I don’t think it’s because I’m fantastically talented. In fact, I think most people could sound a lot more like Carlos than they do. Here’s what my “secrets” are.

It’s All In The Timing

To me, one of the most distinctive things about Santana’s guitar playing is his timing. Or, in other words, his phrasing. After all, he’s mostly using the same pentatonic scales that hundreds of thousands of other guitar players use, but in his hands, they have a unique sound.

When learning Santana’s parts — especially his guitar solos, the first thing I do is to get them “in my head.” That means listening to the songs actively, so that I’m actually paying attention to and absorbing all his phrasing and nuances. Because if you can’t “think” it, you can’t play it.

I’m convinced that all music, even the most soulful tunes, could be written out in standard notation, if you took the time. That doesn’t mean it would be easy, or even that you should do it. It just means that there’s nothing mysterious in what people play. It might be rhythmically complex, but it’s not mystical.

In Santana’s case, not only does he employ phrases that are rhythmically sophisticated, but he also anticipates or delays certain notes more than you would expect. It’s part of his charm. For a great example, listen to the 1st and 2nd solos in Black Magic Woman, one of his best-known songs. The notes are as simple as can be, but the way he phrases them are priceless.

Position is Important

Once you have the phrasing in your head, experiment with the fingering until you can get the feel that he gets. Guitar is a strange instrument, in that there are often several different ways to play the same sequence of notes. Try different positions. Hint: Carlos tends to favor the higher strings — high “E,” “B,” and “G,” over the lower strings. And, especially in his earler material, he is not averse to using open positions.

The Little Things Matter

Pay attention to whether the notes are picked, hammered on or pulled off, and how he slides into, or away from, certain notes. One of the things I find is that the “devil is in the details.” If you spend the time to capture all the nuances of Santana’s guitar parts, it will make a big difference in the over all sound.

Now, I don’t mean that non-musicians — which will make up the bulk of your audience — will come up to you after the set, and say something like “how come you played the opening riff to Oye Como Va on the 14th fret of the ‘G’ string? Carlos played it on the 10th fret of the ‘B’ string!” They won’t be able to identify those details. However, they will know when it sounds like what they’ve heard on the radio, and when it doesn’t.

Read my next post to find out why Distortion Makes a Difference.

Latin Rock Music

The Tribute Band or the Album — Which Came First?

Since our band, Savor, released an album of original Latin rock music after 6 years of playing as a Santana Tribute Band, it would be natural to assume that we were inspired to do so after playing Carlos Santana’s music for so long. Actually, the reverse is true.

8 years ago, I was playing in — get this — a 3-piece instrumental rock band. The band’s goal was to create music that had hooks: actual melodic and harmonic motifs in a pop-song-like format. Talk about a challenge! It forced all of us to stretch, and as the band’s main writer, I really honed my compositional skills.

Near the end of the band’s two-year tenure, I was starting to try to write songs in a Latin style. (Rather than Santana, I was inspired by Salsa and other more traditional genres of South American music.) What quickly became apparent was that having only three instruments severely limited the possibilities. I didn’t really know much about Latin percussion, but something was obviously missing. So, I began to try to form a new band, with the purpose of playing Latin-flavored instrumental music.

Things didn’t go so well.

For the previous project (named, ironically, “Hook”), I was lucky enough to connect with a bass player and drummer who, like me, were playing for the love of it. When trying to assemble a larger unit, however, I had trouble getting musicians to commit. One keyboard player I spoke to, though, mentioned a Santana Tribute Band he had played with previously.

“A tribute band?” I thought. That’s tacky. But the more I considered it, the more I realized it could be the method with which I had a ready-made unit available to play original songs. I decided to give it a go. The next couple of years brought two surprising (to me) results:

1) Building a working tribute band was a lot harder than I thought!

2) I re-learned the fact that people connect with vocal songs, and began writing those as well as instrumental compositions.

Now, I will say that while Santana was not my original inspiration for my own songs, I did learn some valuable lessons while mastering his music. But that’s a subject for another article.

How Santana Music Influenced Me

During the years I’ve played guitar in a Santana Tribute band, people generally assume that I’m a huge Carlos Santana fan. It’s true that I’ve always enjoyed his music (especially the first two albums, Santana by Santana and Abraxas), but since I didn’t really learn any Santana songs in depth until decades into my guitar career, he didn’t exert a noticeable influence on my guitar style.

Actually, short-time Santana band member and co-guitarist Neal Schon  (of Journey fame) played a much greater role in my development as a 6-string slinger, as I have long admired his melodic finesses combined with technical prowess.

But I have never been able to really learn someone’s music in detail without coming to appreciate it on a deeper level, and such has been the case with Santana’s music. As a guitar player, I certainly comp his lick’s note-for-note during the tribute band gigs. And although his playing style is different from mine, his flair for stripping a guitar line down to its essence has definitely inspired me.

One of the the things Carlos excels at is playing melodies that are harmonically simple but rhythmically complex. He does it so naturally that it’s not generally noticeable, but try to mimic his style and you’ll find you really have to pay attention to your phrasing.

Additionally, I have taken a cue from the original Santana band, as a unit. Having always been a devotee of chordally complex music, I was delighted to study how Santana could take, not a 3-chord, not a 2-chord, but a 1-chord song (“Jingo“), and use a dynamic arrangement to keep it interesting. Awesome!

Even the most popular of Santana songs — their re-make of Tito Puente’s classic song “Oye Como Va” — employs a simple 2-chord progression (i and iv) that never changes. Yet the arrangement is so interesting that the song never loses its trademark drive.

When writing the songs for my band Savor’s CD, ¡Moviendote!, I tried to utilize those principles, as well as techniques gleaned from years of listening to and writing many different styles of music. Since the instrumentation is the same (guitar, bass, keyboards, drums, timbales, congas, hand percussion), it can’t help but bear a common thread with Santana. But I see it as just one of the facets that make up a musical menage.

Latin Rock Music, Part 1

My Writing Process, Part 1

Due to the widespread popularity of Amadeus, the movie based on Mozart’s life, it’s well known that Mozart was a prolific composer — the music pouring out of him as if by magic.

In more modern times, The Beatles, Paul Simon, Elton John, Prince, and others, seem to be able to create songs at a breakneck pace. Not so with me. (And, from what I’ve learned, with many other songwriters as well.) In fact, I feel that I am not so much a song writer as a song crafter. I often work for days, weeks or months developing a song, before I’m satisfied.

Over the years my writing methods have changed, but one of the most drastic changes occurred about 10 years ago. I was watching a well-known songwriter speak, and he said that he would start by writing melodies with no instrumental accompaniment at all. Huh? But as he explained, I began to understand: it is the melody that most people connect with, that most listeners remember, that audiences identify and sing along to.

The Songwriting Rut

After that, I began to see the patterns that I — and, as far as I can tell, many songwriters — fall back on. It goes like this: using a harmonic instrument (usually guitar or keyboard), write a chord progression. And, what’s more, make that chord progression consist of four chords, lasting one measure each. For example: Chord 1 | Chord 2 | Chord 3 | Chord 4 | repeat.

(If you start analyzing songs you hear, especially songs by amateur, independent or “unsigned bands,” you’ll begin to see that this is an amazingly common formula.)

Next, fit a melody to the chords. That’s a trap, because while it’s pretty easy to make a melody work with a chord progression, it’s much more difficult to write a melody that stands on its own. However, that lack of melodic power is often disguised by its interaction with the chord progression.

Breaking the Pattern

How do I avoid that songwriting quagmire? I have several methods, and I’m sure many songwriters have their own tricks. First, as I mentioned, whether I’m writing an instrumental song where the guitar plays the melody, or writing a vocal song, I create the melody on its own. If it doesn’t work on its own, I keep re-writing it until it does.

Another technique I use is to write songs in unusual keys. (This drives our keyboard player crazy, such as when I present a song written in Eb minor — a very difficult key to play in!) But there’s method to my madness: instrumentalists tend to go to familiar places when playing in common keys; without those crutches, we’re more likely to create something new.