Carlos Santana’s Guitar Tone

Distortion Makes A Difference

We used to have a saying when I was a teenager first learning to play guitar: “so distorted it’s ‘clean.’ ” What we meant was that with the right kind of amplifier distortion, you would achieve a smooth, round tone that sounded clean. In his latter years, Santana has definitely achieved that effect with his PRS Santana Signature guitar, combined with his Mesa Boogie amp.

However, the first couple of albums, Santana by Santana and Abraxas, which contained most of his classic hits, were not recorded using that combination. Instead, he used a Gibson Les Paul Special and possibly a Gibson SG guitar, along with a [probably] hot-rodded Fender Twin amplifier, and later maybe a precursor to the Mesa Boogie that would become his trademark.

Any way you slice it, he did not have access to the super overdriven sound that gave him the full, satin tone that would later become his trademark. Instead, his sound was more raw and uneven. He had to resort to tricks like doubling parts in the studio, adding echo and reverb effects, and using his guitar’s volume control to extend his sustain.

As a result, in order to play those original songs true to form, you need to avoid the super-saturated tone available with modern amps, and duplicate the methods that Santana used back in the ’70s. Which brings up the next point:

Know Your Santana Album Versions

Many of Santana’s Hits have been recorded and released several times, each time with a different arrangement, guitar part, and guitar tone. It’s easy to mix these up, and therefore produce a version that isn’t true to any of the originals. So, pick the version you want to play, and stick to that version.

My rule of thumb: play the version that people will know best. In the case of the early hits — Evil WaysBlack Magic WomanOye Como Va, et all — it means playing the original album versions. Because those are the versions that have achieved the most radio play, which means those are the versions that most people know.

Some songs, like Europa, and Soul Sacrifice, are better known from live recordings (the latter from the film, Woodstock. In those cases, play the live version. But don’t mix them up with the original studio versions.

But Santana Plays His Songs Different Every Time

It’s true, Carlos is one of those guitar players who never repeats the same riff twice. That doesn’t mean that you can get away with the same thing. After all, people generally come to hear you play Santana songs, not your take on those same songs. Give them what they want!

Last, but definitely not least, remember that you are not an island. What the other members of the band play is going to affect how you sound. So make sure your band captures the Santana vibe as well as you.