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Getting to Know Pentatonic Scales

To get the full use out of pentatonic scales, you should be comfortable with them in all 5 positions. So, using Am as an example again, here are the positions:

1st Position
Starts on A on the 5th fret of the Low “E” string, played by your first finger:


2nd Position
Starts on C on the 8th fret of the Low “E” string, played by your second finger


3rd Position
Starts on D on the 10th fret of the Low “E” string, played by your first finger


4th Position
Starts on E on the 12th fret of the Low “E” string, played by your first finger


5th Position
Starts on G on the 15th fret of the Low “E” string, played by your second finger


Note: Where “3rd” finger and “4th” fingers are noted, those fingers are often interchangeable. You’d play with one or the other, depending on what you were doing. For bends, or aggressive attack, you’ll use the 3rd finger. For fast runs, you’ll often use the 4th.

Good luck!

Pentatonic Scales

These scales (called “pentatonic,” meaning 5 note) are the most popular scales for guitar players — bar none. Why? Several reasons:

1) They sound good. The “skipped” notes add an open, interesting sound that makes them pleasing to the ear.

2) They’re versatile. Blues, rock, jazz, country . . . pentatonic scales work for so many different styles of music that it’s ridiculous. They may be used in different ways, but it’s the same 5 notes!

3) They’re familiar. Guitarists as different as Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), John McLaughlin (Mahavishnu Orchestra, jazz rock), Jimi Hendrix, Slash (Guns & Roses), Kenny Burrell (jazz), Vince Gill (country), Neal Schon (Journey), Carlos Santana, Eric Clapton, Eric Johnson, Eddie Van Halen, Jeff Beck. The list goes on. They all use pentatonic scales for an enormous amount of their playing.

4) You can put your stamp on them. The way that Jeff Beck (one of the most unique players around, in my opinion) uses those 5 notes is totally different from the way the guitar players in Lynyrd Skynyrd did, and thus they sound totally different.

So, let’s talk about the Pentatonic a little. There are generally two “modes” of Pentatonic: major and minor. (They’re the same scale, but based around a different tonic chord, or “home” chord). Let’s use Am as an example. The notes are:

A – C – D – E – G

If the harmony (chord progression) is in Am, then that scale works perfectly. Here are two different progressions you could try:

1) Am – C – D – D

2) Am – G – F – E7

(You could also use a 12-bar blues, in A)

If the harmony is in C (major), then the scale still works perfectly, although it sounds totally different. Here’s a progression to try:

C – F – G – C

There are other keys this will work in, but those are the two most common.

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.

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.