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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.

Santana captures the heartbeat of music

Have you ever had an instant reaction to a piece of music, where the sound enters your ears and ends up in your soul? The song itself is translated into an emotion that washes over you, and you’re suddenly wistful and mellow or joyful and unable to resist the drive to move your body to the rhythm. 

All art has the capacity to move you, but music is the only form that can physically compel you to move. There’s a connection, something that drove early man to create instruments that could make complex patterns of sound, and at the backbone of it all is the percussion. 

Percussion is the key

Percussion is often referred to as the heartbeat of music. In the background, behind the vocals and other instrumentation, there’s a beat like the steady, syncopated beat of our own hearts. The rhythm is what evokes a physical desire to match it, like dancing, pumping your fist in the air, or tapping a foot. 

From a historical standpoint, it makes sense that humans created the drum before any other instrument. Rhythm exists everywhere in nature, from the drumbeat of a giant herd of animals racing across the Earth to the light patter of rain falling. 

Drums are used by every culture and in every genre of music, but Latin music has roots in African music, which is particularly influenced by percussion. It plays an important role from an artistic, cultural, and even spiritual perspective. 

World music

Carlos Santana was creating “world music” decades before the term became popular. His music captures styling from African, Cuban, Latin, Rock, Blues, Jazz, and other genres. Over the years, his music has been infused with various different influences, but percussion has always remained a central theme.

He pioneered the rhythmic fusion of music from different countries with a truly inclusive percussion section. In addition to drums, you’ll hear timbales, bongos, congas, cowbell, tabla, and many more. Carlos Santana is able to tap into the essence, or heartbeat, of music from around the world.

Who doesn’t want to play guitar?

A recent study found that, after piano, the guitar is the second most popular instrument to learn in the United States. Starting in the late 1950s, with the emergence of rock and roll and pop music, guitar became the principal instrument. In most live performances of current music, the lead guitar player is up front on center stage and often gets the spotlight during riffs and solos. 

There are a number of significant qualities about the guitar that have led to its evolution into the primary instrument of today’s music.

Expressive

Guitar allows for an incredible amount of personal expression. The fact that it’s a stringed instrument gives each musician the ability to develop their own sonic personality. Combined with the different versions of the instrument itself, the potential variation in sound is unlimited. Electric, acoustic, twelve-string, and electro-acoustic guitars all produce unique tones. Then there are the special effects like fuzz, reverb, or octavia pedals to further expand the range.

Portable

You don’t have to be in a studio to play the guitar. Unless you require the entire electric guitar set up, a guitar can be transported just about anywhere. It’s the perfect accompaniment for a campfire, outdoor party, or small get-together. Since so much music is written for guitar, it’s all you need to play your favorite songs, instrumental versions or sing-along

Visual

When performing on stage, instruments like keyboards or drums are stationary, and are generally set up to the sides or back so they don’t block the other band members. The guitarist can be anywhere and is usually up front on the stage, entirely visible to the audience. Relatively light and attached by a strap, the guitar leaves them free to jump around or dance, adding entertainment value to the performance.

Musical 

Three centuries ago, Johann Sebastian Bach dubbed the guitar “the little orchestra,” likely in reference to the ability to play harmony and melody at the same time. The guitar can produce a fullness of sound that needs no accompaniment. 

It’s easy to understand the growing popularity of guitar among adults and kids alike. With just a few lessons, you can pick up the fundamentals and soon be impressing your friends. Who doesn’t admire the person who pulls out their guitar in the evening as the sun goes down and the party mellows? Even learning a few basic chords allows you to entertain the crowd with a familiar song.