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.