If the most complicated thing in playing an electric guitar is creating your own sound, and to be recognised the instant you start playing the notes, we can say that Carlos Santana has achieved that and much more, becoming one of the most innovative and influential guitarists in rock history.
Our work here is to try and explain how to get that sound so we’re going to take a brief look at the guitars that have passed through the hands of this Mexican player.
We begin with a Gibson Les Paul Special from the 50s, which he likely used to record most of the songs on his tremendous debut album. A distinctive feature in those early years of his career was the use of the P 90 pickups. We can see this in his more than legendary performance at the Woodstock festival where he plays a 1961 Gibson SG Special (that’s right, the same one he didn’t stop raising and dropping the tone for the whole performance as if possessed). Later he would switch to a black SG Special also with the P 90s with which he would record a large part of the next 2 albums. Curiously, we gotta say that the story behind the black SG is the same as the Woodstock SG but repainted...although Santana himself has said that he destroyed that guitar because it was impossible to keep tuned.
For the first part of the 70s he used used different Gibson models including a Les Paul Custom and an L6-S until he stumbled upon the first guitar that would be with him for some years after, a guitar that these days is revalued every passing hour, the Yamaha Sg 2000, which he used until the early 80s when a fellow named Paul Reed Smith insisted that one of his prototypes get to good old Carlos...and the rest as they say in love terms, is history.
According to Paul Reed Smith, his thing with Santana cost blood, sweat, and tears until the artist finally accepted him always as a great luthier firstly, and later as a good friend for the rest of his life. The first PRS Santana ever tried was in his hands during only one song on stage and was about to chuck it in the rubbish. Things didn’t start well; but the urging by the luthier and because of the confidence he had in his prototype, finally, after two more models made for Santana in a short span of time, the Mexican decided to give him another chance, a chance that has lasted from then to now. Santana has hardly ever picked another guitar since then, with many changes, modifications, and models for so many years, (Santana I, Santana II, Santana MD…) but always remembering that prototype.
As a last quirk in the story, it wasn’t until 1995 when PRS put to market his first Santana Signature model, meaning, 15 years after the friendship between the luthier and artist was started.
As for his amps we’re only going to mention one he’s had with him since the 70s, a combo Mesa Boogie Mark I, the only one we see him using on stage (though he uses at least 2 heads more, another Mark I and a Bludotone) and according to his personal technician he only uses a wah on stage and a delay (Tc-Electronics D Two) on one of its channels. The rest is done with his hands.
Delving a bit into his biography full of excesses, radical spirituality, and musical experimentation, we get the feeling that Santana is a special guy, but most important of all and what we know most certainly is that he is a very special guitarist...and not many can claim that.