Saturday, May 1, 2010

How to Play Like Carlos Santana

By Michael Caroff

First, of all, realize that everyone has a unique playing style, and certainly Carlos Santana has a signature sound that is instantly recognizable. While you'll never be Carlos, you can incorporate some of his approach into your own playing.

Timing, timing, timing

There's a saying in real estate: the three most important things are "location, location, location." A similar analysis can be made about Santana's guitar style: the three most important facets are timing, timing, and timing.

The fact is, most of Santana's famous solos - Black Magic Woman, Oye Como Va, Evil Ways, Europa, Smooth - are comprised of the reliable old pentatonic (or "blues") scale, with a few extra notes thrown in for color. But a big part of what makes those solos so memorable is the way Carlos plays with the timing.

Most players lay their notes into predictable grooves: quarter notes, eighth notes, 32nd note triplets, etc. But Santana will both "anticipate" (play early) and delay (play late) his notes, setting up phrasing that is both unexpected and compelling.

In order to capture the feel that he delivers naturally, you may have to "force it" at first. But after a while, some of that off-time sense may start to creep into your own solos.

That magic sustain

Ah, we all know the notes that never end. Here's a "secret," though: without a specific technique, it's virtually impossible to make notes last forever, as Santana does. How does he accomplish this seemingly magical sustain? Several factors.

1) You do need a heavy-bodied guitar with good natural sustain, in addition to humbucking pickups that will enhance it.
2) You do need an overdriven amp that offers a rich, saturated distortion. It doesn't have to be a Mesa Boogie - lot's of amplifiers today offer that kind of overdriven sound.
3) Most important of all, you need to find the "sweet spot." Huh? Turn your amp up to performance volume, than hold a specific note, and walk around until you find the exact place in the room where the note will feed back enough to keep going, but not enough to "squeal." Mark that spot with tape, and stand there when you want an endless note. And there you have the Santana secret.

It's a matter of balance

Carlos' solos work in two ways: they stand alone as strong melodic statements, and they perfectly complement the accompaniment. Sounds simple, but it's hard to do.

Here's a trick, though: Record a solo over a rhythm track. Does it fit the groove of the song? Work well with the chord progression? Great. Now, listen without ANY other parts. Does your solo STILL have movement and power? If not, keep finessing it until it works with the background AND on its own. Do that, and you'll begin to capture some of the musical genius that has made Carlos Santana such a legend.
Good luck!

Ultimate Santana is the most comprehensive Santana website online, with information about Santana songs, albums, guitar and amp gear, history, products, and much more.

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  1. Hey, do you know of anywhere in the US that has a nightclub that plays hippie/pschedelic music form the 1960's

  2. I live in Australia, so can anyone help here? All suggestions are welcome.