GP Flashback : Carlos Santana, June 1978

February 23, 2011

By Dan Forte

santana_2500aTenor Saxophonist John Coltrane, one of modern jazz’s true innovators, once said, “We are always searching. I think that now we are at the point of finding.” Devadip Carlos Santana, like Coltrane, is a searcher—or, as he puts it, a seeker. The similarities between the two artists don’t stop there. As with Coltrane’s music, Santana’s music has reflected the spiritual lifestyle he has chosen. Like Coltrane, he is an innovator, and, above all, an individual voice on his instrument, the guitar.

John Coltrane was a major inspiration for Carlos, so the parallels are no doubt more than coincidence. The title tune of the Santana band’s seventh album, Welcome, was a Coltrane com¬position. At one stage, Devadip would even sleep with a tape of Coltrane music playing all night long.

But Santana was wise enough to know that there could only be one John Coltrane, and he listened to the music for inspiration—not to cop lines or even stylistic modes. Carlos Santana is such an individualist that it’s difficult to hear direct traces of the musicians he cites as influences, except on rare occasions. He will talk for hours about his deep love for the blues, rattling off an endless list of favorite performers of the genre. Yet in his ten albums with the Santana band and his various sole projects, he has never recorded a blues tune—at least not in standard blues form. The blues, like the other factors that make up Santana’s sound, is reflected as a feeling—not as notes or rhythms.

To this day, the name Santana brings to mind a picture of a battery of Latin percussionists behind their leader, who leans backwards, eyes clenched shut in concentration, as he squeezes the notes from his guitar. The Santana band was the first group to successfully blend Latin and Afro rhythms with rock music. Originally known as the Santana Blues Band—later shortened to its leader’s surname—the group built a strong following at Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. The young band received national acclaim, thanks to the Woodstock festival in 1969, the same year their first LP, Santana, debuted. Santana produced two hit singles in “Jingo” and “Evil Ways,” and turned platinum within a year—an achievement few groups of that period could claim.

More hit albums and singles followed—despite numerous personnel changes in the group. The Santana band’s direction changed as did its guitarist/leader’s ideals. By the group’s fourth album, Caravanserai, artists such as Coltrane, Charles Lloyd, McCoy Tyner, Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, and the group Weather Report provided the inspiration that had previously come from B. B. King, Jimmy Reed, and others.

What Carlos was searching for, musically and personally, he found in Sri Chinmoy, his spiritual guru. Santana was introduced to Sri Chinmoy by electrifying guitarist Mahavishnu John McLaughlin. The two artists joined forces on Love Devotion Surrender in 1973, which was as much a religious statement as it was a musical one.

But the more Santana’s music began to mirror the tranquility and inner peace Devadip had found, the less it sounded like the energetic, feverish group that had insured “street music’s” inclusion in the list of psychedelic San Francisco rock outfits. Carlos began to realize that the concert-opening moments of silent meditation—and the extended improvisational excursions—were alienating some of his old fans. People wanted to move and dance.

While on tour with McLaughlin in 1973, Santana dropped by a Seattle beer bar to jam with one of his early, pre-guru inspira¬tions, Elvin Bishop. The ex-Butterfield Blues Band guitarist’s brand of ham-and-eggs rock and blues—and the crowd’s involve¬ment with it—brought Carlos to the realization that “the highest form of spirituality is joy. If you don’t have that, man, then I don’t care for spirituality.”

When you were growing up, did your father play in mariachi bands? Did he teach you things?

Yes. I started playing the violin first. I was playing Beethoven’s “Minuet In G” and “Poet And Peasant Overture” by Von Suppe—you know, classical songs. But I hated the violin. I just hated the sound of it, and the smell of it. And, to me, anything I played on the violin sounded like Jack Benny when he was fooling around [laughs]. Later, I saw this band in Tijuana, where I grew up, and they were totally imitating B.B. King, Ray Charles, Bobby Bland, and Little Richard. I said, “Oh, man! This is the stuff I want to get into.” I was about 11 or so, and it was the first blues I’d heard. I never felt empathy with Mexican music. Not that I hated it—I just couldn’t relate to it. I usually equated Mexican music with drunk Mexicans having a brawl, and overemphasizing the macho trips, so I really couldn’t get into it. I grew up with that environment. I could get into the blues more. It was more natural to me.

When you moved to San Francisco, did you eventually get into the white blues movement that was happening at that time?

Paul Butterfield? Yeah, he was the one who started the whole thing for a lot of people. See, when I came to America, my American friends would be listening to the Dave Clark Five and the Beach Boys, and I couldn’t stand that. I’d say, “Why are you into these guys? They aren’t even saying nothing, man. Listen to Ray Charles and Bobby Bland.” And they’d say, “That stuff is old.” And all of a sudden, two things hit me: One was seeing Paul Butterfield and Muddy Waters, and the other was Cream’s first record [Fresh Cream]. It just totally turned me around. I said, “How can these guys play blues like that?”

That’s when I started to play hookey from Mission High. Stan Marcum, who subsequently became my first manager, took me to Winterland to see Paul Butterfield and Muddy Waters when Muddy had Little Walter on harp. Man, I was knocked out for weeks. I was in a daze. I couldn’t believe what blues could do to people. I could see people’s eyes and faces and the way they were reacting when the band was playing the blues. I could see that the group was feeding these people, and they were feeding me. It was one of the most fantastic concerts I’ve ever been to.

Santana_Coni_Night_Loon_Beeson_nrDid the original Santana Blues Band play blues standards?

We did songs by B.B. King, Ray Charles—like “Woke Up This Morning” and “Mary Ann”—and we would do our own versions of the first two Butterfield albums. That’s when I started getting into drugs. Drugs don’t fit me now, but if I hadn’t ever taken them I’d probably be kind of square and more prejudiced. I don’t think I would have been as open to things like [jazz flautist] Charles Lloyd and [saxophonist] John Handy. It can make you receptive and sensitive to a certain level, right? The Beatles, Cream, and the Yardbirds were all doing it, so you say, “Gee, maybe there’s something to it.”

Did the Latin influences creep into the Santana band because of the things you’d heard as a kid, or did an outside musician bring that element to the band?

[Long pause.] It took me a long time, just now, to remember when the congas came in. We were exclusively a blues band at first. People ask me a lot of times how the change took place, and I think the reason was that we’d go around “Hippy Hill” and Aquatic Park in San Francisco, and they used to have congas and wine, and that’s where we got the congas in the band. Somebody brought this conga player to jam with us, and he threw us into a whole different thing. Actually, we never play “Latin music”—you know, it’s a crossover. I just play whatever I hear.

Did you originally plan to add a conga player, yet continue playing blues?

Yeah. Even when we had a conga player it was still the Santana Blues Band. Later we got Chepito [Areas], and he was playing congas and timbales. Then, we dropped the “Blues Band” and started to play more of a crossover. And we were listening to Miles and the Jazz Crusaders. After that, it was really interesting, because even Chicago came out with congas. Actually, Harvey Mandel was probably the first guy to put congas on a rock and roll album [Cristo Redentor]. I saw him and Charlie Musselwhite [as the Southside Sound System] at the Avalon one time, and they played “Cristo Redentor” and “Wade In The Water,” and I was knocked out. I learned a lot from them.

I really admire guys like Harvey Mandel whose sound I can identify, because it takes a lot of work. Nobody can say that you are born with it. You work for it, and carve your own individuality. In fact, if people want to find out how to develop this, a good way is to get a tape recorder, and for half an hour, turn out the lights in your house and get into a room that’s kind of dark—where you don’t have interruptions. Then, just play with a rhythm machine. After a while, it’s like a deck of cards on the table, and you can begin to see the riffs that came from this guy, the riffs that came from that guy, and then the two or three riffs that are yours. Then, you start concentrating on yours, and, to me, that’s how you develop your own individual sound. You play a couple of notes and say, “Gee, that sounds like Eric Clapton” or “That sounds like George Benson.” But then you play two or three notes, and say, “Man, that’s me.”

When you hear an idea for a song in your head, is it usually a melody or a set of changes or a rhythmic motif or what?

It’s a cry. It’s a crying melody. That’s mostly what I hear, and then I have to find the chords. Sometimes, it’s the other way around, and one chord could almost make up for three melodies. But, sometimes, the melody is so clear, you want to find three passing chords for that melody.

Your guitar solos seem to stay pretty close to the melody of the song itself, as opposed to players like, say, Al Di Meola or John McLaughlin, who use a lot of scalar things. Are you thinking of the song’s basic theme throughout your solo?

Yes. To me, the heart of the song is the melody. And I approach the melody from a singer’s point of view—a simple singer, not a singer who scats a lot like George Benson. If you’ll notice, a lot of guitar players riff like horn players. And I don’t really like guitar players like that. Not that I dislike them with a passion, but it doesn’t appeal to me—it’s boring. I think more like a layman singing [sings], “Lovely Rita meter maid...” You don’t care what chords are under¬neath—it’s the basic feeling of the song that gets you immediately. As far as I’m concerned, the point of music is to tell stories with a melody. All that stuff about playing notes, to me, is just like watching some cat pick up weights. After a while, who wants to see somebody flex their muscles?

Did the collaboration with John McLaughlin come about because you were both involved with Sri Chinmoy?

I was a seeker, and I still am a seeker. Even music is secondary to me—as much as I love it. Mahavishnu called me and said they wanted to know if we could do this album together, and he also wanted to know if I was interested in coming to see Sri Chinmoy. He felt that I was aspiring or crying for another kind of awareness, because, at that time, I had already made a commitment to close the book on drugs and booze and that kind of stuff. I started reading books about India and about spiritual masters, and it inspired me to work harder. Some people call it ambition, but I call it inspiration. When you have that, it’s like having a different kind of energy—pure energy—a different kind of fuel. Sometimes, it’s to¬tally in this center of creativity, and it just flows through you, and, all of a sudden, you don’t have to worry about who’s going to like or dislike it. When it’s over, you feel just like a bee. You don’t know why you did it, but, all of a sudden, you’ve accumulated all this honey. So that’s what brought us together. I did learn so much from him. He’s an incredible musician.

Was your Yamaha electric built to your specifications?

Yeah. It’s almost shaped like a Yamaha SG body, but it’s really fat like a Les Paul. It has more frets, and for sustain I asked them to put a big chunk of metal like a grand piano right where the tailpiece is. You hit it, and it’s like hitting an acoustic grand piano—it really resonates. When you hit the note, you don’t have to use all those gadgets to sustain. In fact, I never use sustain pedals. Gadgets always make you sound like you’re frying hamburgers through the amp.

When did you start using the Mesa/Boogie amp?

My brother Jorge turned me on to that. I was in New York, and I was really unhappy with my Fender Twins. It gave me headaches just to try to sustain. When Leo Fender left the company, he took something with him, because almost overnight I couldn’t get sustain from the new Fenders. Jorge came over and said, “You got to try this amp.” And it really looked like the Tubes’ amplifiers. It had a snakeskin kind of cover—really cheesy looking [laughs]. But, man, it sustained like crazy, so I never gave it back to Jorge [laughs].

What type of strings are you using?

I use Yamaha strings—generally .008, .011, .014, .024, .032, and .042.

You’ve mentioned several artists as being crossovers, which is somewhat controversial, as some jazz purists no doubt resent a rocker like Jeff Beck winning this year’s Playboy poll as Best Jazz Guitarist. In fact, the term “jazz” has been used to describe your playing.

 And I’m not. I don’t know why they classify certain artists like they do, but I’m not bothered by it, because I know that, first and foremost, I’m an instrument myself trying to play something back to you. I don’t consider myself a guitar player as much as I am a seeker who wants to manifest his vision through that particular instrument. I consider a guitar player somebody who sounds like a guitar player. In this day and age, it’s hard to tell who’s not a crossover, except Keith Jarrett. I don’t consider “crossover” to be a negative term. Some players have used it just to make more bread, and their heart isn’t in it, and that’s prostitution. I just play whatever is comfortable without offending or belittling my instru¬ment or my own integrity.

Excerpted from the June 1978 issue of Guitar Player

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