“You guys act like I don’t know what BACHATA IS, ” was President Barack Obama’s reaction as members of Aventura started to explain their music to him. The self-proclaimed “Kings of Bachata” were taping a PBS broadcast of In Performance at The White House: Fiesta Latina alongside other invitees such as Marc Anthony, José Feliciano, and Gloria Estefan. The presidential invitation was undoubtedly due to the success of the Bronx-based band’s 2009 album, The Last [Sony International], which charted at #1 for more than five months and had the highest U.S. Latin music sales for both 2009 and 2010. The group won the 2009 American Music Award for “Favorite Latin Artist,” and swept nine categories at the 2010 Billboard Latin Music Awards, including “Artist of the Year” and “Album of the Year.” Fans listening to the music and lyrics of songs such as “Por Un Segundo” [“For a Second”], “Dile Al Amor” [“Tell Love”], and “Su Veneno” [“Her Poison”] will understand comedian George Lopez’s introduction at the White House performance: “Bachata is known for its staccato licks and tales of heartbreak. It is called ‘the blues of the Dominican Republic.’” The CD/ DVD compilation 14 Plus 14 [Premium Latin Music] was released in May 2011. Lenny Santos is the group’s guitarist, producer, and arranger.
How do you describe bachata?
It’s traditional jazz, blues, R&B, soul, and rock all mixed in one, with little poppy string guitar sounds.
What guitars and effects do you use to get those poppy string sounds?
The guitars typically used are the Yamaha APX-10, APX-T10, or APX-20, which have been discontinued. The size of the soundhole and the body are perfect for that sound. We also use the Gibson ’57 Classic humbucker. You have to disconnect the mic on the bridge, connect the pickup to the EQ, and then mount it with a special mounting. I also lower the action a little to increase sustain and give each note more pop. As for pedals, I use the Boss EQ7 as well as the Boss CE-5 Chorus Ensemble, which always has to be on except when you are playing something like an intro with classical sounds. I also use some sort of reverb and the Boss DD-6 digital delay.
What do you string your guitars with?
I use mixed sets of heavier D’Addario Chromes, with .014-gauge strings for both the B and high E. People wonder why I use such heavy high strings, but .010- or .011-gauge strings have too thin a sound, and they can also break when I’m playing with my fingers, because my fingers are kind of heavy, and I play with a lot of force and precision. The strings also need to hold up to a thumbpick, because you can’t get the sound or the rhythm of bachata without one. I have seen electric guitarists and rock guitarists try to play bachata without a thumbpick and it sounds funny. They’re playing the same music, but it’s not the same flow, and it’s not the same rhythm. I use the large, brown, medium-gauge Dunlops that you can sort of see through.
So, the heavier E and B strings give you more punch?
Exactly. When there’s a lot of dynamics going on with the bongos and the güira and the congas and I’m playing with a .010 or a .011 string, you’re not going to hear me. When I’ve got .014s on there, I’ve got some ammunition and you’re really going to hear me.
You also frequently use a capo.
Yes. A capo is essential for a lot of the tricks that you do in bachata. You’ll see me moving the capo constantly while I’m performing.
What kind of amplifier do you use?
I don’t use amps. I go direct into the P.A. We usually have 12 mixers on stage and everybody hears my guitar in their own mix. I used to monitor through two floor monitors and the side fills, but now we’ve got the Ultimate Ears TripleFi 10 in-ear monitors. They’re custom-made and pretty expensive, but they’re well worth it.
Who are your influences?
The star of bachata was the great Anthony Santos. He’s called “El Mayimbe,” “The King,” and “The Emperor.” He’s the one who introduced lowering the strings to create that poppy sound, as well as inventing lots of tricks for riffing on guitar and requinto. I copied him exactly and then added more stuff. That’s why I added electric guitars and effects like tremolo and wah. They never did that before in bachata, and people were saying, “What the hell is this guy doing? He’s messing up our music.”
You got criticized and booed at times early on.
Yeah, by everybody, including disc jockeys. But then we started getting really popular in the street and young people began following us. We sang in English and Spanish and filled up the bachata music with more instruments and more influences. We added some hip-hop, some R&B, and all that stuff.
Do you have any advice for somebody starting out?
Your dreams can come true if you just stay focused. I came from the slums of the Bronx, and was raised in an apartment with six brothers by a single mom. When I started playing I didn’t even know how to hold the instrument, but I just kept working and learning in any way I could. I didn’t know this group was going to be this big. We just wanted to make noise on the corner of our street and entertain people. At some point it became serious, which inspired me to become more serious about my technique. I still don’t believe to this day that we played at the White House for the president.