Carlos Santana Revisits The Rock Classics On Guitar Heaven

DRESSED IN A GREY SHIRT AND sporting a very Zen medallion, Carlos Santana strolls into the conference room at his San Rafael, California, headquarters and settles in to talk about the latest and most conceptually different album he has made— Guitar Heaven: The Greatest Guitar Classics of All Time.
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DRESSED IN A GREY SHIRT AND sporting a very Zen medallion, Carlos Santana strolls into the conference room at his San Rafael, California, headquarters and settles in to talk about the latest and most conceptually different album he has made— Guitar Heaven: The Greatest Guitar Classics of All Time. The title immediately conjures thoughts of one of rock’s most celebrated guitarists finally getting the chance to do a bunch tunes that he has been dying to perform. But the reality was that covering an album’s worth of huge rock hits from the ’60s,’70s, and ’80s was not an easy project for Santana to agree to. In spite of the run of success that Santana has had with the last three albums he has done for Arista with producer Clive Davis at the helm—which includes the mega selling Supernatural— Santana needed some serious convincing to sign on to Davis’ latest plan.


Not that Carlos Santana is any stranger to the art of interpretation—his genius at playing soaring guitar melodies over Latininfused grooves helped to redefine rock and roll in the psychedelic ’60s. But even with his Midas touch on guitar, the idea of doing an entire album of covers proved daunting. “I passed on this three times,” says Santana. “Clive had this concept that for him was very clear. He took a survey of the best songs and another survey of the best guitar players, and he decided that it was a win-win situation to do an album of classic songs. So he called me up to talk about it, and I said, ‘I’ll call you back.’ And I never did call him back.”

The long-running partnership between the two wasn’t affected by Santana’s initial reticence, of course. Their mutual trust in each other’s talents goes back to 1968, when Davis first signed the young guitarist to Columbia after seeing Santana perform at San Francisco’s Fillmore West. But given the scope of Davis’ plan for Guitar Heaven—which involved Santana-izing such songs as Van Halen’s “Dance the Night Away,” Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” Def Leppard’s “Photograph,” and even “Smoke on the Water”—and enlisting vocalists like Rob Thomas, Scott Weiland, and Joe Cocker— it’s easy to see why Santana might have some concerns about what his friend was asking of him.

“I felt like I was being challenged to do what Evel Knievel or Bruce Lee did, or to climb Mount Everest,” Santana recalls. “I have done this before with “Black Magic Woman” (Peter Green), “Jingo” (Olantunji), “Evil Ways” (Willie Bobo), “Oye Como Va” (Tito Puente), “Gypsy Queen” (Gabor Szabo), and “She’s Not There” (the Zombies)— but not all of them at the same time on one album. So I was feeling like, “Ooh, I don’t know if I want to tackle this.”

But Clive Davis’ powers of persuasion won the day, and the result is an album’s worth of classic rock songs that sound quite different from anything you might expect from a “tribute” album. Santana’s fiery tone and playing deserve much of the credit here as he leads the songs into directions that bring a very different perspective to tracks like the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm”—which he texturizes with some cool slide playing— the Stones “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’,” T.Rex’s “Bang a Gong,” and the George Harrison classic “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” which also features India.Arie on vocals and Yo-Yo Ma on cello.

What made you overcome your reluctance to do this album?

I believe what prevents most people from doing something outstanding is when they start over-analyzing what other people will think. And that’s where fear comes in. Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page are my friends, so what are they going to think? So you go into this nervous Nellie thing, which is the opposite of trusting. I would put the phone up in the air when Clive was calling me, and I’m thinking, “I don’t want to do this,” and then all of a sudden I hear this voice inside me saying, “Man, what is your problem? Listen to the passion in his voice. Bill Graham’s passion put you at Woodstock. Clive Davis’ passion put you at Supernatural. With Clive Davis, Matt Serletic, and Howard Benson as your producers, and your band, what could possibly go wrong? It’s not like you’re putting a moustache on the Mona Lisa. All of sudden the voice inside me said, “Okay, I’ll do it.”

What are you trying to accomplish covering someone else’s songs?

Taking a quote from Wayne Shorter where he said, “Completely new, totally familiar.” If you could be in my shoes and you’re onstage playing “Black Magic Woman” for the third or fourth time, and then you see Peter Green on the side of the stage looking at you, it’s quite an experience, because he knows that his song is on a different level now. I would be more than happy if someone grabs one of my songs and takes it to a new level. Actually I had that experience with Gato Barbieri doing “Europa.” My mom says to me, “You’re my son and I love you and you bought me this house, but I like Gato Barbieri’s version better.” And I thought she was right too.

So whether it’s George Gershwin or the Beatles or Rogers and Hammerstein, it’s a question of can you honor the song and make it your own? And can you make it so that when people listen to it they go “this is my song.”

How did you go about working out your solos for these songs?

Creating a CD like Guitar Heaven requires trust and learning when to defer to others who do what they do very well, and especially— here’s the key note for this interview—when to learn to get out of your own way, because that’s when you take the best solo. When you get out of your own way you start playing things that you didn’t even know. I had this conversation with Stevie Ray Vaughan once. He said, “One time I was in this balcony watching myself playing stuff onstage that I don’t know how to play.” Certain musicians have the aerial view while they’re playing a solo. Wayne Shorter has it and Wes Montgomery had it too. That’s a very important thing to have when you’re taking a solo, because it’s not just about where your fingers go or where a knob is set.

This is really important because it’s the same thing for Charlie Parker, Charlie Christian, you, or me. When you take a solo, it’s required for you to know two things: Where are you going and what are you trying to say. Ideally, you’re going straight to the heart. And what are you trying to say to the audience is that you’re meaningful, you’re significant, and you matter too. If you can take a solo like that, you’re badass. Otherwise, you’re like a cow regurgitating alfalfa and it’s just a bunch of notes and stuff. But if you can affect people to where you kind of alter their existence, you’re pretty badass.

As Jimmie Vaughan said, “If you’re not speaking in sentences when you solo, it’s just like a bowl of words.”

I love Jimmie Vaughan. I met him before I met Stevie. We both love Kenny Burrell and Lightnin’ Hopkins a lot. So yeah, I identify with what he says. But again, it’s all about where are you going and what are you trying to say? It’s one of the key things that people have been talking about ever since Charlie Christian and T-Bone Walker.

What sorts of things do you practice to attain a high level of consciousness in your playing?

I practice before I record a session or go on stage. The rest of the time I don’t practice, I just take my fingers for a long walk with Stevie Ray Vaughan or with Jimi Hendrix or Miles or Marvin Gaye. Before I know it, we’ve walked for four hours with each other. I can go on a long, long walk with Michael Jackson and just play his music. So I call it taking my fingers for a walk, but I don’t practice necessarily. And this is the part where a lot of people may disagree with me. I don’t necessarily practice chords or scales because then I start sounding like a parakeet. And I don’t want to sound like that. I think you should learn these things when you’re in junior high school or high school or even college, and then put it aside. Because if you’re thinking too much about it, your music is going to sound like that.

A lot of different vocalists with very different styles were brought in to sing on this new album. Did you do that specifically so that the songs would take on a different identity?

I know that inwardly—and this is an example with guitars or music or sex—I want Baskin-Robbins, Häagen Dazs, and Ben & Jerry’s. I want all the flavors, not just vanilla. So people shouldn’t be surprised if I’m playing with Justin Timberlake or Metallica or Yo-Yo Ma or Andrea Bocelli. I’m a human and I want to interact with other humans. I’ve been doing this since ’67—playing with everyone from Jerry Garcia to Wayne Shorter. So you shouldn’t be surprised that I have a ferocious appetite for life and colors and textures and music and expression. I’m not a one-trick pony.

And I suppose you can trace that characteristic back to when you evolved your band, which was originally called the Santana Blues Band, into something that was very cutting edge at the time. How did that happen?

Everybody was a disciple of B.B. King back then, and I mean everybody. Michael Bloomfield, Peter Green—you can just hear it. Somehow I got turned on to Bola Sete, Gabor Szabo, and Wes Montgomery, and I found myself playing Mary Poppins tunes in three-four time. It’s no secret that when we did Abraxas there were members of the band that did not want to play “Oye Como Va” or “Samba Pa Ti.” They’d say, “We don’t sound rock and roll.” I said to them, “Well that’s too bad. We’re going to play it or you guys are going to get another guitar player.” So I pulled rank. I didn’t want anyone to define what rock and roll is. To me, rock and roll is Willie Nelson and Miles Davis and Beethoven and Stravinsky. It’s not just Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley.

Rock and roll for me is forever young and eternally relevant. To answer your question, though, I was raised in San Francisco when there was a nuclear explosion of consciousness from the Black Panthers to Cesar Chavez to Martin Luther King to Malcolm X. Then you have B.B. King. I’m right in between B.B. King and Tito Puente. But then I got more hungry. Now I want a little bit of Sonny Sharrock with Led Zeppelin, and then I want a little bit of Pavarotti with Otis Rush, because I’m not afraid to mix it up.

When evaluating the songs for Guitar Heaven did you go back and think about what they meant to you when you first heard them? Take “Whole Lotta Love” for example. What did that mean to you when you first heard it?

It meant to me that this song was rivaling the Rolling Stones. There was a time when Led Zeppelin was bigger than the Rolling Stones and bigger than U2. That’s what it meant to me. So it meant that the songs were making the group, not the group making the songs. The songs made the Doors too. If you want to call the ultimate rock and roll song, it’s between “Satisfaction,” “Light My Fire,” and “Gloria.” Everybody was doing that one when I was a kid. Those are mean, mean, mean songs. But I also love the way Jose Feliciano did “Light My Fire” and I like the way Otis Redding did “Satisfaction.”

So I learned in the ’60s to not be afraid of the song. What could I do differently so that even Jimmy Page or the Doors would go, “Damn!”? Listen to what Jimi Hendrix did with “All Along the Watchtower.” I’m sure that Bob Dylan, when he heard it, said, “Damn!”

So how do you go about reinventing a song to such a degree?

You can only do it by getting yourself out of the way, because if you start thinking about it, you’re going to make that song very small and very predictable. But if you get out of the way—and I don’t mean to sell anybody any religion—but the Holy Ghost comes in. Whether it’s Danny Gatton or Roy Buchanan, when the Holy Ghost takes over them, you don’t hear Stratocaster and you don’t hear fingers and you don’t hear scales anymore. You just hear the Holy Ghost. That’s what I wanted to bring to this CD more than anything. It’s a spirit that floods the room. I remember saying to my band, “Stop. These songs were not played like that and they were not written like that. We’ve got to become like nasty, excuse the expression, motherf*** ers. Bring that energy in this room.” Everybody was going, “Ooh.” I was thinking that maybe I’m being a little harsh because there are engineers and producers and sometimes people don’t want to be talked to in a certain way in front of business partners, but I don’t care. I’m the one who has to play these songs every day. I’m the one who has to play “Oye Como Va” for the rest of my life. So I need to hear it in a certain way that is like, as a friend would say, “erectus keep em upus.”

How did you work as a bandleader to get what you wanted from the songs on Guitar Heaven?

I asked permission from the producers to give me the first 45 minutes with my band, just to set the tempo, the groove and the feel. That’s the only reason I do sound checks—to get the tempo, the groove, and the feel. I needed to go in there and say to my band, “What are you playing? Would you be so gracious to not play that? Play this on the bass drum and play this on the bass.” I’m the one who sets the tone for that. Then you can add these extraordinary singers, who also have their work cut out from them because they have to be like surfers riding this waves. I love what Rob Thomas did on “Sunshine of Your Love.” But it was the energy that was there. So I’m about the energy, man. I may be 63, but I want to be that 14 year old with a lot of pimples!

Tribute bands are everywhere now, but you didn’t take that approach with this album. For example, your intro to “Back in Black” is totally off road. And then you bring a rapper in to sing it. It becomes an almost entirely different song.

I want to hear the bang and I want that energy, whether it’s “Sunshine of Your Love,” “Back in Black,” or “Whole Lotta Love.” I want the energy man, and I’m not shy about it. Sometimes my kids might squirm when they hear daddy say certain words, but certain words ignite you. You can’t say I love you darling every day. Once in a while you have to say “bitch” or drop the F-word, because it’s still love. So I use any means necessary with dignity and grace to ignite and activate my band so they can play like motherf***ers.

I don’t want the bland. I don’t ever want to sound like hot-tub jazz. You can just shoot me and put me out of my misery. That music to me is unnecessary. Music should never be a background thing. If that’s what you need, don’t listen to music. Read a book instead. Music needs to be right on your face pulling you out of your misery and pulling you out of your bored existence. That’s why I love Metallica or whoever else can do that. It can be Stravinsky or James Brown. In fact, they asked Stravinsky who was he listening to before he died he said, “Three Bs— “Brahms, Beethoven, and Brown.”

Do you always know what you’re going to do when you go in the studio or step out onstage, or do you rely on inspiration to guide your performance?

As long as I know what key it’s in and I can feel the groove, then I go to a repertoire where it’s like if everybody’s going up and down, I’ve got to go left to right—which is something I learned from Miles Davis—just to counter motion. If everybody’s playing a certain way, don’t play like that. I always try to relate to the notes that I want to sound as marinated as the notes Otis Rush played. There’s a reason why one of Eric Clapton’s best albums is “Beano” with John Mayall [referring to the 1966 album John Mayall and the Blues Breakers with Eric Clapton], because he was seriously on Otis Rush’s footprints then. Same thing with Peter Green. We love B.B. King, but there’s something about Otis Rush that when he grabs that note, he sucks the juice. Here is a whole other subject for Guitar Player magazine. How juicy can you make your notes? Instead of, how dry and fast can you make your notes?

Obviously your guitar and your fingers have something to do with it, so do your strings, your amp, all that stuff.

I can give you Stevie Ray Vaughan’s amplifier— number 007 Dumble Steel String Singer—his guitar, his strings, Tube Screamer, and everything else that he played and you’re not going to sound like him. The only way you’re going to get close to sounding like him is by you adoring what he adored. He adored Albert King, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, and Jimi Hendrix. If you have that down and you adore it with your heart and your spirit, you might get close to it. But that’s what is required to make juicy notes——soul, heart, mind, body, and cojones—all of those things go into it.

What do you listen to that inspires your guitar playing?

I was talking about this with John Scofield—about Kenny Burrell’s Guitar Forms CD and about John Coltrane’s “Africa” [from Africa/Brass] and Gil Evans’ “Las Vegas Tango” [from TheIndividualism of Gil Evans]. Listen to that stuff and the next thing you know is that your playing is going to get really juicy, because all those songs compel you to go into a certain place in your heart where it’s not the city—it’s the swamp. Whenever John Lee Hooker would call me we’d always talk about the swamp. I heard B.B. King say, “Ladies and gentlemen, tonight is very special because we have John Lee Hooker in the house and we’re going to take it to the ally.” And John Lee Hooker goes, “Why stop there? Let’s go all the way to the swamp.” I cracked up just hearing him say that because when you go to the swamp, it’s the other side of the railroad tracks where even black people are afraid to go.

But that’s where the music is that gets inside the marrow of your bone. It just transports you into this place of total wonderment. How many musicians can take you right now to total wonderment from the beginning to the end of the song? Try Peter Green’s “Supernatural.” He’ll take you there within a second. Listen to “Beck’s Bolero.” He’ll take you there too.

For “Riders on the Storm” you took a song that has very little guitar in it and reinvented it so nicely with those slide parts. What was special for you about that song?

It’s one of my favorites. “Riders” is so psychedelic. It’s like an acid trip. I want to thank my band because they set the tone with me, and I also want to validate Howard Benson on this one because he basically just sat over there and let me go. I grabbed a slide guitar and just started playing kind of like Sonny Sharrock, just to create a texture. He says, “Why don’t you just play a bunch of tracks and I’ll put it together.” So I played two or three takes of slide guitar and one or two takes of single-note guitar. It was fun re-creating a song didn’t have much guitar in it originally. I love Robby Krieger because he’s incredible, but that song was wide open for me.

So I’m playing slide guitar and one minute I’m playing like John Lee Hooker or Lightnin’ Hopkins, and the next I’m playing like Sonny Sharrock. All that stuff is valid when you play a guitar solo because you’re articulating a language. It’s not just notes. I’ll play that song three or four times in a row when I’m driving and turn it up really loud because I get into the panorama of it. That’s a good word for it—how’s your panorama doing? Do you have any panorama in your playing?

Did you use a different guitar than your PRS for those slide parts?

No, it’s the PRS. I don’t raise the strings or anything. I just make believe that I’m Sonny Sharrock or Bonnie Raitt or Derek Trucks or Jeff Beck with a slide. I just make believe, and if I make believe I don’t have to go through the thing of raising the strings or changing to an open tuning. I’d rather just hear it up here between my ears and in my heart and go for it.

You must have chosen a lot of the songs because of the tones that you heard on the original versions. What did you think when you first heard Eddie Van Halen?

What Eddie did was a quantum leap in the approach of guitar—like seeing a motorcycle next to a bicycle. He could play all that, but it sounded like life. Other musicians play that way and it sounds like a Looney Tunes cartoon sped up. You don’t just wake up and start playing like that. You need to use your guitar as a laboratory to arrive at that. Eddie took the guitar to a level where he gave birth to a bunch of other guitarists that came up playing like that. And then other guys expanded on it. The beautiful thing about Van Halen, like AC/DC, is if you take the guitar solo out and just listen to the groove, it’s so happening. I want to hear rhythm guitar that has a serious groove, so that when you do put the lead on top you can’t help but have fun.

During the recording process were you ever thinking about what amp or effects you should be using for a particular song?

I just always wanted the one that sounded more gnarly, which means like a mangy cat, like a junkyard dog, something with a lot of bottom. I don’t like it when it has too much middle, and, especially, when it’s too thin on top. I like it when it has what I like to call Pavarotti belly tones. I tried different guitars, because it’s required that you play “Little Wing” with a Strat—I couldn’t do it with a Paul Reed Smith, as much as I love my friend Paul. So I tried a Strat on one or two songs. The amplifiers are mainly Boogie for the top. Someone said to me, “Why do you need three amplifiers?” I said, “Because I play high, middle, and low.” Right now I use this Bluetone amp for the lows, I use Dumbles for the middle, and I use Boogies for the highs. That way you are like a singer—you have belly tones, chest tones, and head tones, and I like that. I want to hear the whole symmetry of highs, middle, and lows.

In order to get the sounds you want, how involved do you get in the recording process?

I spend time with engineers and producers reminding them to put microphones away from the amplifier and in the back of the amplifier. Usually when you put a microphone in front of the amplifier only, it sounds like you’re listening to a straw. You’ve got to let the whole sound come in. I’ll say, “Let’s just work with three microphones. The one far away, turn everything off. The front one, it sounds ugly and thin, so let’s mess with it. Make it full on. Be drastic—be extremely drastic. There it is. Okay, don’t mess with that one anymore. Now let’s work with the one in the back of the amp.” So by the time you finish with the tone of your guitar using three microphones—which takes maybe 20 minutes to half an hour—all of a sudden it sounds like a mean lion, and you can hear that “ooh” from the belly. I heard that Stevie Ray Vaughan used to have amplifiers in the bathroom and in the kitchen—and if that’s what you have to do to get the sound you want, that’s what you have to do.

Having been one of the guys who practically invented sustain, what is your recipe now for getting great overdrive tones?

I only used a wah-wah pedal and I had the amps turned up real loud—even in the console. To me, music is like getting a hug from somebody who just jumped into a pool and is all wet. Don’t be afraid to get wet— so turn it up! By the grace of God, I haven’t lost my hearing. But then again, I don’t go to extremes of playing like 20 Marshalls on 11. Some people do one tour with all these Marshalls turned up, and their next tour is all acoustic [Laughs]. I don’t like extremes. I like somewhere in the middle. I can do acoustic and I can do the Marshalls, but not because I have to.

I’m blessed that my ears are still working and I can still read the fine print. I was invested in tones and making juicy notes on this CD, and the songs speak for themselves. They’re all established and they’re really beautiful. Play it loud and it will take you somewhere.