Carlos Santana on the Amp That Brought Him Tonal Nirvana

Mesa/Boogie amp helped Santana forge his recognizable guitar sound.
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I moved to Mt. Tamalpias [north of San Francisco] in ’69, right after Woodstock, and around ’71, I started going to this music store called Prune Music in Mill Valley. I noticed that besides selling guitars, there was this guy in the back making amplifiers. You could tell he was doing things out of the box, because he was souping-up little Fender amps and making them sound like they were on steroids. I tried one of his modded Princetons and I thought, “I’ve got to take one of these on the road.” I needed an amplifier that I could play in my room at the hotel. We stayed at Holiday Inns and Howard Johnsons back then, and I needed to play and sustain like Peter Green, but people would complain all over the hotel. I would put the amplifier face down and cover it with pillows and everything, and it still wouldn’t do it so that I could get that creamy sustaining tone without bothering anyone.

Did you get a Boogie right away?

My brother Jorge actually got a hold of the amp before I did, and I don’t know how that happened. We were both in Hartford, Connecticut, and I had a night off, so I went to see him play. He said, “You’ve got to come to my room because I’ve got this amplifier that’s going to freak you out.” So I went to his room and saw this snakeskin-covered amp, and man, as soon as I played it, it was like love at first sight.

What were you playing though at that time?

I was using three Fender Twins. It’s a beautiful sound, but man is it loud! At Woodstock, I used this amp made by Gallien- Kruger that had no tubes. I never really liked that tone other than it was loud and it really projected, but I figured if we’re going to play at Woodstock I needed to project, so that’s why I used it. But I love the sound of flesh. If you rub your arms against each other, that’s how an amplifier should feel. That’s how Eric Clapton sounded on the Blues Breakers album, and it’s how Peter Green sounded. Even though they were playing Marshalls, their sound is very creamy and it doesn’t hurt your teeth. I went through a time when I was like a ouija board, just looking for a sound, for my tone, whatever that would be.

How did you find your tone?

You know, a lot of ugly faces and butt puckering [laughs]. I watched a lot of live performances of Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, and B.B. King. The way you dip yourself into knowing about things now is through Google. But back then the only way to dip yourself was to go to the south side of Chicago, to places where it was very dangerous. I would have to pay the police in the club. I would say, “I’ll give you $100 if you just stay close to me and let me get the things I need from Otis Rush.” I’d show him the money, and he’d pull a gun out and make sure everyone was looking at it, and then he would put the gun back in real slow and say, “Okay, stand here next to me and enjoy the show—when it’s over, we’ll call you a cab and I’ll walk you out to it.” That was the way for me to access sound, because I had to know what kinds of faces Otis Rush or B.B. King were making.

How did the Boogie factor into your tone quest?

I’m really grateful that Randy found that tone, because what I needed was sustain. I wanted to get the flute sound and the violin sound, and sustain it as long as I could. There would always be a trail of paint in all the places I played, because I would have to mark the floor to find the sweet spot between the guitar and the speaker. So it really helped me to have the Boogie amplifier. To be in a room with John McLaughlin playing John Coltrane’s music, I had to bring confidence. I didn’t want him going, “What am I doing with this cat playing this music?” I remember playing with B.B. King at the Apollo one time, and he said, “Santana, you not only have a good tone, you have a grand tone.” I was thinking, “Okay, I’ve graduated—I’ve been knighted by B.B. King.”

What was the most important thing you learned about getting great tones on your albums?

The Boogie helped for sure, but willingness is also very important, and there’s no pedal for that. Willingness isn’t about being pushy or compulsory, but I needed to let the engineers know that I wanted five to seven mics to capture the sound of my amplifier—two behind my amp, one in the furthest corner of the studio, way up high to get the room sound, one right in front of the speaker, and one ten feet away from the amplifier. And we’re going to play with each one until we recreate what it sounds like when I open the door. Because when I open the door my ears hear everything. So I had to teach myself and others about the importance of willingness.

You forged an instantly recognizable guitar sound early on and that’s not an easy thing to achieve. What do you attribute it to?

You know, there’s an article we could do about how much drummers drive guitar players. Eric Clapton in Cream wouldn’t have sounded that way without Ginger Baker, and the same with Page and Bonham. Michael Shrieve opened me up from being a very ignorant, locked mind and feel person. If it wasn’t John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Reed, or B. B. King, I just didn’t want to hear about it. But Michael brought me a whole bunch of records by John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Django Reinhardt, Baden Powell, and Wes Montgomery, and he said to me, “You need to listen to this man, because this is you.” So Michael unlocked the closed-mindedness in me and gave me the willingness to be open. All of a sudden I heard Coltrane and Miles playing the blues, and it was like, “Oh my god!” It was still the blues, but these guys were harmonic geniuses. So I credit Michael with making me 90 percent of who I am today.

How did the Boogie affect your live performances?

In just ’73 alone, we did 312 concerts; we were right behind B.B. King, and he was the only one who would do that many concerts per year. I think we went around the world twice—Europe, South America, Japan, Hong Kong, the Middle East—and everywhere we went, we were sharing bills with like Bobby Womack or Freddie King, and they would come over and check me out. They’d look at my guitar and the Boogie amplifier, and they’d be trying to figure out how I was getting that sound, because I had no pedals. Traveling in ’73, one of the saving graces was being onstage and playing, and the Boogie amplifier really helped save my sanity from all the craziness of touring that year.

What is it about about the Mark I you used a Budokan in 1973 that made you want to start playing it again?

When you hit a note though that amp, it goes “pop,” like popping a bubble, and then this other sound comes out of it that’s like Peter Green Supernatural, B.B. King Live at the Regal, or the first three albums by Queen. I don’t know if it’s psychological or physical or whatever, but I love it. As soon as I heard it earlier this year on this DVD from Budokan in Japan, I knew I had to put everything aside that I’m accustomed to and revisit that friend. Because that sound is like a friend you haven’t seen in a while, and as soon as I started playing it again it made everything so easy. You still have to make ugly faces to get it, but that amp was built to make pretty notes, and that’s the best way to say it.

When did it become apparent that your use of a Boogie amp was getting noticed by other well-known guitarists?

The best example is, I was hanging around with Bob Dylan at the Plaza Hotel in New York, and we were checking out the jacket of the Lotus album [a triple live release from 1974] that a Japanese representative of Columbia just brought over. Someone said, “Hey, the Stones are playing tonight and you guys are invited if you want to come.” We said, “Sure,” and so here’s Bob and myself in a cab with a Boogie amp and a guitar going to Madison Square Garden. I guess we hadn’t learned about limousines at that point! We got there, and Mick Jagger and Keith Richards invited me to jam with them on “Sympathy for the Devil.” So they do their set and it was incredible, and for the encore they set my amplifier up kind of high—so all you see is this tiny little amplifier with snakeskin covering sticking out above their gear. We do the song and when they signal me to take my solo, I hit a note and I remember Keith and Ronnie Wood turning around like, “Holy sh*t, man, what is that sound?” Next tour, everybody in the Stones had a Boogie!