Carlos Santana's Five Tips for Enlightened Soloing

A guitar legend shares five vital elements of improvisation.
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Carlos Santana knows how to get an audience on its feet. Since 1967, with the just-formed Carlos Santana Blues Band, he has shared his gift for thrilling listeners to the point of frenzy with his impassioned riffs, solos, and melodic lines. Here, the guitar legend shares five vital elements of improvisation.

1. Let Go
“Certain people are very mental. They need to have rules and concepts and directions and scales and theory in order to play. But that’s not what music is about. Music has the same significance as beams of light coming out of the clouds and giving information to plants. Every note should be like a beam of light. You’re giving information to the listener, and you’re reminding them they also have light and significance. That’s improvising to me. The other stuff is just like going ‘da-da-da-da-da.’ It’s nothing.”

2. Be Open
“Bob Dylan used to say, ‘Don’t criticize what you don’t understand.’ Some musicians criticize because they’re afraid that other people are doing something good. I tell my musicians this: ‘When you say you hate something, I hope you can play the sh*t out of it, because if you can’t play it, you shouldn’t hate it.’ Every style of music is a language that needs to be articulated, respected, and honored.”

3. Paint Pictures
“When you play music, you must stimulate the imagination of the listener. Flash pots, lasers, and dancers are show business. Great musicians—like Leonard Bernstein or John Lee Hooker or the Doors—can create incredible visions for you with just their music.”

4. Celebrate Purity and the Profane
“Two elements make the audience stand up. One is spirituality, and the other is sensuality. When they both meet, it’s hallelujah time. Bill Graham once told me, ‘Stop getting embarrassed that people get really horny when they hear your music. Own it.’ Of course, you don’t do it consciously so that it’s vulgar or crass. It just happens, and you welcome it, and say, ‘thank you.’”

5. Have a Road Map
“When you take a solo, you’ve got to know two things: where you’re going, and what you’re saying. Then, you get the hell out of there! B.B. King says, ‘Where are you going? You’re going straight to the heart!’ Now, what are you trying to say? You say to the audience, ‘You are significant. You are meaningful. The light in you can make a difference in the world.’ When you invite people to own and claim their inheritance to music—that’s a solo!”

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