Australian Guitar is sitting in the lobby of the Trump Hotel in New York, waiting for Carlos Santana. As far as moments to think about your life go, this isn’t a bad one. Stepping into a hotel like this is like landing on another planet, one that’s decorated in brushed steel and populated by people who look exceedingly rich and generally unhappy, grouped protectively around matching luggage or sullenly clutching shopping bags from Macy’s and bickering over fold-out subway maps.
Eventually, a call comes that Carlos is ready to receive us, and we’re ushered upstairs to his suite, where we find him sitting by a window that provides a pretty impressive view of Manhattan, fiddling with a brand new iPhone and sipping mineral water. Santana is exactly as you’d imagine him – tie-dyed t-shirt, moustache, flat cap. He looks out of place here – for a start, his serene disposition makes for quite the contrast from the other guests. But then, he’s got a good reason to be happy – he just got engaged, having proposed to his drummer Cindy Blackman on stage two nights before we speak. “She’s quite the lady,” he enthuses, grinning. “I’m like [waves hand] this high. I’m not touching the ground, man. I’m staying up in the clouds.”
He’s also got a new album to talk about – the unwieldily-titled Guitar Heaven: The Greatest Guitar Classics of All Time. It follows what’s been the standard format for Santana albums since his post-Supernatural career resurrection: big-name guest singers, slick production, the occasional fluid solo to keep the fretboard purists happy. The twist is that this time around, the songs are “guitar classics” by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, etc.
Apparently, Santana had to be talked into doing the album, a fact that he’s quite happy to acknowledge: “I was like, ‘I don’t want to do this’. [Arista and Sony supremo] Clive [Davis] said, ‘Man, you’re the only one who can do it. If you don’t do it I’ll just drop [the idea]. I won’t give it to anybody else.’ That’s the main thing about this interview, the main thing that people need to know: I trust. I trusted Clive Davis, I trusted all those incredible singers, and most of all, I trusted my band. To create something like this, which is really challenging and kinda scary, you have to trust.”
Santana speaks with a heartfeltness that feels like a throwback to the earnest idealism of ’60s hippiedom. It’s curiously touching; in this era of arched eyebrows and irony, no-one talks like this any more. Sure, there are times when he sounds perilously like Julian Barratt’s Rudi Von Disarzio character from The Mighty Boosh, but equally, his zeal is strangely infectious. When he drops names – as he does throughout our discussion – it doesn’t feel contrived or grandiloquent. And when he says things like, “The universe is very alive, and it will give you and me the greenness”, you find yourself sitting forward and nodding sagely, rather than double-checking that you’re not in fact talking to someone called Moonbeam.
He’s a charmer, too. He describes the songs on this album as follows: “All of the songs to me are ladies. So for example, ‘Little Wing’ and ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ [he pauses here to refer to what’s apparently a list of tracks on the album, something he’ll continue to do so throughout the interview] … if they’re ladies that go out with Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, I’m not gonna wear the same cologne or the same clothes as [Eric and Jimi]. It wouldn’t make any sense. I mean, some people would, but I wouldn’t. I have to smell like me, and I have to wear what I wear. But,” he smiles, “I trust that next time I see those ladies, they’re gonna want to go out with me again.”
Australian Guitar asks what his original reservations about the whole idea were. “Fear,” he says simply. “Usually when you have fear, it’s mostly about what other people are going to think. That’s the same fear that stops a lot of people doing anything. It was a matter of me shifting my perception. That’s the key to creating a lot of beauty and grace, man: you have to shift the misalignments and positions in the brain. For me, to correct the misalignment I say, ‘I am light and love. I’m a child with purity and innocence, and I am light and love.’ Then I can go with these songs and bring freshness to them. See, with purity and innocence, you’ve already pushed aside fear, and you’ve got courage. A five-year-old kid doesn’t even know what fear is, man. It’s all about correcting the way you think.”
The idea of stepping aside from consciousness to allow the unconscious to express itself is an theme he’ll return to frequently over the course of our conversation. “There was one article that Stevie Ray [Vaughan] and I did,” he recalls, “and Stevie Ray was talking about, y’know, ‘There was this one particular date, and I was on stage, taking a solo – but I was on the balcony, looking at myself playing the stuff that I don’t know how to play. So Carlos is right, you gotta be able to get out of yourself. And then you play stuff that you don’t know.’ Otherwise, you’re rehashing over and over what you know, like a parakeet: [adopts comedy faux parakeet voice] ‘Hello! Hello!’ Shit, man. You gotta step outside of yourself.”
Asked whether, in view of this, it was difficult to find new angles to bring to songs that are already classics, Santana answers unhesitatingly: “No, no, no. For me it wasn’t, because I wasn’t thinking of what to do or what not to do with it. I’ll give you an example. When I listen to [T-Rex’s] ‘Bang a Gong’, I don’t know what key it is, or what position on the guitar it is, or what fingers I’m using. I’m hearing Queens. When that song came out, they used to play it a lot, and I used to live here in Queens [gestures out the window in a vaguely northeasterly direction]. So I’m in the studio, but my mind and my imagination are in Queens, walking the streets, eating an eggplant hero. And before I know it, the song is over.”
This instinctive approach was also reflected in his attitude to recording the album. “To tell you the truth, man, I don’t necessarily investigate what kind of equipment my other brother musicians used to create [these] songs. I’m not trying to be cute, or clever. I don’t concentrate too much on the gear; I concentrate on what part of my heart – what part of my brain gets out of the way, and what part of my heart goes through [makes whooshing motion with his hands].”
As such, the main sound on the album is, as ever, Santana’s signature Paul Reed Smith guitar, the continuation of a relationship that dates back to the mid-‘80s: “[Smith] approached me with his incredible bright eyes,” the guitarist recalls. “I saw that he had this passion. At this time, I don’t think that even he knew that he would be right there with Gibson and Fender. And yet he is.
“When [Smith’s guitars] arrive at my house, they arrive in tune,” he continues. “That’s a mark of somebody who cares. And they stay in tune. I played this album with 85% Paul Reed. I did play a Strat, and maybe one Les Paul… And ‘Little Wing’ and ‘[Fortunate Son]’, I played a Strat – just a stock one, a black Strat that I bought in Las Vegas for about $1,000. Amplifiers: mainly [Mesa] Boogie, Dumble… and a Bludo. That’s [made by] Brandon…”
“Montgomery!” hollers his tour manager from the other room.
“Montgomery,” Santana agrees. “From Denver, Colorado. The reason I play three amplifiers is that I can get yellow, orange and red at the same time.”
Australian Guitar clearly looks blank at this, because Santana explains further. “The Boogie is yellow. Very bright. The Dumble is orange. And the Bludo is the red, a dark, dark red kind of thing. When you hit the note, all of them hit you at the same time. Like a singer, you know. Pavarotti… [hits his chest]. Belly tones, chest tones, throat tones, head tones. That’s why I use three amplifiers at the same time. Not,” he notes for emphasis, “because I want to be louder.”
Apparently Santana’s signature PRS guitars – there are several, all of which share a fat neck and strange scale length – are something of a challenge to play. Or maybe not, because Santana clearly isn’t particularly impressed when we mention this. There’s a long pause, and his tranquil demeanour cracks little for the first and only time during our discussion. “Really? That’s the first I’ve ever heard of it. Who are these people, man?” He’s laughing, but clearly also a little miffed. “Come on, you guys are a bunch of wimps! Come on!
“Look,” he continues, “if you really want to complain, try to play a Stevie Ray Vaughan guitar, the way he set it up. Oh my god. Woooooo! You have to seriously have some ill intentions just to bend a note, because the strings are so thick and heavy. It was a revelation. I mean, I could deal with it, but a lot of people could not deal with it. This [PRS] guitar… I mean, I don’t see how they can say that. I don’t know what sort of guitars they’re used to playing. It’ll give you a tone, it’ll give you the facility to play, and more than anything it’ll give you consistency. I don’t know why people are complaining.”
We decide to move swiftly on to our final topic of the day: the famous “Santana sustain”. Australian Guitar has been reliably informed by the interwebs that the warm, seemingly infinite sustain that Santana is able to eke from his guitar is obtained by finding a spot just close enough to the amp that the sound starts to feed back, but far enough away to stop the feedback overpowering the original tone. Is this the secret?
He smiles. “Well, sometimes. It’s not automatic. We do mark the floor – when the stars align for it, it’s like…” He pauses, looking for another of his analogies. “It’s like a living light. If you use pedals to sustain, it’s like going out with a plastic doll. It ain’t the same thing. I need the real living light. Plus, as soon as you use a pedal, you’re gonna lose your identity. You’re gonna sound like a bunch of people that you don’t want to sound like. The best thing about you, the best thing about me, is your fingerprints, your iris, your tone… It’s like your own fingerprints. Why would you want to use a bunch of pedals and lose that? Just mark the floor. It means you have to go earlier and find that spot where it becomes like a living beam of light, instead of just feedback.”
He’s quick to add that he doesn’t claim credit for this trick. “No, no, no. I saw Jimi [Hendrix], I saw Peter Green, I saw a lot of people before me [use it]: Mike Bloomfield, BB [King], Gábor Szabó. No, feedback is…” He leans forward. “That’d be a good thing to do. Just a whole article about feedback! How it started and how it’s used. Peter Green, Jimi Hendrix – any of those three albums – Clapton… There’s something really beautiful about the sustain. It’s like a huge violin bow. But you have to know how to do it, otherwise it sounds… It hurts your teeth if you don’t know what you’re doing.”
But even when you do manage to hit the spot, as it were, Santana says there’s one more intangible to be taken into account: “I could give you the same guitar, same amplifier, but when you hit that note, it’s not gonna sound like mine. [But] in most articles, people don’t ask, ‘Well, what were you thinking when you hit that note?’ So you have to answer the question sometimes, ‘What were you thinking?’”
We bite. Carlos, what are you thinking when you play?
He pauses for dramatic effect, and suddenly he’s grinning like a cheeky schoolboy.
“Mmmm,” he purrs. “That’s rated X, man. I can’t tell you!”
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
Carlos Santana’s practice regimen
Even guitar legends have to practice – and in Carlos Santana’s case, practice is as much about self-discipline as anything else. “If you practice to a machine a lot,” he explains, “[then] I agree with Jeff Beck: you start talking too much and saying nothing. If you don’t practice like that… I don’t even call it practicing, I call it taking my fingers for a walk. I take my fingers for a walk with Marvin Gaye, I take my fingers for a walk with John Lee Hooker, or Bob Marley, or Michael Jackson, or Stevie Ray [Vaughan].
Before you know it, you’ve been going for a walk for two or three hours. When you come back, you’ve been having a conversation. It’s like going for a walk with Michael Jackson – even though his body’s not here, I play guitar and turn it up and the next thing I know… That’s how I learned to articulate, and it means I don’t overstate what needs to be stated [on record].
“I heard that John Coltrane used to put the horn on the chair and just look at it. And hear it. For an hour, just look at it and hear it. Then he’d take the horn, but not put it in his mouth, just finger it. And by the time you put it in your mouth… wow! [makes explosive motion]
“[Jazz saxophonist] Wayne Shorter said to someone – I won’t say who – ‘Notes are like people. You must listen to them once in a while’.”
How Carlos Santana accidentally invented the Mesa Boogie
Santana has been using Mesa Boogie amps since they were first knocked together in a California garage. He gave it its name (apparently by declaring, “That little thing really boogies!”), and also its distinctive twin volume control set-up. The first Boogie, Santana recalls, “was a beefed-up, souped-up Fender… Something. The little one. What was it called? Not the Bassman. What? A Twin? No, smaller. [It was a Princeton – Fender Trainspotting Ed.] Anyway, I remember saying to [Mesa founder Randall Smith], ‘Randy, can I ask you a question?’
He goes, ‘What’s that?’
I say, ‘Can you put two volume controls on [the amp]?’
He goes, ‘What for?’
I said, ‘Well, you put this one on 10 so you can sustain, and you put this one on 3, so I don’t have to kill the guy next door! So you’re controlling the volume and the gain [separately]. One so I can crank it up to 10 – it’ll give you that violin sound, that big long bow [makes alarming screeching noise] – but the main one, I put it on 3 so I don’t have to kill anyone in the hotel.’
Otherwise I have to put the amplifier facing down, put pillows and shit all over it… that’s how we did it back then. But I’m like, ‘Why don’t you just put another volume on it?’
He’s like, ‘[long pause] DAMN!’
Sometimes, like Frank Zappa says, necessity is the mother of invention.”