The Smooth Guitar Style of Carlos Santana...

Santana's guitar style grabs your attention. It's both smooth and melodic. 

But, when you try playing his music and you're working to nail his sound, you quickly realize that your ear has to do a majority of the work (as opposed to your fingers)... 

If you want to play like Carlos Santana, and if you ever want to be able to get his sound under your fingers, you’ve got to first learn to "hear" his sound in your head. It's not your typical guitar playing, because it isn't really rock, and it isn't exactly blues. Some of his phrasing actually seems like Jazz, and there's an obvious Latin overtone to his music, but it certainly isn't a common afro-cuban sound either.

Not that Carlos Santana needs much of an introduction, he's practically a household name among guitar players. But, if you're a little behind on your Carlos history, here's a quick breakdown for you...

Santana became famous in the late 1960s and into the early 1970s with his band, Santana, which pioneered a unique blend of rock, Latin music and jazz fusion. Santana continued to work in these forms over the following decades.

He experienced a resurgence of popularity and critical acclaim, in the late 1990's. In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine listed Santana at number 15 on their list of the "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time." He has won 10 Grammy Awards and 3 Latin Grammy Awards.


It is hard to describe how Carlos Santana plays guitar. His playing is just simply different. The reasons for this are more or less based in how he chooses his notes along with his blend of rock, Latin, blues and jazz rhythms for his style of rhythmic meter.

Carlos' playing may use a lot of common positions on the neck, and his style applies most of the "popular guitar patterns" in both his pentatonic playing and his full 7-tone scale-based ideas. But, it's more in how he uses those scales. That's the "Santana" difference.

Long sustained notes, tremolo picking and well placed bends are very typical of Santana's playing style. He favors the minor blues sound, along with a Latin outlook brought around through the use of the "Dorian: mode. This tends to be also be blended quite often against minor pentatonic and with the subtle use of the "Harmonic Minor" scale.

It's also important to point out that Santana sticks to the use of fairly simple phrases. He not a speed demon, (although he can rip out a fast run when required). He's also not a "gymnastic" style player like Joe Satriani, Tony MacAlpine, or Malmsteen. Instead Carlos uses rhythm and melodic phrasing to get out the music that he hears inside his head.


Electric Guitars
Santana never seemed to attach himself to one particular electric guitar across the length of his career (like some other guitarists do). In the late 60s, he played mostly Gibson SG Specials with P90 pickups, and with the beginning of the 70s, he migrated towards Les Pauls and the more beefy humbucker sound.

In mid 1970s he had a short affair with the Gibson L6-S model, but soon switched to the Yamaha SG2000 – which he helped design. In the early 1980s, he made a final switch to PRS guitars, and he’s been playing them exclusively to this day.

Acoustic Guitars:

- Nylon Nittono Model-T
This has been Santana’s main acoustic guitar since the 2000s. The guitar is completely hand-built by Tory Nittono, and features a spruce top with mahogany back and sides, as well as mahogany neck and ebony fretboard. It is equipped with LR Baggs T-Bridge saddle pickup, and custom pre-amp built in.

- Alvarez Yairi CY127CE
This guitar was used prior to the Nittono. It was featured in the ‘Maria, Maria’ music video

Fender Twin Reverb
Used on the first two albums. He had three of them, and it is likely that they were modified in some way.

Gallien-Krueger GMT 226A
Used during Woodstock gig. It is a solid-state amp, and Carlos was actually one of the first people to buy it.

Fender Princeton/Boogie
This amp was built by Randall Smith using a small Fender Princeton and modifying it with dual-6L6 circuit based on a 4×10 Fender Bassman and with a JBL D-120 12″ speaker. Before Randall even named the amp, Santana came to his shop and after trying it out said “Man, that little thing really Boogies!” Randall realized he needed a name for the amps he was making, and inspired by Santana’s remark – he named them Mesa-Boogie. He then made Santana another amp which he ended up using on 1972/73 tour – now known as Snakeskin. Recently released King-snake amp is a replica of Santana’s amp.

Mesa Boogie Mark 1
This amp is a direct result of the previously mentioned amp.

Bludotone 30
Prototype of the Universal Tone amp.

Universal Tone by Bludotone

Dumble Overdrive Reverb

Carlos Santana uses a mix of mostly Minor harmony while favoring the generally popular guitar keys of, "A Minor," "D Minor," "G Minor," and, "E Minor."

This is more than evident across many of his most popular songs including, "Evil Ways, " (E Minor /Dorian), "Game of Love" (E Minor). And, the songs, "Into the Night" (A Minor ./Dorian), plus, "Love of My Life," (G Minor). As well as, "Maria, Maria," (D Minor).

However, not everything is in the minor key, like his song, "I am Somebody," (Bb Major), and the song he did with Michelle Branch called, "I'm Feeling You," (E major).

In making a study of his harmonies, let's begin with a series of chord changes that we'll say fall into a category that we'll simply refer to as a typical "12-Bar" progression, "Santana Style."

12-Bar Jam - "Santana Style"

click above image to show full-screen

The key of "D Minor" 12-Bar progression contains a mix of "D" Natural minor with a hint of the Harmonic Minor to cover the "A7" chord found in the 10th measure. Santana also adds this "Harmonic Minor" influence in his hit song "Smooth."

Another popular sound used in hits like his song, "Oye Como Va," is the strong application of the Dorian Mode. Have a jam through the Dorian progression below. Be sure to practice the rhythm groove as well.

Santana "Dorian" style jam:

click above image to show full-screen

In organizing the scale types that are the most common for Santana's sound, the primary scale would have to be the, "Minor Pentatonic." Santana uses this scale the most. And, it operates as the foundation for most of his lead playing.

Now, that said, it does have equal application along side of the Natural Minor and the Dorian Mode. Plus, he likes to embellish the sound of harmonies in Minor through the use of "Dominant 7th V-Chords." This presents an excellent opportunity for the use of the Harmonic Minor over those situations.

In melodic example one, I'm applying a scale run typical of Santana that covers a Minor tonality situation.

Santana "Natural Minor" Lead-style run:

click above image to show full-screen

Another popular "Santana" sound is the application of the "Dorian" mode. The Dorian mode is a minor tonality scale that creates a slightly major effect off of the scales raised 6th degree. Santana takes advantage of this sound in two ways. One is to include chord harmonies that will apply a major IV-chord. Another method, as he used in the song "She's Not There" (off of the Moonflower album), is to apply a Minor 6 chord off of the tonic chord in a Minor Key progression.

Test out this sound with the lick I've created using this style of harmony below.

Santana "Dorian Mode" style melody line:

click above image to show full-screen

The third most popular sound Santana will apply is how he targets the sound of the "Harmonic Minor" upon the Dominant 7th V-Chord of a minor key. The color of this sound is instantly recognizable and jumps out at you right away.

A great example of this can be found in the song "Smooth.' He applies the harmonic minor color over the "E7" chord (Dominant 7th V-Chord) of this key of "A Minor" progression.

Try playing the example below. It highlights the effect of this sound in a similar style phrase found from the song "Smooth."

Santana "Harmonic Minor" influenced melody

click above image to show full-screen

Santana plays guitar within a distinct musical geography, he has a distinctive style, and he uses pentatonic scalar melody a lot - but there is also a lot of expression and fire in his playing, the tone he produces is beautiful, and his choice of notes is powerful yet highly controlled.

Carlos has always been a slave to melody, which is another one of the reasons his music is so important to so many people. He has been influenced by a tremendous variety of different music styles and musicians, yet he always manages to create beautiful melodies backed by strong chord progressions in both his playing and composing, as well as the work he does with other musicians.

Though usually labelled a latin-rock guitarist, Carlos Santana is very highly respected by the top artists in the worlds of jazz, blues, gypsy and new age. he was influenced largely by Bola Sete and Gabor Szabo. So, in teaching yourself how to perform like Santana, spend time listening to these artists too.

Santana Discusses Gabor Szabo:



Join Now


Post a Comment