Santana's Best Solos

By Sergio Ariza

We couldn't agree more with the great J.J. Cale when he said that Carlos Santana was "the most identifiable guitarist in the world.” It may be that the best compliment that can be given to a guitarist is that you have to be very good to be identified by only two or three notes. That's something Santana has always had, that and one of the most sensual and erotic touches you can remember, maybe because of his Latin ancestry or because from a young age he knew that the key to success was in attracting the attention of women. Here are ten of his most important solos.  

Samba Pa Ti

Everything we said at the beginning is reflected in this song; from the first note Santana is as recognizable as a Frank Sinatra or an Elvis Presley. In this beautiful instrumental ballad, his guitar sings with a unique voice, demonstrating his mastery when it comes to playing a melody better than anyone else. It is his great masterpiece as a performer and as a composer; years later its successor, Europa, appeared, but the heights reached here can never be repeated. The tone is incredible and he finds it with his Les Paul Custom 68 plugged into a Fender Twin Reverb, by playing with the volume knobs and leaving the wah pedal at a fixed point throughout the song; achieving a warm distortion that is as smooth as the breeze of a summer night. But even if someone tries to replicate it with the same equipment it will never sound the same, because the magic is in the fingers, and just as you can never sing like Elvis, you can never sound like Santana.



Oye Como Va

This cover of a song by Tito Puente is one of the best known songs of his career and, like the previous, appears on the most memorable album of that career, Abraxas. It is a fundamental song when it comes to mixing Latin music, specifically salsa, with rock, and it once again has its most distinctive element in the guitar of this Mexican emigrant. His guitar is once again the Les Paul Custom that he got after destroying, by the way, the mythical red SG with which he played at Woodstock. Carlos himself says that that guitar was often out of tune and he was willing to change it for another, but as the members of the band shared expenses, no one was very willing to undertake the expense, so one day Carlos decided to break his instrument and thus force the rest to get a guitar. Maybe his choice was based on two of his idols, Peter Green and Mike Bloomfield. What is evident is that he made the most of it in songs like Oye Como Va, which is once again a perfect example of his incredible melodic ease, with solos that are part of the song and that it is impossible not to hum, from the simplest 'licks' to that liberating final solo in which there is not a single note left over or missing.


Black Magic Woman

As I said, Santana was a huge Peter Green fan, but what not everyone knows is that Fleetwood Mac's leader also adored Santana and during his band's American tour in 1969 he missed not a single performance by the creators of Soul Sacrifice. The feeling was reciprocal and it was on that tour where Carlos heard live for the first time Green's Black Magic Woman. The following year he would record his famous cover for Abraxas, joining it with an instrumental song, called Gypsy Queen, from another great influence on Santana, the Hungarian jazz guitarist Gábor Szabó. This version was released as a single and rose to number 4 in the U.S. charts, making the cover much more popular than the original. As for the solo, Santana makes it his own from the beginning, putting in all the feeling and passion possible.

Soul Sacrifice

This is the song that brought them to stardom after their transcendental performance at Woodstock, and their subsequent appearance in the film of the same name. When the group took to the stage that August 16, 1969 they were absolutely unknown but after going into a trance during his incredible solo in Soul Sacrifice, in the middle of an LSD trip, everyone could see that there was a star there. His first album appeared two weeks after that mythical performance and in a short time it rose to fourth place on the charts, fulfilling all the predictions and making the band one of the most popular of its time. The famous guitar he used that day, while trying not to get carried away by the acid trip, was a red Gibson SG Special 61 or 62, with two P-90 pickups.

Evil Ways

The first single from their first album, which would sneak into the Top Ten of the charts, sees them take a boogaloo by Willie Bobo and turn it into an irresistible piece of Latin rock sung in unison by Gregg Rolie, the band's main singer, and Carlos himself. However, the best arrives at the end when a possessed Santana enters like an erupting volcano and releases an aggressive solo capable of raising the temperature a few degrees. On that first album he used a guitar that was unusual in his career, a Les Paul Special.

No One To Depend On

The first three albums of the band are the absolute peak of the guitarist. That mythical formation would break up after the wonderful Santana III, released in 1971; perhaps my favourite album of the three. In addition to the fact that the band continued to progress musically, with this album came the official debut of Neal Schon, the 17-year-old prodigy who had to choose between Clapton and Santana, staying in the end with the latter. He was not mistaken; on III there are some of the best moments between two guitarists in history, almost at the level of Clapton himself with Duane Allman. From the beginning of this marvel we can hear them in harmony with their guitars, passing through tremendous riffs, until an end in which their solos follow one another; first a marvel of Carlos and then a Schon on fire, lighting up his Les Paul.

Hope You're Feeling Better

One of the hardest and rockiest songs of the band, also included in the essential Abraxas. The song begins with a riff played by Gregg Rolie's B3 and then the whole band joins him strongly, including a Carlos making use of the wah. In the solo we can enjoy the most rocky and direct Carlos of his career, a tornado that grows in intensity until it sweeps away everything in its path.

The Healer

The guitarist has been in love with blues since he was young, moreover his band's first formation was called The Santana Blues Band, although thanks to the incorporation of percussion, he managed to find his own sound. However, his love for blues has always accompanied him, as can be seen in this collaboration with his beloved John Lee Hooker, which they released at the end of the 80s, in which he brings out an incredible tone to his guitar, responding perfectly to each of Hooker's vocal inflections. The song was also written by the guitarist, based on When The Music's Over by the Doors; a song that, in turn, had been inspired by Hooker himself.


Incident At Neshabur

But if his love for blues was strong, his love for jazz is also very important, especially for Miles Davis' electric records. On Incident At Neshabur you can see how well he knew John Coltrane as well as B.B. King. It is incredible how he plays with the volume of his guitar during the beautiful and calm solo from 2:50.


Another of the most recognizable songs of his career, belonging to his first album. Jingo is an orgy of tribal percussion in which Santana communicates with his guitar with his incredible percussionists, in a kind of transposition of the call and response of the Black Churches of the southern United States, which led to Latin music, with Carlos' guitar acting as preacher and the choir as percussionists. His SG's sharp notes with P-90's cut like a razor.


Yo Me Lo Merezco

We can't finish without highlighting this wonder of his new album Africa Speaks, released this same year. Following Concha Buika's magnificent vocal interpretation, Carlos recovers his best rock essence with an excellent solo in which, if we pay attention to his live version, he uses a PRS SC245 Custom.