This is a feature from the Fall 2010 issue of Guitar Aficionado.
GUITAR HEAVEN: A spiritual journey through Carlos Santana’s collection.
By Alan di Perna | Photos by Jonathan Sprague
“When it comes to marriage or relationships, I’m a one-person person,” says Carlos Santana, who married his drummer, Cindy Blackman, after proposing to her onstage at a gig in Illinois. “But when it comes to guitars,” he adds, “I’m definitely not a one-guitar person.”
However, Carlos has been pretty brand-loyal over the course of his almost 50-year career. He was a staunch Gibson man in the years following his eponymous band’s debut at Woodstock. The SG he played at that historic 1969 festival didn’t last very long, but one magical Les Paul served him through Santana’s classic golden period, from 1970 to 1972, when he made Abraxas, Santana III, and Caravanserai.
Carlos switched to Yamahas in the mid Seventies, designing his own model in collaboration with the Japanese guitar-making giant. But ever since the early Eighties, he has been one of the foremost advocates of Paul Reed Smith guitars. He rode a PRS to fame on his phenomenal 1999 comeback album, Supernatural, and on many other outstanding recordings. Smith himself will tell you that Santana can be demanding when it comes to guitars. Much like the renowned guitar maker, Carlos has a great ear and can assess a guitar’s tonal virtues after playing just a few notes or chords on it.
“As soon as I hear it, I can tell if it’s gonna be a lamp or something that can go onstage,” he says, and laughs. “You can tell when a guitar sounds all nasal and weird. All you can do with it is wire it up for a light bulb and put a lampshade on it. That’s all it’s good for. It may look nice, but if it doesn’t have the tone I want, I’m not interested. Some people might add a lot of pedals to fix the tone, but that’s not for me. It’s gotta be straight from my fingers to the amplifier. If it don’t sound good like that, you’re not gonna fix it with a mixing board or computers.”
Still, Santana isn’t averse to picking up the occasional Strat or other guitar, as long as the tone is there. His collection of vintage, historic, and downright legendary guitars resides in a vault at his Northern California rehearsal space and office facility. Pulling out some of his finest instruments for Guitar Aficionado’s photo session, he just can’t resist plugging a few into an amp and letting rip.