Carlos Santana is one of the most influential guitar players in the world. He’s been playing guitar ever since he was five years old and his career has lasted decades; he rose to fame in the 60s and his peak lasted until the late 90s. He has won 10 Grammys, three Latin Grammys has been mentioned by prestigious outlets such as Rolling Stone Magazine, and has been on nearly every Greatest Guitar Player list imaginable.
Santana revolutionized rock music which combined traditional rock stylings with jazz fusion and Latin music. Because of this, he doesn’t attach himself to one particular guitar. He has diverse gear, which you will learn here in addition to his playing techniques, innovations, and a brief bio.
Carlos Santana is primarily a rock guitar player, so there are plenty of electric guitars here!
1950s Gibson Les Paul Special
While we don’t know how long Carlos Santana has been playing this guitar, he did use it for the recording of his first album. This guitar has two P90s pickups, has a TV yellow finish that was popular during that time, and a Maestro tremolo. However, by the end of that year, Santana completely stripped down the guitar.
1961/62 Gibson SG Special
Carlos Santana played this guitar when he performed at Woodstock in 1969.
The version he played has a Brazilian rosewood fretboard, cherry red finish, Grover tuners, two P90 single-coil pickups, a wrap-around stop-tailpiece, and an ABR-1 Tune-O-Matic bridge.
The only real adjustment he made was moving back the Maestro tremolo to make room for the stop-tailpiece. He didn’t use this guitar for very long; Santana destroyed it because it wouldn’t stay in tune. He switched it out with a black SG Special.
1960s Gibson SG Special
This guitar was similar to the red SG he had before, except it has a black finish, sanded neck, and white plastic P90 pickup covers. He mainly played this guitar in the 1970s. This guitar has many of the same specs that his previous SG Special had.
A theory is that Santana didn’t destroy the 61/62 Gibson Special, but instead severely modified it. Santana did say he destroyed the previous Gibson SG Special, so I guess this was a brand-new guitar.
1960s Les Paul Standard
This is the first Les Paul that Carlos Santana played.
He used it during the years 1970 and 1971, specifically on one of his European tours. This guitar stands out because it was humbuckers, which is why many think this was a live guitar as opposed to a recording guitar (he didn’t start using humbucker pickups on his guitar until his third album).
He modified this slightly, removing the white pickguard. After playing it for several years, he gave it to Japanese promoter Udo Artist.
Gibson SG Special
Carlos Santana started using this next Gibson SG Special in 1972. Again, there’s speculation that this SG Special is the same one he used before, but modified with humbuckers. But the biggest standout feature is the painting of Guru Sri Chinmoy on the headstock.
1968 Gibson Les Paul Custom
This is one of the most famous guitars that Carlos Santana has played. He used it during gigs in the early 70s.
It’s also said that he used this guitar for three of his albums (Santana III, Caravanserai, and Welcome). This guitar featured a sunburst finish.
1970s Gibson L6-S
This guitar was released in 1973, which was the same year when Carlos Santana started playing it. Santana often praised this guitar in interviews and it’s believed he used this guitar during the recording of Borboletta.
Other famous guitar players, such as Al di Meola and Rich Williams of Kansas, also played the L6-S.
The L6-S features two humbuckers designed by Bill Lawrence and a maple body. Gibson no longer makes this guitar, but many consider it to be one of their most underrated models.
While Carlos Santana was playing Gibson, Yamaha approached Santana for an endorsement deal. At the time, they released the SG-175. Santana agreed to try out the guitar but didn’t like a lot of the qualities of it. Yamaha used some of Santana’s complaints to make an improved guitar.
After Santana didn’t like the prototype, Yamaha delivered the SG-2000 (though it was unnamed at the time). They used neck-through-body design, replaced the hardware with brass, used what’s known today as T-Cross construction, a sustain plate sits under the bridge, and they used two OPG-1 Alnico V pickups. For Santana’s custom, it featured Buddha inlays on the headstock, a dark natural finish, and various body decals.
Santana used the 2G-2000 from 1976 until 1982, which is when he switched to PRS.
Ever since then, Carlos Santana has stuck with PRS guitars. His PRS endorsement occurred when Paul Reed Smith himself approached Santana at one at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Maryland in the late 70s.
Here’s a full video of Smith telling his account of this historic conversation.
In April of 1981, Santana was seen playing his first PRS guitar during a gig in Washington.
Santana hasn’t stuck with one PRS model in particular. PRS has released various models for Santana, such as Santanas I, II, and III, Santana MD, Santana SE, and the 25th anniversary Santana model. However, Santana didn’t technically get a signature line until 1995 — these were just guitars that PRS exclusively made for Santana.
PRS also designed the pickups and Paul himself designed the body (a cross between a double-cut Les Paul Junior and Stratocaster). The guitar is made with mahogany as the base and maple at the top, Indian rosewood as the fretboard for Santana I and Brazilian rosewood for the rest, and 24 frets with a 24.5″ scale length.
As stated previously, Santana doesn’t play just one specific guitar. The specs I included are ones found on nearly all of his guitars. Paul designs a guitar for Santana and the new guitar becomes the main one in Santana’s line-up.
PRS SC245 Custom
Even though I mentioned all of Carlos Santana’s custom PRS guitars in the last section, it’s important to emphasize this one and list it under its section. That’s because this is Santana’s latest guitar.
We first saw this guitar in May 2016 when Santana played The House of Blues in Las Vegas. It has a single-cutaway body with a metallic gold finish. It has a mahogany body and neck with a maple top, rosewood fretboard, and PRS 58/15 humbuckers.
Alvarez Yairi CY127CE
There is only one place where we see Carlos Santana playing this guitar: in the music video of one of my favorite songs, “Maria, Maria.”
Nittono Model-T Jazz Nylon
This is Carlos Santana’s main acoustic guitar and has been since the 2000s. What makes this guitar so special is it was built entirely by Tory Nittono.
It has a spruce top with mahogany on the back, sides, and neck. The ebony fretboard is really what stands out to me. It has a custom pre-amp built-in and LR Baggs T-Bridge saddle pickup.
Effects and Pedals
Carlos Santana has used the following amps:
- Gallien-Krueger GMT 226A
- Fender Twin Reverb
- Mesa Boogie Mark 1
- Universal Tone by Bludotone
- Bludotone 30
- Dumber Overdrive Reverb
I discovered something interesting in my research. Santana inadvertently named the Boogie amp. Randall Smith was messing with a Fender Princeton amp one time when Santana was visiting his shop. Santana commented, “man, that little thing really boogies!” Ever since then, the name Boogie stuck.
Picks and Strings
Carlos Santana publicly endorses and uses 3.0mm V-Picks. Previously, Santana used black picks that weren’t recognizable. Santana uses GHS Carlos Santana Big Core strings (.0095, .0115, .016, .025, .033, .043). These strings were designed by Santana’s former guitar tech, Rene Martinez.
Carlos Santana’s Playing Techniques
Carlos Santana is one of the most inventive guitar players. His melodies are simple, but the rhythms he plays are very complex. His playing is also completely unpredictable; for example, he plays notes earlier or later than you may expect them. He also plays long notes and doesn’t always use vibrato.
While Santana mixes rock and jazz influences in his guitar playing, you can’t mistake the Latin influences you hear. You mainly hear this with his trills. However, he plays his trills within the pentatonic scale, still giving his sound more melody.
Santana’s playing has changed over his 50+ year career. His playing uses both clean tones and distortion. His playing was very smooth and controlled, up until he started experimenting more with rock guitar playing. Even with all of these changes, his guitar playing is still recognizable throughout his entire discography.
Overall, what Santana is best known for is adding a bit of passion to his guitar playing. This makes up his signature sound and why he’s so different from other guitar players.
Carlos Santana is a guitar player who focuses more on playing scales and modes. His guitar playing almost has a spirituality to it. You can’t put a finger or word to how he plays guitar, and that’s what makes Santana so innovative. In my opinion, he’s one of the first modern guitar players to play with emotion rather than skill. This makes his guitar playing very stimulating yet beautiful.
Reading interviews with Santana puts this into perspective. Here’s an interview he did with GuitarWorld as a perfect example. Santana said when he walks into a studio, he flies by the seat of his pants and he plays like he doesn’t know how to play.
In that same interview, he said he doesn’t even think about scales and modes. This is what makes his playing so pure. He also improvises a lot, which is truly what makes his playing so unpredictable.
In his 50+ year career, he has defied genres, reached mainstream while sticking to his roots, and has collaborated with other musicians of nearly every genre imaginable.
Career and Success
Question: What is Carlos Santana’s net worth?
Question: How old is Carlos Santana?
Question: Is Carlos Santana married? Who is his wife?
Carlos Santana is one of the most influential guitar players in history. He has a decades-long career and is still writing and recording music to this day. From Woodstock to American Idol, we have been seeing Santana grace the stage numerous times — and it doesn’t seem like he’s stopping any time soon.
While he’s known as a rock guitar player, you can hear Latin and jazz influences in his playing. While Santana is known for his individualistic style, you can learn the guitars and gears he plays to try playing like him.