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Carlos Santana: “When I found the guitar, it was like seeing flying saucers and Moby Dick and discovering the spiritual orgasm all at once”

Carlos Santana
(Image credit: ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP via Getty Images)

If you say the name Carlos Santana to anyone passing by on the street, not only will they almost invariably know who you’re talking about, but they’ll also likely have their own fond memory of the prolific guitar player.

Whether that personal history began with early Santana hits like Black Magic Woman or Oye Como Va, or the bond was born later in the '90s with hits like Smooth, Santana is a legend due to his bright energy and wailing notes from his talented fingers. 

Santana has a new 15-track album out this month called Blessings and Miracles, on which he recruited artists like Kirk Hammett, Chris Stapleton, Diane Warren and old friend Rob Thomas.

We caught up with the Mexican-born 74-year-old guitar legend to ask him about the new record, how he works with his cadre of famous singers, and what he remembers from the original Woodstock…

You played violin first at five years old and your father was a mariachi musician. You also worked as a busboy early on in your life – and I’ve worked in restaurants for many years. So, may I ask, how did these influence your life and entry to playing the guitar?

“Thank you for asking that question. It’s all part of learning how to articulate impeccable integrity, whether bussing dishes, washing dishes, peeling potatoes, cleaning the yard, all of that. And also playing the violin in such a way that I was trying to make my father happy. Because he’s the one that wanted me to play the violin.”

Working in restaurants, you're often exposed to lots of music. Did you go after your shift to find the best nightclub or anything like that?

“No, it actually was the jukebox at Tic Tock’s. Now it’s a parking lot, but it used to be a Tic Tock burger joint, fast food, across the street from where the [San Francisco] Giants play now. 

“And the jukebox was everything for me, because it played everything from King Curtis to John Lee Hooker. I mean, I put so much money in that jukebox like crazy because I had to play music or I would go crazy just washing dishes and peeling potatoes and just doing that kind of menial job.”

How does your heritage influence the way you think about the guitar? You played a lot early on in Tijuana and then San Francisco, of course. But how much do your parents, where you’re from and what’s in your blood influence the way you think about the instrument?

“I pretty much became like a multi-dimensional sponge. Even at that age in ’57, ’58, ’59, ’60 and all the way to ’63, once I got into Haight-Ashbury in ’64, that was different, but the whole time I still knew what would go – like Miles Davis would say – some would go into my body and some things would not. So, like John Lee Hooker would go into my body, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Jimmy Reed, BB King, Little Richard, Chuck Berry. Elvis Presley would not.

“There was certain music – it wasn’t the color, it was just the sound. If a sound is not what I need, which is mufti-dimensional via Africa, then my body would reject it. I love Willie Nelson, I love Merle Haggard, I love Chris Stapleton, but there is certain music that my body would just not allow it.”

What was it like for you to discover the guitar? Were there almost cartoonish lights emanating from it like angels on high; was it mystical, holy? Or did that type of relationship grow over time?

“It’s everything that you said plus flying saucers, seeing the first White Whale like Moby Dick and at the same time discovering the S.O., the spiritual orgasm. So, all of that.

“Because it’s an assault on the senses to hear the first electric guitar, especially from this guy [I first heard] who was articulating already like BB King and Lonny Mack. He had that plang thing tone like Peter Green, BB King and Lonny Mack. So, me being so young, that sound was and is the gateway to my eternity.”

On your new record, tracks like Santana Celebration and Move are filled with so much joy. How do you bring such big energy and brightness to your music through the guitar?

“It’s very easy, you know. When I first heard this song, which is called Soul Fiesta, it’s actually Manu Dibango’s song, the same person who did mama-say mama-sa mama-ko-sa, anyway, as soon as I heard it I said, ‘Oh, he likes Santana.’ 

“Because it sounds like Soul Sacrifice. So, I took a song from him that he took from us. And the majority of the album, for me, is built with two words: enthusiasm and exhilaration. 

“I call it high energy. When you have enthusiasm, you have a lot of energy. People who are boring, pathetic, pitiful and predictable, they have no energy. There’s no enthusiasm in there. I’m not trying to put anybody down. I’m just saying there’s no energy in there.”

Kirk Hammett and I are brothers, we go back. Who isn’t a Metallica fan, you know? I love Metallica

What was it like to work with Kirk Hammett? Are you a Metallica fan?

“Yeah, this is our second time – we did another song on [Santana’s album], Shaman, with Kirk Hammett and a slide player, Robert Randolph.”

“So, it’s always great. Kirk Hammett and I are brothers, we go back. Who isn’t a Metallica fan, you know? I love Metallica, I love AC/DC, Led Zeppelin. And Peter Green when he did [the songs], The Green Manalishi, and Oh Well, and all that, that’s the first heavy metal, you know?

“Peter Green before Led Zeppelin and then later on, of course, AC/DC. What I like about that energy is that it’s very, very raw and very vibrant. There’s a reason why Metallica is the premiere number one band in the world.”

You’ve worked with a lot of different vocalists over the years, from Rob Thomas to Chris Stapleton. How do you approach meshing with a new vocalist on a particular song?

“Well, I don’t think about it. It just shows up. Like, for example, if I say to you with specificity and clarity, this album was created out of pursuing and submitting a request to get back on the radio. So, I had a think-tank meeting at our office with everybody around me and I said, ‘I want to get back on the radio. Tell me names of people who have their finger on the pulse proverbially.’

“And so they gave me a lot of names and Chris Stapleton was one of them. So, I said, why don’t we call his manager and find out if Chris Stapleton would have eyes to create something for us, either write a song for us or with us. What I’m trying to tell you is that divine intelligence orchestrated this all to happen.

Believe and achieve. Submit your request ‘prayer’ and trust that God, Sweet Baby Jesus, whatever the name, Buddha, Krishna, Allah, Rama, universe will give it to you

“Some things I went after and some things went after me. Like Dianne Warren, she sought me to see if I wanted to play on one of her songs. And she liked so much what I did that she sent me another one. So, with divine intelligence, again, you just submit your request.

“This is a good interview for aspiring musicians, not just guitar players. Believe and achieve. Submit your request ‘prayer’ and trust that God, Sweet Baby Jesus, whatever the name, Buddha, Krishna, Allah, Rama, universe will give it to you. 

“You just have to be diligent with intense intentionality and trust – rejoice like you’re receiving it, even though you’ll be receiving it like six months from now. But rejoice knowing what it feels like already and you’re halfway there, more than halfway there.”

Black Magic Woman was the song I first heard from you when I was about six years old. It’s such a great rendition; it’s in my soul. What are your memories of that track and the solo you played?

“The first thing I think of when I hear the song Black Magic Woman from Peter Green or myself, I think of one person and one thing only, and that is Otis Rush. [Sings] ‘All your love, pretty baby, got a Black Magic…’ Same thing. Peter Green got it from Otis Rush and I got it from Peter Green. But I added, when Gregg Rollie brought the song, we were in a parking lot in Fresno, doing a soundcheck. 

“And Gregg brought the song and I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve heard a lot of Peter Green but I haven’t heard this song!’ So, when it came time for me to do my solo, put my guitar on it, at that time, I already had a portfolio, which is like a Rolodex of names and emotions. 

“So, I put some Peter Green in there with some Wes Montgomery: octaves. You know how Wes Montgomery plays with octaves? [Sings] ‘Bee-doo-doo-doo.’ Octaves. And it fit perfectly.”

Do you think about Woodstock at all, or is it something that’s water under the bridge? 

“No, no. What I think of is ardent, intense prayer. God, baby, please, please, please, please God help me! I’m in front of 100,000-people-plus and I am totally in outer space because Jerry Garcia turned me onto mushrooms, ayahuasca, peyote or mescaline, whatever it was it was kind of like LCD but not a pill or a capsule, more like herbs. And so when I took it I didn’t realize that they would invite us to play, like, really, really soon. 

“They told me – I said, ‘Jerry, what time are you guys going to play?’ And he said, ‘You’re supposed to go on two bands after us and we’re not going on until, like 12:30 at night.’ I was like, ‘Oh.’ And he said, ‘And would you like to try some of this?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah!’ So, I said, it’s only 12 o’clock in the afternoon. 12 o’clock at night-plus, ‘Oh yeah, sure, I’ll be fine by then!’ But that didn’t happen.”

“The next thing I know there’s a face saying, ‘If you don’t play right now, you’re not going to play at all! You got to go on stage, now!’ So, when I think of Woodstock, I don’t even think of the notes or the songs or the performance, I just think of holding on for dear life, to God’s coat, saying, ‘Please help me. Help me stay in tune and on time and I’ll never do this thing ever again!’ God helped me. But I didn’t keep my promise!”

Gravity and time are an illusion. I’m only in the now. I’m only in the now, now, now, right now

People talk about the girl or guy that got away – is there a guitar that got away for you?

“Never.”

You held onto them all?

“Eh, until I found something that stays more in tune or it sounds better. I don’t invest emotionally in pretty much anything, other than my wife and my children.”

What about the passing of time? Do you think about aging? About time passing, aging or even death?

“Not at all. To me, all that stuff is an illusion. Gravity and time are an illusion. I’m only in the now. I’m only in the now, now, now, right now. And so I don’t have any Igor telling me, excuse the expression, Some stupid shit that I don’t need to accept. I have my light, my spirit and my soul and my heart saying, 'Go for it, it’s just now!' Dive in into the unknown and unpredictability. 

“I catch myself here and there once in a while in front of the mirror when I walk around and I see myself walking a little different and I go, ‘Hey, hey, hey! Walk differently! Don’t walk like a freaking old tired camel!’ I scream at me. And then I’m like, 'Oh!' And then for the next three days I straighten up and walk differently. 

“I command my energy to behave differently. You can actually do that: you can program yourself, your light, your spirit, your soul, your heart can tell your mind and your ego, ‘Straighten up and fly right.’”

Carlos Santana

(Image credit: Getty Images)

What do you love most about music and, more specifically, the music you make with the guitar today?

“Thank you. What I love the most about music is that it’s one of the most incredible gifts from God to humans. Because it comes straight from God through us for the people and you can see immediately you rearrange molecular structure and also you can alter their destiny. I’m not presuming, I’m just telling you the truth.

“Very few musicians – all of them should, but only very few actually do it, like Coltrane or Bob Marley, those musicians – when you listen to them, they change your destiny forever. They dare you to look at the grand design and accept your divinity and create miracles and blessings.

“The guitar I love the best because if you just look at the shape of it, that’s all I need to tell you.”

Thank you, Carlos. It’s a real pleasure to speak with you.

“Stay splendiferous!”