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Interview: Carlos Santana Discusses His New Album, 'Shape Shifter'

“A lot of people said to me, ‘Enough with the guest vocalists for a while,’” Carlos Santana says with a laugh. “‘We want to hear the Mexican play the guitar!’” The legendary guitarist heard the call of the public and now he has responded.

His new album, Shape Shifter, is a compendium of new, blazing guitar-driven instrumental tracks. They run the gamut of styles that we’ve come to expect from Carlos Santana: churning rock, sizzling Latin grooves and passionate ballads that dance between the cosmic poles of earthly and divine love.

“I always envision a shaman in the middle of the Grand Canyon,” Carlos rhapsodizes. “The sun is coming up. He sees the eagle. He’s got the sage burning, and he starts doing an invocation to the Great Spirit. I mean, that’s how you should play a guitar solo. When you hear Hendrix, Eric Clapton or Buddy Guy, that’s what you’re hearing. But Eric always cracks up when I say things like that. He says, ‘Oh, Carlos always goes there.’”

The album’s title comes from American Indian culture and refers to the shaman’s spiritual ability to assume various animal shapes. But it’s also an apt metaphor for Santana’s magical ability to blend and merge with a variety of musical settings without ever losing his own distinctive identity. One note, and there’s no mistaking who’s playing the guitar.

“Ever since I was a child I’ve always been very attracted to melodies,” he says. “Whether I hear Jeff Beck, a choir, an ocean or the wind, there’s always a melody in there. There’s a melody in everything. And once you find the melody, then you connect immediately with the heart. Because sometimes English or Spanish, Swahili or any language gets in the way. But nothing penetrates the heart faster than the melody.”

On Shape Shifter, Carlos is backed by his band of many years’ standing: drummer Dennis Chambers, keyboardist Chester Thompson, bassist Benny Rietveld, conga player Raul Rekow and percussionist Karl Perazzo. Santana’s son Salvador, a pianist, joins him on several tracks. Only one of the album’s 13 compositions, “Eres La Luz,” features vocals, contributed by Santana band singers Andy Vargas and Tony Lindsay. But even that one is fully packed with stunning guitar action.

The album’s tracks were recorded over the past few years, between sessions for multi-Platinum, Grammy-gobbling Santana discs like Supernatural and Shaman. Released on Carlos’ new Starfaith label, Shape Shifter is a labor of love, as well as a special treat for guitar players and devotees of Santana’s six-string artistry.

Ever since his emergence on the late-Sixties San Francisco music scene and breakthrough performance at the Woodstock festival in 1969, Santana has been widely respected and admired as one of the foremost guitarists of our time. At age 65, he shows no signs of slowing down: he recently embarked on his second marriage, to drummer Cindy Blackman-Santana, and he and his band are about to begin a two-year residency at the House of Blues at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, starting on May 2. Guitar World caught up with Santana for a brief discussion about Shape Shifter and the recent changes in his life and music.

Why is this the right time to bring out an instrumental record?

Because I think this is what people want to hear from me at this time. And also because I’m not with any record company right now. I’m taking a hiatus from record companies. There are a lot of labels interested in us still, by the grace of god. But right now, I have a window of opportunity with no responsibility to a record company. In that forum, it’s easy for me to release something of what I usually do anyway, like [1972’s jazz-fusion album] Caravanserai or [1980’s] Swing of Delight.

This album is dedicated to the American Indian.

Yes. One thing I love about American Indians is how they always say, “You can’t break my spirit. You may steal my land—you may do this or that to me—but you can’t break my spirit.” The other thing I love is that they have a vision and connection with Mother Earth that’s beyond the computer or the satellite. The computer and the satellite, they’re not as vast as we think they are. What’s really vast is your connection to Mother Earth, and you need to access your imagination muscle to be able to hear the sound of the earth. One person who’s really into that is my brother [Grateful Dead drummer/world percussionist] Mickey Hart. He’s really into reading and hearing the pulse of Mother Earth and he knows the key it’s in.

What is the chanting you’re doing at the beginning of the album’s opening track, “Shape Shifter”?

You know, I used to see videos of American Indians; they had contests in dancing. And I was always really fascinated when they go, [singing, pentatonic melody] Ayyyya, ayyyaaa, ayay. You know? It’s a way of invoking the Holy Ghost, the Great Spirit. So I just became one of them and did my own chant. I hope that didn’t offend anybody. I did it with a pure intention.

The album really showcases your band as well. This is a group of players you’ve been with for some time now, so you’re all pretty locked in together.

Yes, I’m very grateful. This is a very solid body of musicians who basically trust me. They understand that, when they come to my house, I probably have more records, cassettes and CDs than all of them put together. And I do listen to them. So they understand that there’s a reason why I’m the maître d’.

Your son Salvador is also featured on piano on two tracks, “Canela” and “Ah Sweet Dancer.”

Yes, thank you for asking about that. It’s a joy. I always felt uncomfortable and scared playing with my dad [a professional mariachi violinist], and I’m glad my son and I don’t have that thing with each other. We trust each other. I think over time he understood that music is not to compete or compare—especially with your father. Music is to complement.

I can’t imagine you being uncomfortable or scared to play with anybody though.

[laughs] Well, maybe it would only be with Wayne [Shorter] or Herbie [Hancock] or McCoy Tyner. But guys like that immediately dissolve all the fear fog anyway. Wayne said, “It’s like being in a sandbox. Here’s your shovel and bucket. Let’s have some fun, man!” When the fear fog dissolves, it’s easier to know what to do, what to play, how much to put into and take out.

You’re gearing up for another long residency in Las Vegas. What can people expect?

The alchemy of a real spiritual revival. When you let the Holy Ghost come in, people start crying, laughing and dancing, and that wasn’t part of the set list. I heard that sound from Jimi Hendrix in ’69, so I know that sound. It’s a sound where you play beyond what you know, and we want to be able to do that in the middle of the set every night. We’ll play what you’re familiar with, but we’re going to do our best to make it pure and new, like the first French kiss.

Speaking of which, how is your new marriage going?

Thank you for asking that too. This is better than ever. Your mind is a magnet. You don’t attract what you need or what you want; you attract who you are. And I love who I am! I love who Cindy is. ’Cause we both love the same things. We love Miles and Coltrane and Tony Williams. So when we get in the car we always say, “Turn it up! Louder!” It’s great to be with a female partner who doesn’t say, [feminine voice] “Oh, my ears are hurting. Can you turn it down?”

Agreement on music in the car is one of the foundations for a solid relationship.

That’s right! And it’s all about relationships. You and your instrument, you and your band, you and your mate. If your relationships are assigned and designed to make spiritual progress, it’s fun! F. U. N. If you’re not making spiritual traction, then everything is a burden.

This article originally appeared in the July 2012 issue of Guitar World. For all the features, reviews and columns from this issue, pick it up now in our online store.

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In a career that spans five decades, Alan di Perna has written for pretty much every magazine in the world with the word “guitar” in its title, as well as other prestigious outlets such as Rolling Stone, Billboard, Creem, Player, Classic Rock, Musician, Future Music, Keyboard, and He is author of Guitar Masters: Intimate Portraits, Green Day: The Ultimate Unauthorized History and co-author of Play It Loud: An Epic History of the Sound Style and Revolution of the Electric Guitar. The latter became the inspiration for the Metropolitan Museum of Art/Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibition “Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock and Roll.” As a professional guitarist/keyboardist/multi-instrumentalist, Alan has worked with recording artists Brianna Lea Pruett, Fawn Wood, Brenda McMorrow, Sat Kartar and Shox Lumania.