Carlos Santana’s Guitars and Gear

Carlos Augusto Alves Santana (born July 20, 1947) is a Mexican and American rock guitarist. He became famous in the late 1960s and early 1970s with his band, Santana, which pioneered rock, Latin music and jazz fusion. Santana continued to work in these forms over the following decades. He experienced a resurgence of popularity and critical acclaim in the late 1990s. In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine listed Santana at number 15 on their list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. He has won 10 Grammy Awards and 3 Latin Grammy Awards.

As far as Santana’s guitars and gear, it is somewhat hard to investigate the subject mainly for the fact that he never attaches himself to one particular guitar like some other guitarists do. In the late 60s he played mostly Gibson SG Specials with P90 pickups, and with the beginning of the 70s he migrated towards Les Pauls and more beefy humbucker sound. In mid 70s he had a short affair with a Gibson L6-S model, but soon switched to Yamaha SG2000 – which he helped design. In the early 80s he made a final switch to PRS guitars, and he’s been playing them exclusively to this day.

Carlos Santana’s Electric Guitars:

1950s Gibson Les Paul Special

Gibson Les Paul Special First pictures of this guitar date back to the recording of the first album in May 1969, and they are pretty solid proof that Santana used this guitar to record some of the stuff on the first album – if not all of it. At that time the guitar was finished in what knows as the TV Yellow finish, and it featured two P90 pickups as well as the Maestro tremolo.

By December 1969 when Santana played at Altamont, the guitar was almost completely stripped down of its original paint and the tremolo was removed leaving visible screw holes. Since we know that his two SG Specials also had the tremolo piece, it is possible that the Maestro from this guitar ended up on one of his SGs.

Album showing Santana’s Les Paul Special, and the changes it has gone through.

1961/62 Gibson SG Special

Gibson SG Special Santana Woodstock Carlos played this guitar during the Woodstock gig in August 1969. It featured cherry red finish, Brazilian rosewood fingerboard, two P90 single-coil pickups, Grover tuners, ABR-1 Tune-o-matic bridge and a wrap-around stop-tailpiece.

The Maestro tremolo (VMA-1 version – often used on cheaper Epiphones) which originally came with the guitar was moved back to make space for the stop-tailpiece. The strings were never attached to it, but for some reason Santana kept it on the guitar – most likely to balance the guitar’s weight, or he just hoped it’ll add more sustain to the sound by making the guitar heavier.

Carlos stopped using this guitar going towards 1970, when a black SG Special with white P90s took its place. He allegedly destroyed it because it wouldn’t stay in tune.

1960s Gibson SG Special

Gibson SG Special Santana Black P90 Santana was seen playing this guitar throughout 1970 (Tanglewood concert, Dick Cavett show), and it looked suspiciously similar to the red SG he was using a year prior. Few differences were present though – the most noticeable were the black body color, white plastic P90 pickup covers, and shaved/sanded neck.

But what raises suspicion is the fact that both guitars had Tune-o-matic bridge, stop-tailpiece, and the VMA-1 tremolo which wasn’t used at all. This setup wasn’t standard on the early 60s SG Specials, which means that Santana modded the guitar(s) himself.

One version of the story is that Santana complained that the red SG he played at Woodstock wouldn’t stay in tune, and that he ended up destroying it – with hopes that the bend would cave in and buy him another guitar. If this is true, than Santana bought this black SG Special with tremolo sometime in late 1969, and installed a stop-tailpiece on it himself (same thing he did on his red SG). But, this sounds unlikely.

The SG Specials with tremolo were really rare at that time, and to say that Santana bought two of them doesn’t sound reasonable. He could’ve used the tremolo from his red SG, or from his Les Paul Special though.

Other version is that they are in fact one guitar. Instead of buying a new SG, Santana could’ve just sent his red SG to a luthier for a paintjob and adjustments. But even though this sounds more reasonable, Santana actually said himself that he destroyed the red SG because it just wouldn’t stay in tune – which obviously debunks this second theory completely.

Gibson SG Special

Gibson SG Special Santana Black Humbuckers This black SG Special with humbuckers appeared sometime in 1972. SG Specials that were shipped around that time were not equipped with humbuckers, so Santana had to modify this particular guitar himself. That being said, it is quite possible that this is the same guitar as the black SG he was using in 1970, just without the white P90s and the tremolo bridge.

Another white SG Special appeared year later in 1973, and it looks like that guitar was also modified – so there’s a possibility that the white guitar is final incarnation of the black SG Special (or even the original 1962 red one).

Interesting detail on this white SG is the picture painted on the headstock (this picture also appears on one of his Les Pauls in 1973) of Guru Sri Chinmoy, who Santana was a follower of from 1972 to 1981.

1960s Les Paul Standard

Gibson Les Paul Sunburst This is most likely the first Les Paul Santana got his hands on. He used it around 1970/71 on some of the live gigs (1970 Germany, 1971 Montreux). It originally had a white pickguard, but Santana removed it at some point. He allegedly gave the guitar to Udo Artist (Japanese concert promoter) in 1973.

It’s hard to tell just by judging from the sound, but it is most likely that Santana didn’t record with this Les Paul – or any humbucker-equipped guitar – until the third album released in 1971.

1968 Gibson Les Paul Custom

Gibson SG Custom Carlos Santana This was probably Santana’s most widely used Les Paul. He played it on couple of gigs starting from around 1971, and going into 1972 (see Black Magic Woman & Gypsy Queen 1971), and possibly on the three albums recorded between 1971 and 1973 (Santana III, Caravanserai, Welcome). Some sources even indicate that he might’ve used the guitar on the first album, but we couldn’t find anything precise about those claims.

The guitar was most likely a late 60s model – and it must’ve been black originally, since all the Customs made around that time were. Santana’s LP Custom featured sunburst finish, meaning that it was most likely refinished.

1961 Gibson SG (Les Paul) Custom

1961 GIbson Les Paul SG Custom Although we couldn’t find any pictures or videos of Carlos using this guitar, according to a Guitar Point Sound video – Santana owned a 1961 Gibson Les Paul/SG Custom. This is just purely us guessing, but he probably played the guitar around 1973/74 before switching to L6 and Yamahas.

Update: according to one of our readers who had a chance to attend one of Carlos’ gigs in New York in 1980, Santana did indeed use a three-pickup SG on couple of songs. If you happen to know anything more about this guitar, or happen to remember seeing Santana with it, please be sure to contact us.

1970s Gibson L6-S

Gibson L6-S This Gibson L6-S model is basically an adaptation of the older L5-S but with a 24 fret two-octave neck. It was designed in 1972 and it was released a year later – which is also the year when Santana himself started using it.

The guitar featured maple body and two super-humbuckers designed by Bill Lawrence. Although it was endorsed by many of the popular guitarists at the time, it was eventually dropped from the catalog in 197,. Nowadays many consider this to be the most underrated of all the Gibson solid body guitars.

Santana most likely used the guitar to some extent on the studio recording of Borboletta in 1974.

Yamaha SG-2000

Yamaga SG2000 Santana At the time Santana was playing the previously mention Gibson L6-S (circa 1975), Yamaha approached him with their new SG-175 model for a possible endorsement deal. Santana agreed to try out the guitar, and he ended up making a list of the things he didn’t like on it. He complained that the weight was too low and that the guitar needed to be heavier in order to get enough sustain. He also argue that a two-octave 24 fret neck was needed.

After the first prototype was made with the intention of addressing those issues, Santana still didn’t fully like it. Yamaha went back to the drawing board, and with the Carlos’ help decided on a few more changes.

They went for neck-through-body design, meaning that the neck and the body are now actually glued together. They used what is now known as the T-Cross construction, where there are two pieces of mahogany surrounding the center maple part going thought the whole width of the guitar, with a piece of teak wood (maple was used on mass-produced model) on the top of the body. All the hardware was replaced with brass, and a sustain plate was installed to sit underneath the bridge. As for the electronics, two OPG-1 Alnico V pickups were used.

Santana used this guitar from around the time it was finished in early 1976, to around 1982 when he switched to PRS. His main guitar was the actual prototype which at the time it was made still didn’t have an official name – only in July 1976 Yamaha officially released the guitar as the SG2000. It featured dark natural finish, and custom Buddha headstock inlays, as well as body decals. His second most widely SG2000 was a black model featuring somewhat similar decals.

PRS

PRS Santana Guitar Ever since the early 1980s this has been Santana choice of guitars, and he’s been playing them almost exclusively. The person behind it all is Paul Reed Smith, who approached Santana at a concert in late 70s. Below is the video of Paul telling the story himself.

Few details that weren’t mentioned in the video – Paul said that the two met at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, MD., around the time when Leon Chancler was playing drums for Santana. But going from the fact that the gig at Merriweather was played on 8/9/1980, and knowing that Leon left the band in 1976, drags some confusion into this story.

Next important thing is that we get an almost exact date when Santana started recording with PRS guitars – early 1981, or during the ‘Zebop!’ recording sessions. And lastly – we are introduced to the fact that the Washington gig on 4/21/1981 was the first concert that Santana ever played on a PRS guitar.

Now, lets actually focus on the guitar itself.

Several different models were made through the years, and most of the time Carlos does not stick to one guitar in particular. The mass-produced models include Santana I, Santana II, Santana III, Santana MD, Santana SE (Korean made), and the 25th Anniversary Santana model. The first ever PRS Santana I was made in 1995, which means that Paul made guitars for Carlos for 15 years before they actually decided to make a signature line.

The pickups used on all Santana models are designed by PRS, and in the beggining they were mostly all without the pickup covers with zebra patterns on the Santana I, but since Santana II and III they mostly feature metal covers. The body shape was designed by Paul himself as a sort of a crossover between a Stratocaster and a double-cut Les Paul Junior, and it is built using mahogany as a base, and specially selected maple wood as the top. The neck features 24.5″ scale length and 24 frets. The fretboard was Indian rosewood on the Santana I model, while the later ones feature Brazilian rosewood.

As said, it’s pointless trying to single out one guitar out of the all PRS guitars that went through Santana’s hands, since he’s kind of a person who doesn’t really stick to one guitar in particular.

His guitar tech Ed Adair speaks of a guitar nicknamed “Salmon”, which is a sort of Santana’s number one PRS, but most of the time Paul just makes a new guitar, and it gets sent to Carlos. If he ends up liking it (which he almost always does according to Paul), it becomes a part of his arsenal, and he takes it on tour. He talks very highly of Paul Reed Smith, and he trusts his skills and judgments when it comes to taking care of his guitars.

PRS SC245 Custom

PRS SC245 Custom

This is one of Carlos’ more recent guitars, first seen in May 2016 at The House Of Blues, Las Vegas, USA. The guitar appears to be a gold-top model with sort of a metallic finish, and a single-cutaway body.

According to the official specs, it features mahogany body with figured maple top, mahogany neck with rosewood fretboard, and a pair of PRS 58/15 humbuckers.

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Carlos Santana’s Acoustic Guitars

Nittono Model-T Jazz Nylon

Nittono Model-T This has been Santana’s main acoustic guitar since the 2000s. The guitar is completely hand-built by Tory Nittono, and it features a spruce top with mahogany back and sides, as well as mahogany neck and ebony fretboard. It is equipped with LR Baggs T-Bridge saddle pickup, and custom pre-amp built in.

Alvarez Yairi CY127CE

Alvarez Yairi CY127CE This guitar was used prior to the Nittono. It was featured in ‘Maria, Maria’ music video,

Carlos Santana’s Guitar Amps:

– Fender Twin Reverb
Used on the first two albums. He had three of them, and it is likely that they were modified in some way.

– Gallien-Krueger GMT 226A
Used during Woodstock gig. It is a solid-state amp, and Carlos was actually one of the first people to buy it.

– Fender Princeton/Boogie
This amp was built by Randall Smith using a small Fender Princeton and modifying it with dual-6L6 circuit based on a 4×10 Fender Bassman and with a JBL D-120 12″ speaker. Before Randall even named the amp, Santana came to his shop and after trying it out said “Man, that little thing really Boogies!” Randall realized he needed a name for the amps he was making, and inspired by Santana’s remark – he named them Mesa-Boogie. He then made Santana another amp which he ended up using on 1972/73 tour – now known as Snakeskin. Recently released King-snake amp is a replica of Santana’s amp.

– Mesa Boogie Mark 1
This amp is a direct result of the previously mentioned amp.

– Bludotone 30
Prototype of the Universal Tone amp.

– Universal Tone by Bludotone

– Dumble Overdrive Reverb

Carlos Santana’s Guitar Effects:

Santana is one of those players who use very small numbers of effects. In the past he allegedly used an Ibanez Tube Screamer, and at the Woodstock he used a prototype of a Big Muff.

Nowadays his signal goes into a Mu-Tron wah wah pedal (or more recently a Dunlop 535Q), and he doesn’t use any other effects but the TC Electronic D-two delay which is controlled by his tech backstage.

Carlos Santana’s Guitar Strings:

– GHS Carlos Santana Big Core (.0095, .0115, .016, .025, .033, .043) – These strings were designed by Rene Martinez who served as Carlos’ guitar tech at some point, but started his career as a tech with Stevie Ray Vaughan in 1985.

Carlos Santana’s Guitar Picks:

– Carlos nowadays uses very thick 3.0mm V-Picks guitar picks, which he also publicly endorses. In the earlier years and prior to 1980 when the V-Picks company was founded, Santana was seen using black-colored triangle picks of unknown manufacture. They could’ve been Dunlops, or as one of our readers pointed out, the Fender 355s.

Contributors: Andi, Rich Araiza, Bob, mrod1079, a@b, uragoner2, Marco Barbaro