How to play guitar like Santana

Posted on 9th April 2021

Carlos Santana perhaps needs no introduction. He has been one of the main public faces of guitar herodom for many years. His unique style mixes blues, rock and Latin elements of music in a way that hadn’t been heard before.

The Gear

First of all, let’s take a look at what he uses in the guitar and amp department. He is known for playing PRS guitars - he has his own signature model guitars with PRS which is based on a Les Paul style design. He appeared at Woodstock in 1969 equipped with a Les Paul and two P90 pickup and his current signature PRS guitar features two Humbucking pickups.

The Les Paul/PRS sound itself is a lot thicker and warmer than a Strat or Tele sound which is, of course, a key element of Santana’s core tone. He was also known for using Mesa Boogie amps, however he has also plugged into multiple amps such as Dumble and Bluetone. His association with Mesa Boogie really put the Amp company on the map, even putting the ‘Boogie’ in Mesa Boogie - legend says he tried a Mesa amp and said “this thing really boogies” and the name stuck. The Mesa Boogie Mark 1 is mixed with a Dumble ‘Overdrive Reverb’ amp to get his core tone.

Don’t worry, we don’t have to break the bank to get a similar sound to Santana. What we need to ‘emulate’ his tone is a humbucking guitar, something with a thickish neck, and an amp with a nice amount of gain/sustain, but not a metal type sustain. This can be done by focusing on using the amps drive channel alone if you have a Fender Blues Junior or something along those lines. You could also use a Fuzz Pedal on a medium setting to get a similar vibe. A tiny bit of hall reverb and you should be there. Rolling the tone control back on the bridge pickup should help warm up the sound. The rest is in the hands and the music.


Articulation is everything. In his best moments, Santana sounds like he is singing through the guitar. So, focus on developing dynamic control of the left and right hand through pick attack, fretting hand hammer ons and pull offs. My advice is to learn his lines, play along to his solos and really lock in with the timing and dynamics of his phrasing, this will teach you more about how to ‘sound like’ Santana than buying any pedal or learning licks from TAB would do.

Santana is great with ‘embellishing’ phrases. Another aspect of his phrasing within Minor Pentatonic is that he’ll use notes from the mode around it to add details. Often, he’ll articulate these with quick trills and hammer ons. Bending within the diatonic scale is something else which gives his sound some distinction for the time. Mixing these diatonic melodies with pentatonic blues licks. Sequences are also important, being able to move up and down diatonic scales following a melodic pattern of 3 or 4 notes. This creates a cascading effect which again offsets the bluesy phrases.

Harmony and Vocabulary

His vocabulary on the guitar is based in blues and Latin styles of music. Blues, of course, uses a lot of Minor Pentatonic & Blues Scales. So understanding how to navigate this pattern will help when picking up some Santana phrases. He often adds the 9th to the Minor Pentatonic which is a way of expanding that tonal pallet. However he goes further with diatonic scales, in particular Dorian, which is the second mode of the Major scale. This scale is basically a pentatonic (1, b3, 4, 5, b7) with an added 2nd/9th & 6th/13th.

A lot of his songs follow this mode and the chords that come with it (for example Am7 to D7 which is an ii to V movement in G Major). This scale is used in many different styles of music, but is perhaps most ‘obvious’ to the listener in this Latin blues rock style. Santana will also use the Natural Minor Scale (1, 2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7) - Black Magic Woman is a good example of this with the chordal movement of vi to ii (for example Dm to Gm). Often songs will also include an interchange of modes moving between different tonalities based on these basic sounds.

One Final Point

It’s important to use space! Leaving space between phrases, developing themes, repeating patterns using the scale approaches from the last paragraph. When you want to add some heat, you speed up a little or simply play phrases closer together. Again, focusing on the singing aspect of phrasing will help you improve in the right ball park.

I can’t stress enough, however, the importance of learning licks by ear from your favourite artists to get a deeper understanding of their phrasing. Not only will you learn some cool licks, you’ll pick up the rhythmic and melodic habits of the player. The information won’t just enter your fingers, it’ll enter your melodic tool box in your brain! So endeavour to learn by ear, slowly, bit by bit, aand try and understand the core elements. Before you know it, you’ll be able to emulate your favourite players convincingly.

Good luck!

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by Sam Bell
Sam Bell is a leading UK session guitarist and educator. He first picked up a guitar aged just 5, after watching The Buddy Holly Story in the West End. At the age of 18, he was featured in Guitar Player magazine’s up-and-coming section. Sam works mainly as a session guitarist, playing for soul singer and X-Factor vocal coach Lloyd Wade, and other various dance production shows around the UK. He is a contributor to Guitar Interactive magazine, Premier Guitar magazine and Lick Library. He’s featured in many DVDs including ‘Learn to Play Paul Gilbert’, ‘7 String Secrets’ and ‘Paganini’s 16th Caprice’. He’s also the main songwriter for UK Tech Metal band Mask of Judas, with whom he writes his own melodic instrumental material. Sam is also currently working on a full debut solo album.
View all posts by Sam Bell

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