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With your upcoming residency at the House of Blues, I’m sure the
audience is expecting to hear the hits. How do you keep it interesting
for yourself when you play something like “Oye Como Va” for the
I keep it interesting by accessing something that I have inside me. There are switches that I have in my brain and my heart that I click on … here’s the secret for a lot of people. I call it the “First French Kiss.” You can will things to feel and be, and become. For example, I will this “first-time ever” for everything. If I want to play “Black Magic Woman” how I felt with the innocence, purity, and first-time sensuality, then I remember how it was when I played it for the first time at a rehearsal in Fresno, before a concert. That’s the first time we played it. Gregg Rolie said, “Man, I got this song from Peter Green called ‘Black Magic Woman,’ and I think we should do it.” We did it at the soundcheck, and I go back to that soundcheck, or back to the first time I played “Oye Como Va” on the radio in San Francisco. I just go back to that place and make it as real as I can, and I do, and therefore I don’t get tired of playing that song. I don’t count how many, I just feel how deep.
Your touring band features drummer extraordinaire, Dennis Chambers. Why didn’t you use your wife Cindy Blackman, who is also a phenomenal drummer?
Because her music dictates her soul to do something different. She comes more from the Tony Williams, John McLaughlin, or Miles Davis direction. For me, I’m into that but not only that.
You tend to work with a lot of jazz drummers. What do they bring to your music that say, a rock guy, couldn’t?
They have more freedom than we do. They get to hit everything at the same time and they also create melodies on the cymbals and everything.
But with that said, your favorite musicians are not only just jazz musicians. Are they?
I create a big circle and put the number ones in there: Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Buddy Rich, Art Blakey, John Bonham, Ginger Baker. You know, they’re all number ones to me. Or take the drummer in Bob Marley’s band. Even when you just hear the music without Bob Marley, and the band is just jamming, you know it just doesn’t get any better than that, for what that is. When you hear Metallica, it doesn’t get any better, for what that is. You have to give credit to Lars and everybody.
How has your conception of tone changed over the years? Are you still chasing the same singing tone?
No, I don’t chase sound anymore. I stopped chasing it. It’s in my limbs, it’s in my vitals, it’s in my heart, and it’s in my fingers. I just plug in and turn knobs until it doesn’t sound offensive, until it doesn’t hurt my teeth.
Some of the tones on Shape Shifter, like the ones on “Ah, Sweet Dancer,” sound a bit bassier than your signature tones. Is there a reason why?
I think it was the placement of the microphones, plus I had to be very careful because my son was playing acoustic piano on that one. I had to play softer and roll more bass so I could crank it up. Usually if you don't crank it up, things sound thin.
After immortalizing the Mesa/Boogie Mark I throughout your career, you added a Dumble, and most recently, a Bludotone to your arsenal. What do they offer that the Boogie doesn’t?
Bludotone did something that is really incredible that, with all due respect to Boogie and Dumble, they have yet to do. With Boogies and Dumbles, you have to turn them up loud to get real fullness. The Bludotone you can play full like, excuse the expression, a full erection, but at a different volume without sounding shrill or weird. Bludotone found something that makes the amplifier very robust and warm without having to crank it up past 7.
I understand that PRS recently made you a guitar with three single-coil pickups, and that you also have a ’63 Strat and a Strat-style guitar in your arsenal. Are you able to get that liquid, vocal tone without humbuckers?
Not yet. A Strat is a Strat. If I want to do a song that sounds like Stevie Ray or Jimi or Jeff or Eric, well… you have to play a Strat through a Dumble to get that sound. I mean, I respect Paul [Reed Smith], he’s my brother. But, a lot of musicians use a keyboard to try and impersonate a trumpet or a trombone, and they think they sound like it. Then I tell them, “No [laughs]. A trombone sounds like a trombone and you sound like a synthesizer trying to sound like a trombone. Why can’t you get that straight?” I give them credit for trying, and I think the only thing that computers have gotten close to replicating are cellos and flutes. The rest is…no, not yet. And so it’s the same thing with Strats. We’re still trying on it but I’m getting the feeling that with a Strat, you just have to leave it alone because it’s a Strat.
PRS Santana II, ‘63 Fender Strat, custom Strat by Jesse Amoroso (Cowtown Guitars), Alvarez nylon string, Toru Nittono nylon string
Mesa/Boogie Mark I, Dumble Overdrive Reverb 100 watt, Bludotone Universal Tone
PRS 4x12 with Celestion v30s, Bludotone open-back cab with two Celestion G12-65s and two Austin Speaker Works speakers, Tone Tubby hemp cones (sometimes)
Customized Teese RMC3 wah, Pete Cornish LD-1, Pete Cornish AC powered splitter, Pete Cornish custom DI
GHS Santana .0095–.043 (on PRS guitars), .0105–.048 (on Strats)
Handmade by Edwin Adair using Canare GS-6 cables with Neutrik connectors
Yamaha .030 Triangle
El Dorado Guitar Accessories, PRS
Information provided by Santana’s guitar tech, Edwin Adair