Interview: Carlos Santana Discusses His MasterClass on “The Art and Soul of Guitar”
“Herbie Hancock and I talked about this in the early-‘80s—some people want to know what kind of pianos, guitars, amplifiers or microphones we use but, for us, the most important thing you can say to a young musician is: ‘Why aren’t you asking what was I thinking and feeling before I went inside that note?’” Carlos Santana says of the guiding principle that led him to his first online seminar. “You gotta go inside the note to give people chills, so you can make them cry and laugh. It’s like in church—the Holy Ghost comes in, and then you get goosebumps and you start crying and laughing and you don’t even know why. It’s like a woman when she has a baby. It’s painful, but then they see the baby and start laughing.”
In December, the multi-Grammy winner teamed up with online education company MasterClass to create his own program, “Carlos Santana Teaches the Art and Soul of Guitar,” where students can study his singular musical approach, storied career arc and spiritually rich journey as part of a new, unconventional syllabus. The class arrives at the start of a heavy year for Santana, as he plans to celebrate the anniversaries of Woodstock and his 1999 comeback both on tour and during his Las Vegas residency. “There are things that are of paramount importance: passion, emotion and feelings,” he says, while meditating on the continued success of the San Francisco psychedelic-blues band he formed so many years ago. “Without those three, it ain’t music. It’s just sound.”
Once the opportunity for your own MasterClas presented itself, what was your initial goal?
I don’t know that much about chord changes in written music. My dad did teach me how to read music, but just enough to get in. So this was a great opportunity to share with aspiring musicians the other side of what’s on the paper, the things that I learned from the blues players about melody and rhythm. Before Stevie Ray Vaughan left, he did “Riviera Paradise” and you hear Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, Albert King and Wes Montgomery all in the stroke of a brush. Tony Bennett said, “If you take from one person, it’s called stealing. If you take from many, it’s called research.”
As Wayne Shorter once said, it’s about “bringing the spirit and the soul into the flesh, into the physical sound vibration.” Whitney Houston sounds like a legion of angels—not just one. That’s what I want to present to people in my MasterClass—how to take a deep breath and bring forward something from Heaven that stays beyond time and gravity.
Those are the things I tried to present to the viewer. Certain things come and go, but others hang in immortality, like Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” and Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. I didn’t speak that much about entertainment because I don’t really know that much about it, but I know how to penetrate people’s hearts and get inside their skin and make them believe that light inside.
You’ve mentored many of the jamband scene’s biggest stars, from Trey Anastasio to Derek Trucks and Robert Randolph. What was the most important lesson you taught them?
Derek Trucks is an old soul that knows everything that we’re talking about. He knows everything from Roland Kirk to Coltrane. But there’s a gentleman named Quinn Sullivan who’s a disciple of Buddy Guy. So to Quinn Sullivan, or any other young spirits, I would say: “It’s not about having 20 pedals on the floor, just unplug all that stuff and go straight into the amplifier. Make your sound come from your legs, your calves, your limbs, your ribs, your heart, your fingers—so when you hit that note, people stop and you get their attention. It’s not the volume; it’s the dimension of passion, emotion and feeling.”
When you see those karate movies, you see these people who can catch a fly with their chopsticks—that’s what you’re supposed to do when you play music. You’re supposed to captivate and capture the listener, immediately.
In your MasterClass, you also offer some hints about how to be a successful bandleader. What’s the key to keeping a band together?
You have to make a melody come alive and be believable and, at the same time, have enough confidence that you can lead like an alpha wolf. You need to lead the pack, which is the rest of the musicians, into a place that’s not a desert, where you’re not going to run out of water. You’re supposed to take the musicians in your band to a place where there’s always milk and honey.
When I look at all the leaders, whether it’s Art Blakey, Miles Davis or Buddy Rich, they all have this courage and tenacity—this spirit that you too can improvise and that the music that you’re playing will be supremely valid and important.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of your breakout performance at Woodstock and the 20th anniversary of your comeback record Supernatural. Do those moments still feel like milestones?
I look at Tony Bennett, Plácido Domingo and Buddy Guy, and I go, “They have no problem with their dynamic music at their age.” It’s effective, efficient and significant music. Some people did their best 50 years ago and are regurgitating that over and over, never getting to another place, like being in a Twilight Zone jukebox from the ‘50s. I was never interested in that because Miles, Herbie [Hancock], Bill Graham and Clive Davis taught me that you can maintain and retain being relevant—even on the radio, if they just let you in. It’s really important to have that inner clarity and outer confidence. Not arrogance, but confidence.
I don’t want to hang around people who say, “It’s in the Bible” and “Nothing’s new under the sun.” When I look at children, everything’s new and innocent. So if you really stand back and stand inside your heart, you’ll see that every sunset and every sunrise is different. Every time you make love, it’s different. So I dip into my innocence. When I play “Black Magic Woman,” I remember the first time I played it in a parking lot in Fresno. Gregg [Rolie] said, “I got this song that hopefully we can do.” Even back then, I had a little rolodex and a portfolio of different things, so I started playing some Wes Montgomery and Otis Rush and thought, “What would they do?” So every time I play “Black Magic Woman,” I go to that particular place where I first played it, and I retain the innocence of the first time.
The chemistry of the musicians from the original band is still intact. We can be in the same room and start playing, and nobody tells anyone what to do or what not to do. Your spirit, your soul, your fingers go into this place that, as Wayne Shorter would say, is “completely new, totally familiar.”
This article originally appears in the January/February 2019 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.