5 guitar tricks you can learn from Santana

(Image credit: Diana Scrimgeour/Redferns/Getty)

Born in Mexico in 1947, Carlos Santana’s first instrument was the violin, which he began playing at the tender age of five, before eventually taking up the guitar at eight, taught by his father, who was a street musician.

As the young Santana came of age, he was influenced by blues greats such as John Lee Hooker, T-Bone Walker and BB King. He was also inspired by Ritchie Valens (famed for timeless mega-hit La Bamba) who demonstrated ably how it was indeed possible for a young Mexican to succeed in the music business.

By 1966, Santana was living with his family in San Francisco - and what a time and place for an aspiring guitarist to live! His synthesis of blues and Latin American infl uences caught the public’s attention and, by the time 1969 rolled around, Santana was playing the iconic Woodstock Festival alongside megastars like Hendrix and The Who.

This month’s tab examples take their cues from early classics like Black Magic Woman and Carlos’ later work, such as Smooth. We’re showcasing a number of Santana’s signature phrasing tricks such as triplet rhythms, tremolo picking and harmonic minor scale melodies. Familiarise yourself with these ideas and you’ll soon be close to mastering Santana’s signature style.

1. Smoothly executed notes

Even a simple melody like this gives an insight into Santana’s style, by its omission of typical blues elements like bends and vibrato - something many of us add in without thinking about it! So, for an authentic Carlos vibe, try keeping your fingers steady and let those longer notes ring smooth and true.

2. Stacc in the middle

Adding in a little more complexity, this idea is all about rhythm rather than pitch - only five different notes appear in the whole lick! The short but fast run of notes at the end of bar 1 and the triplet in bar 2 are pure Santana, as are the pull-offs to staccato notes (marked with a dot over the note).

3. Exotic Latin sound

It’s all too easy to ‘think pentatonic’, but the notes from outside the guitarist’s favourite scale add colour here. The 12th fret E in bar 1 and the 14th fret C# in bar 2 hint at the exotic sound of the D harmonic minor scale (D E F G A Bb C#) - a perfect recipe for Santana’s Latin vibe before returning to the D minor pentatonic scale (D F G A C) in bar 3.

4. Triplets

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Leaning more towards rock and blues here, Carlos often uses the triplet idea shown in bar 1. It’s simple to explain (just play six notes in the space where four crotchets would usually fit) but tricky to execute thanks to the unusual timing. Try emphasising the first and fourth notes, and fitting the others loosely around this framework.

5. Tremolo picking

Another classic Carlos trick, this phrase is ‘tremolo picked’, meaning you alternate with down- and upstrokes as quickly as you can while your fretting hand follows the tab. This isn’t done to strict time, but the technique requires you to be consistent and accurate with the tip of your pick. The secret is slow practice!