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Gregg Rollie on the recording of Santana's Abraxas and the classic instrumental Samba Pa Ti: "We put things on there that nobody would do. We experimented and had hit songs as well!”

Santana
Santana circa 1970: (L-R) Carlos Santana, Jose Areas, Mike Carabello, David Brown, Gregg Rolie and Mike Shrieve) (Image credit: BMI/Michael Ochs Archives/GettyImages)

By 1970 the virtuosic musicianship of San Francisco pioneers Santana – purveyors of a fusion of rock, blues and Latin styles – had already garnered the kind of mainstream success most kids in their early 20s can only dream of. 

A genre-breaking set at the Woodstock Festival in ’69 was followed by a Top 10 Billboard single, Evil Ways, and Top Five eponymous debut album. 

The second album, Abraxas, recorded at San Francisco’s Wally Heider Studio the following year, arguably trumped its predecessor with even more heady experimentation and refined blasts of the band’s ‘everything but the kitchen sink' influences. 

I’ve had time to look back at the band and the kind of music we played and, my God, it was very sophisticated for the age of the band!

Just take a listen to Oye Coma Va, Incident At Neshabur and Hope You’re Feeling Better and you’ll be blown away by the vibrant results of the band’s musical melting pot. Gregg Rolie was there at the beginning as the band’s co-founder, Hammond B3 player and lead vocalist on some of their biggest hits, before going on to form Journey with Neal Schon. He’s still extremely proud of Abraxas, which went on to top the US album charts and reach No 7 in the UK.

“I’ve had time to look back at the band and the kind of music we played and, my God, it was very sophisticated for the age of the band!” Rolie told Total Guitar in 2011. “When I listen back, [Abraxas] is still one of my favourite pieces of work… It was so eclectic and we did so many different things. We put things on there that nobody would do. We experimented and had hit songs as well!”

Rolie still fondly remembered the first time Carlos Santana, the group’s sole guitarist at the time, played him the parts to Abraxas’ nearly five-minute-long instrumental, Samba Pa Ti. 

“Carlos came to me on a Sunday, as I recall, but we never really practised on Sundays,” explained Rolie. “He had this beautiful melody and he needed to arrange it. He had several pieces and he and I sat down at the Penguin, which was where we practised in San Francisco, and we began to arrange it – pulling parts out, putting parts in and repeating things. 

"We arranged the song and put a samba at the end of it. He played beautifully and the thing that was most memorable to me was that it was so different. It was just he and I on the B3 and guitar, putting the chords together and building a song out of several pieces.”

He was playing to his headphones on the floor – it was an amazing thing to watch and I’m just glad I was there to tell Fred, ‘Don’t stop!’”

Samba Pa Ti means ‘Samba For You’ in Spanish, and Rolie remembers percussionist José ‘Chepito’ Areas coming up with the title. While Abraxas rhythm tracks were usually recorded live, the band weren’t averse to overdubbing lead parts and solos. Indeed, one of Rolie’s standout memories from the Samba Pa Ti recording sessions is Carlos’ sweet lead overdub. 

“He was recording it, and he had his earphones on, and I’m in the control room with Fred Catero, who was the main engineer and producer of the Abraxas album,” Rolie recalled. “And [Carlos’] headphones start to come off – they were almost on his nose and on the back of his head, and Fred almost stopped it… But I said, ‘Wait till he makes a mistake!’ His headphones actually ended up on the ground. He was so engrossed in what he was playing and we only stopped it when he finally lost it. He was playing to his headphones on the floor – it was an amazing thing to watch and I’m just glad I was there to tell Fred, ‘Don’t stop!’”

Rolie recalls Carlos playing a Gibson SG – probably his red SG Special with P90 pickups on Samba Pa Ti. It was also likely that he was plugged into a Fender Twin, his favoured amp in that era. While it’s been claimed that Carlos was also playing through an open wah pedal to help him get the beautiful distorted lead tone found on the recording, Rolie wasn't so sure.

“I don’t recall anything other than a reverb of some sort,” he told Total Guitar. “The thing about Carlos and his guitar playing is it’s all in his fingers and the neck and where he goes with it. It’s his own style of playing and that’s as simple as it is. Carlos was all about the blues and Santana music in those days was built on the blues side of things – blues guitar with a 9 [2nd interval] in it, and a B3, and congas and percussion.”

We created something that’s just as valid as the blues greats, and that is something that we tried to do

Gregg Rolie is more than a little stoked that a new generation are now discovering, and learning to play, the music that he made with Santana back in the early '70s.

“I play this music myself and have again for 10 years or more, and young people come along to see us as well,” he explained. “The energy of this music is just unbelievable and it is to this day. I’ve always said that it’s like blues, in that it doesn’t go away. We created an endless, timeless kind of music and whenever those instruments are put together, it sounds like Santana. 

"We created something that’s just as valid as the blues greats, and that is something that we tried to do. We focused on being good musicians. We were serious about it and it wasn’t a hippy love fest! It was a serious business and the joy was in the end product of the music.”

Interview: Carlos Santana talks Miles, Hendrix and his memoir, The Universal Tone