Carlos Augusto Alves Santana was born on July 20th 1947 and is known around the world as an American and Mexican rock guitarist. He first rose to fame in the late 60s to early 70s with his band also called Santana. They were the pioneers of rock music with a jazz and Latin fusion. Over the years Santana has created music in this genre and experienced ebbs and flows in his popularity. In 2003 he was listed as number 15 in the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time by Rolling Stone.
As for what kind of guitar does Santana play and the gear he uses, that can be hard to pin down because he doesn’t actually have one preference overall like many guitar players do. When he first started out in the 60s he would play Gibson SG Specials featuring P90 pickups. In the 70s he swapped over to Les Pauls for that beefier humbucker tone. During the early 80s he swapped again to PRS guitars and that’s what he still plays to this day.
In this guide, we are looking at the electric guitars that Carlos Santana plays. We will also run through the amps he used and still uses so you can see what sort of setup this great guitarist has.
Carlos Santana Guitars
1950s Gibson Les Paul Special
The first images of Carlos Santana using the 1950s Gibson Les Paul Special date back to when the band recorded their first album in the May of 1969. The pictures prove that Santana used this guitar to record at least some of the music off the debut album, if not all of the tracks.
This guitar has what’s known as a TV yellow finish. It featured two P90 pickups and also included the Maestro tremolo. By the December of 1969 the guitar looked completely different. When Santana played at Altamont the guitar can be visibly stripped down of the original paint job. The tremolo had also been removed which left visible screw holes on the front. We know that Carlos Satana had two SG Specials in his collection with the same tremolo piece so it’s possible that the Maestro from the 50s Gibson ended up on an SG.
1961/62 Gibson SG Special
Carlos Santana ended up playing this guitar for the Woodstock gig with the band in August 1969. The finish is a stunning cherry red and the guitar has a Brazilian rosewood fingerboard. It also had Grovers tuners, two P90 single-coil pickups, a wrap-around stop-tailpiece and an ABR-1 Tune-o-matic bridge. There was a lot of tech that went into this guitar and you can still see it used by rock musicians to this day, such as Fall Out Boy.
The Maestro tremolo that was originally on the guitar was the VMA-1 version, often used on cheaper models of Epiphones. This was moved back on Carlos Santana’s guitar to make room for the stop-tailpiece. The strings were actually never attached to this but Santana decided to keep it on for some reason. This was more than likely to balance out the weight or the instrument, or that he was hoping to add more sustain to the sound by making the guitar a bit heavier.
Towards the 1970s Carlos Santana stopped using this guitar and the SG Special made in black with white P90s replaced it. He allegedly destroyed this guitar because he said it would never stay in tune.
1960s Gibson SG Special
You will see that Carlos Sanatana played this guitar throughout the 1970s, most notably at the Tanglewood concert and on the Dick Cavett show. It looked incredibly similar to the red SG he had been using the year before. There were a few differences to this guitar though. The most noticeable difference is that this guitar was black in color and featured plastic P90 pickup covers which were white. The neck was also shaved and sanded down.
What made people think it was the same guitar with a new paint job is that this one had the stop-tailpiece, Tune-o-matic bridge and VMA-1 tremolo which was never used. The setup fo the instrument wasn’t standard to SG Specials in the 60s which means that Santana had modified it himself.
There is a version of the story that says that Santana complained of the red SG never being able to stay in tune so that he ended up destroying it. This was in the hopes that the band would cave in and buy him a brand new guitar. If this story turns out to be true then the black SG Special was bought sometime in late 1969. He would have to have installed the stop-tailpiece himself as he did on the red version but this doesn’t sound very likely.
An SG Special guitar with a tremolo was a rarity at the time and to think that Carlos Santana had two of them doesn’t seem very plausible. It is possible that he swapped the tremolo over from the red SG or from the Les Paul Special he had too.
The other version of this tale is that they are actually the same guitar. Instead of buying a brand new SG, Santana may have sent the original to a luthier to be adjusted and for a lick of paint. This sounds a lot more reasonable, but it was Carlos Santana that said he destroyed the red SG which completely debunks our second theory.
Gibson SG Special
This was a black SG special that featured humbuckers and Carlos Santana could be seen with it sometime in 1972. The SG Specials that were being made at the time didn’t have humbuckers installed so Santana would have had to modify the instrument himself. It’s could also be that this is the same black SG guitar he used back in 1970 with the P90s and tremolo bridge removed.
Carlos Santana would appear with another SG Special, this time in white, later on in the year 1973. By the looks of it that guitar had also been modified so there’s a strong chance that this was the final incarnation of the black or even the red SG Specials.
The interesting thing about the white SG that Santana played is that there was a picture painted on the headstock. The same image also appeared on one of his Les Pauls guitars in 1973. The picture was of Guru Sri Chinmoy who Santana was a follower of between 1972 and 1981.
1960s Les Paul Standard
The Les Paul Standard was probably the first model of guitar from this brand that Carlos Santana ever had. It was used around 1970/71 in some of the live gigs that he did with the band including the 1970 Germany concert and the 1971 Montreux gig. Originally the guitar had a white pickguard but Sanatana removed this at some point. Allegedly he gave the guitar to Udo Artist who was a Japanese concert promoter back in 1973.
It’s difficult to tell by listening to Santana’s music but judging by the way it sounds, it’s unlikely that he used this guitar to do any recordings with. You can’t hear any sort of guitar that has a humbucker installed until the release of the third album for the band in 1971.
1968 Gibson Les Paul Custom
Most people will recognize this guitar because it was Carlos Santana’s go-to instrument that he used a lot. He played it for a few live concerts starting in 1971 and going up to 1972. You can see the guitar featured in the Black Magic Woman & Gypsy Queen gig of 1971. There is also the possibility that he recorded three albums using this guitar between 1971 and 1973 which were Santana III, Caravanserai and Welcome. Some people speculate that he used this guitar on the band’s first album but there isn’t any precise information out there to back up these claims.
This guitar was more than likely a model from the late 60s. It must have been a black instrument originally because all of the Custom models were at that time. Santana guitars are often modified though and the LP Custom had a sunburst finish like the one pictured. This meant that it was more than likely to have been refinished.
1961 Gibson SG (Les Paul) Custom
The pictures and videos of Carlos Santana using this guitar are practically non-existent. What does exist is a Guitar Point Sound video that stated Santana owned a 1961 Gibson Les Paul SG Custom. We would say that he played this guitar between 1973 to 1974 before switching over to Yamahas and L6 models.
1970s Gibson L6-S
The Gibson L6-S guitar is very much an adaptation of the older L5-S version. However, it featured a 24 fret two-octave neck instead. It was designed back in 1972 and then released a year later by the brand. This also happened to be the same year that Santana started using it as well.
The guitar itself has a solid maple body and two super humbuckers which were designed by Bill Lawrence. Many guitarists at the time endorsed this model even though it was dropped from the brand’s catalog in the 70s. Many people nowadays consider this to be one of the most underrated Gibson solid body guitars to be made. It’s more than likely that Santana used this guitar to some purpose on the recording for Borboletta in 1974.
When Santana was playing the Gibson L6-S back in 1975, Yamaha approached him wanting him to try out their new SG-175 model in the hopes of signing an endorsement deal. Santana agreed to give the guitar a try and he ended up making a detailed list of things he didn’t like about the instrument. Some of the things he complained about included the weight being too low, with the guitar needing to be heavier so that it could produce enough sustain. He would also say that the neck should be a 24 fret two-octave one.
Yamaha went back and made a prototype taking all of these issues into consideration and addressing them. Unfortunately, Carlos Santana still didn’t like it. Yamaha went back to square one and used Carlos’s help to decide on further changes that would make the guitar a hit.
In terms of design, they opted for a neck-through-body style which means that both the body and neck of the guitar are glued together. They also used what is commonly now known as a T-Cross construction. This is where two pieces of mahogany are used to surround the central maple part of the guitar that spans the whole width of the instrument. A piece of teak wood, with maple being used on the mass-produced version, would sit on top of the body. Every piece of hardware on the guitar was changed out for brass. There was also a sustain plate installed that sat underneath the bridge. As far as tech, the guitar featured two OPG-1 Alnico V pickups.
The guitar was finished in early 1976 and Santana would use it from then. He would use it until 1982 when he decided to swap it out for the PRS. The main guitar at the time was the actual prototype that Yamaha came up with and it didn’t have an official name until July 1976 when they released it as the SG2000 model. The guitar features a naturally dark finish with customized Buddha headstock inlays as well as decals on the body. He also used another SG2000 model in black quite widely and this also had similar decals.
Paul Reed Smith (PRS)
Since the early 1980s, Paul Reed Smith guitars have been Santana’s go to choice and he has been playing them almost exclusively ever since. The person behind the PRS brand is Paul Reed Smith himself who approached Santana at a gig in the late 70s. You can find a video below of him telling the PRS Santana story.
There were many different PRS models made throughout the years and most of the time Carlos would swap between them. The mass-produced models included the PRS Santana I, PRS Santana II, Santana III, Santana MD, Santana SE (made in Korea) and the 25th-anniversary PRS Santana signature model guitars. The first-ever PRS Santana model I guitar was made in 1995. This means that Paul was making guitars for Carlos for 15 years before they eventually decided to make a signature line together.
All of the PRS Santana models use pickups designed by the brand. In the beginning, they would mostly have pickup covers featuring a zebra print pattern which you can see on the Santana I. Since the PRS Santana II and Satana III you will see that they change over to be metal covers.
Paul took credit for the body shape of the guitar, making it so that it was a crossover between a Fender Stratocaster and a double-cut Les Paul Junior. The base is built up using a strong mahogany and the top was crafted from a specially selected maple wood. At the neck, you will see 24 frets that are 24.5″ in scale. The fretboard had been made from Indian rosewood for the PRS Santana I model. The later models would feature Brazilian rosewood instead.
There’s not much point in trying to single out every single guitar that came from Carlos Santana’s favorite guitar brand because he went through so many. He’s the type of musician who won’t stick to one particular guitar model in particular, although he is still loyal to this brand.
Santan’s guitar tech is named Ed Adair and he says that one of his guitars is nicknamed Salmon which would be considered his number one PRS guitar but most of the time he just gets sent new guitars from Paul. If Santana likes the PRS guitars that are sent to time he will take it into his collection and he will probably end up taking it on tour too. Santana only speaks highly of PRS guitars and Paul himself, trusting his judgment and skills when it comes to guitar care.
PRS SC245 Custom
One of the more modern Carlos guitars was first seen in May 2016 and this was the PRS SC245 Custom. You can see Santana playing this guitar at The House of Blues in Las Vegas in that same year. The guitar has a gold top with a nice metallic finish and features a single cutaway body.
According to the specs of the guitar it has a mahogany body and a figured maple top. It also has a mahogany neck and fretboard made from rosewood. In terms of humbuckers, it has some PRS 58/15’s installed.
Carlos Santana’s Guitar Amps
Now that we have gone through a good chunk of Santana’s guitars, we’re going to move on to some of the amps he would use to go along with them. This is a brief list of the amps he was said to use throughout the years, up to Santana nowadays.
Fender Twin Reverb – This amp was used for the first two albums for the band. Santana had three in total and it’s more than likely that he modified them in some way.
Gallien-Krueger GMT 226A – This is a solid-state amp that was used during a gig at Woodstock. Santana was one of the first people to ever buy it.
Fender Princeton/Boogie – The person who created this amp was named Randall Smith and he modified a small Fender Princeton to create it. Before he could even give it a name Sanatana visited his shop, tried it out and said, “Man, that little thing really Boogies!” Randall designed to name his amps after this remark and made Santana his own amp which he used on the 1972 to 1973 tour, now known as Snakeskin. The King-snake amp that has recently been released is a replica of Santana’s original amp.
That’s all we have for Carlos Santana guitars! He still uses PRS guitars to this day as his favorite go-to models. Many Santana songs were recorded using the amps and guitars we’ve mentioned above. We hope you enjoyed our article and make sure to check out other guides here on our website.