Carlos Santana has become a god - again - to a new generation hooked on Guitar Hero, but the notion of youngsters banging away at plastic slabs in time with his most famous solos isn’t that meaningful to him.
“I probably wouldn’t be very good at it,” he says in a recent phone interview. “I’d say if you’re going to spend that much time and energy, get yourself a real guitar. If you’re going to make the jump - jump! I’m not into virtual anything, if it’s not the real thing, man.”
After four decades, Santana has refined the essence of the real thing in his fluid, melodic style. On his current tour, guitar fans also will be treated to world-class slide playing from Derek Trucks, the former prodigy who has grown into a guitar hero and, most recently, a sideman for Eric Clapton.
If wannabe guitar gods are looking for tips, Santana advises them to look within themselves.
“Take the time for 15 minutes a day to visit yourself in innocence and silence,” he says. “Imagine a new baby that just popped out. See the eyes of this new baby child and you see purity and innocence. That’s what we want to hear in the music.”
“Don’t ask me what kind of amplifier or strings I use. Ask me what I’m thinking when I’m playing. I can give you the same amplifier and strings, but it will still sound like you.”
For Santana, signature songs such as “Oye Como Va,” “Black Magic Woman” and “Evil Ways” only stay fresh if they are delivered with spiritual energy.
“We prepare 22 to 50 songs,” he says. “Usually we have two days of rehearsal and we only work on getting the tempo and groove correct. I don’t care if people make mistakes.”
The goal is to “create a spell,” rather than play perfect notes.
“When you do that, it’s like gravity disappears and problems disappear. It’s like a blind man remembering the curvatures of woman.”
The guitarist compares his approach with the jazz improvisations of John Coltrane or Miles Davis. The idea of doing a song the same way twice is pointless to him.
“Every sunset and every sunrise is different,” he says. “They’re the same, but they’re all different. It’s the same with making love: If you’re doing it the same way every time, you’re doing something wrong.
“In the middle of the set, I venture off into the unknown. I know people want to see and hear certain things, but they don’t have to hear them a certain way.”
It has been nearly a decade since Santana’s commercial rebirth with the Rob Thomas duet “Smooth,” off 1999’s “Supernatural.” It sold more than 10 million copies and reaped eight Grammys.
Santana also has collaborated with Everlast (“Put Your Lights On”) and Steven Tyler (“Just Feel Better”) and Michelle Branch (“The Game of Love”). None of those songs, however, yielded a comparable hit.
That’s little concern to Santana, whose idea of music is rooted more in the spirit of Woodstock than the charts.
“For us, it’s a way of life,” he says. “We never see what we do as a career.”
As in the 1960s, Santana is making music in the shadow of an unpopular war. Although musical activism has been meager, Santana hopes that his songs can perhaps change someone’s heart.
“I feel like music, for me, is a way to invite people to invest more in people and less in buildings and material things. I know I’m really crazy, but it takes a crazy person to fix something.”
His crazy idea is that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama should share the presidency, working 24 hours a day to “go fix what Bush has been destroying, which is the relationship between America and the rest of the world.”
He also wants the media to work harder at exposing the horrors of war.
“The media has no courage, no willingness to really show what’s going on. They show a Nintendo show with sparkling things in the sky, but they don’t show what it’s doing to people. That’s what we did in Vietnam and that’s how we stopped it.”
His outlook on politics is much the same as his attitude about music:
“It’s the same thing I’d say to anybody: If you don’t feel it, nobody’s gonna feel it. You’ve got to feel it from head to toe. It’s got to make your hair stand up.”