Note: Professional musicians use many different guitars and frequently change them. Though this is by no means an exhaustive list of every guitar they’ve ever played, we’ll try our best to keep this list updated with their most notable guitars.
Carlos Santana is one of the most iconic and influential instrumentalists of his time. His signature style and unique voice have made him a one-of-a-kind rock ‘n’ roll legend. It’s fair to say that he and his band Santana have breathed life into a brand of music, combining rock ‘n’ roll with Latin jazz and African rhythms.
Carlos Santana primarily uses a PRS Santana II guitar, a product of his collaboration with Paul Reed Smith. Among his favorites are the 1968 Gibson Les Paul Custom, 1950s Gibson Les Paul Special, and Yamaha SG-2000. He also uses a Nittono Model-T Jazz Nylon and Alvarez Yairi CY-127CE.
Santana has been in the music scene since the mid-1960s, and it would take a whole book to describe every guitar he has played for almost six decades. Below, I’ll show you some of his favorites and what he’s best known for.
Santana: Some Background Information
Carlos Humberto Santana Barragán was born in Mexico in 1947. He was very connected to music from an early age, heavily influenced by his father, who was in a Mariachi band. As a child, he listened to artists like Gábor Szabó, B.B. King, and Javier Bátiz. These influences would shape his songwriting and playing style in the years to come.
After moving to the United States with his family, Carlos Santana joined many local bands. He started to experiment with his sound, using the influences mentioned above and his own creativity. He also took a lot of inspiration from new Jazz figures and the Hippie movement.
While he was developing his sound, he worked different jobs to be able to afford his guitars. Around 1965, he became a professional musician, dedicating all his time to playing music in different gigs around San Francisco.
In 1966, Carlos created a band with other musicians he knew, and they called it Santana. They experimented with different genres, but most of their music could be described as rock ‘n’ roll with Latin jazz, blues, and salsa influences.
A couple of years later, the band signed up with Columbia Records and started to work on their first album. Before they released it, they performed at Woodstock with a star-making performance that made them instantly famous and popular in rock n roll circles. Naturally, their first album, simply called Santana, became a huge hit critically and commercially.
The next few albums were also hugely successful, as Santana and his band became more confident and bolder with their choices, developing their unique style. However, in the next decade, Santana started to change the direction of their style, leaning more towards Jazz, which was still a successful move critically but not commercially.
In the 1980s, the band Santana returned to radio-friendly songs that put them on the charts again, but Carlos found that he enjoyed jamming and improvising with jazz musicians more than anything else. He continued to experiment with new styles and released award-winning solo projects.
In the 1990s, Santana returned to commercially successful albums and projects. In particular, his collaboration with singer Rob Thomas, called “Smooth” was one of the biggest hits of the year, spending several weeks on the Billboard Top 100 chart. The next single, called “Maria Maria”, in collaboration with the Product G&B, was another commercial and critical hit.
Both hits were part of his “Supernatural” album, which won several Grammy and Latin Grammy awards and cemented him as a music legend. He would release more successful singles and albums in the following years and receive multiple accolades from different music institutions.
Santana has become a music legend, famous for his unique guitar-playing style and fusion of different genres to create catchy, sensual, and bold rhythms. Throughout the years, he has released many albums with his band, as well as solo projects and collaborations with other niche or world-famous artists.
Santana is credited with popularizing Latin American music in the United States. He is also well-known as a guitar legend, with melodic solos and incredibly catchy riffs that have been used as samples by many musicians. His guitar-playing skills are unparalleled.
List of Guitars That Santana Plays
Considering Sanata’s career spans almost six decades, it’s reasonable to assume that he has used hundreds of guitars throughout his career. He favors electric guitars, but he has also used several acoustic or semi-acoustic ones in certain performances and recordings.
Let’s see some of the most famous guitars that Santana has used in his career, as well as some personal favorites.
PRS Santana II
PRS Santana II is special because it is one of the main guitars that Santana uses in what is probably his band’s most famous album, “Supernatural”. This guitar has a quilted maple top and mahogany back. The neck is made of mahogany, and the fretboard is Brazilian rosewood.
The original model has a thick neck, described as the “Santana wide fat” neck by the manufacturer since Santana prefers them that way. Most guitar players enjoy this feature, but others have difficulties with it, so Paul Reed Smith offers versions with a slimmer neck.
PRS Santana II features a three-way toggle switch, an improvement from the previous version. It also has Santana treble and bass humbucker pickups. The PRS Santana II has great sustain and thick, bold tones. According to many reviewers, it is easy to handle and a joy to play.
This guitar comes in dozens of different finishes, from amber to purple and scarlet red. Santana has used several different versions on stage and during his recordings, but the most memorable version may be his Emerald PRS Santana II guitar, which can be seen in the footage from his 2020 MasterClass video:
Paul Reed Smith and Santana’s careers are closely related, as they were both starting at the same time. A virtuous young musician at the beginning of his career, Santana was approached by this new guitar maker who wanted him to try out his instruments. Based on Santana’s feedback, Smith created the PRS model to include several different specifications, which became the PRS prototype.
This meeting in the late 1970s was only the beginning of the relationship between Santana and Paul Reed Smith. They have released several collaborations throughout the years, like PRS Santana III, PRS Santana MD, and PRS 25th Anniversary Santana.
1968 Gibson Les Paul Custom
The 1968 Gibson Les Paul Custom is an excellent electric guitar and is considered an improvement on the 1950s Les Paul Custom. It’s a solid body guitar with a maple top and mahogany back and sides. The neck is also mahogany with an ebony fretboard.
This guitar features two humbucker pickups and a peghead angle to relieve the tension in the strings. The maple top gives this guitar a clearer and bolder sound, which makes a significant difference compared to the 1950s Custom. The 1968 Les Paul Custom originally only came in the Ebony finish, so Santana likely had it refinished with a Tobacco Sunburst color.
The 1968 Gibson Les Paul Custom is definitely one of Santana’s favorites, especially among Les Pauls. This iconic guitar can be seen in his early 1970s performances, as Santana was just getting started with his band. It’s safe to say that it remained a favorite for a long time and that it has been used for songwriting, recording, and stage shows.
Santana himself has mentioned this guitar as one of his best choices, having used it in more than seven album recordings. He immediately fell in love with it when he saw it in 1970, but he maintains he was determined to buy it as soon as he tried playing it, loving the tone quality and the general feel of the guitar.
This iconic guitar was used to record Santana’s second album, “Abraxas”, which featured singles like “Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen”, a song that cemented Santana’s place in Rock n Roll and inspired many future hits by the band. This guitar can be considered legendary for this reason only.
Santana claims he has used the 1968 Gibson Les Paul Custom for at least six other albums, following “Abraxas”. He also used this guitar for live performances, as you can see in this video:
However, Santana stopped using this guitar during performances around the beginning of the 1980s.
1950s Gibson Les Paul Special
The 1950s Les Paul Special is, indeed, very special, as it was one of the first guitars that Santana used during his early days, and it’s possibly the main guitar that was used to record the first album of his band. This particular version is a low-budget Les Paul that the musician probably bought when he could not afford something better.
The 1950s Gibson Les Paul Special is a budget, student-level guitar that is made for beginners who need to learn how to play and handle the instrument. The body is solid and made of mahogany. The neck is also mahogany, with a rosewood fretboard. Reviewers note that it’s incredibly easy to play and has a warm tone.
Santana’s version has a TV Yellow finish, which is the original one of the model that was released in 1955. This particular finish was chosen because it looked good on black-and-white TV screens at the time.
Santana used this guitar in some of his first appearances with his band in 1969. It’s reasonable to assume that he recorded most of the songs on the “Santana” album with this same instrument. However, by the end of the year, this 1950s Gibson Les Paul Special appeared in pretty bad shape in the footage from concerts, so we can assume that Santana retired it shortly after.
Gibson SG Special
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Santana used Gibson SGs almost exclusively, probably trying to find the model he enjoyed the most. This particular model is one of the last SGs that Santana used before exploring Yamahas, as you will see below.
This Gibson SG special can be seen in footage from Santana’s performances in 1972 and 1973, in two different finishes. He seems to have retired this guitar after 1973, but it remains another iconic instrument closely tied to Santana’s early albums and performances.
The body and neck of this Gibson SG Special are made of mahogany, while the fretboard is rosewood. This guitar came in several different finishes, but Santana’s models are black and white. This SG Special has a unique, smooth sound and impressive sustain with loud and rich tones.
Yamaha approached Santana for collaboration in the mid-1970s after he had established his career as a great musician with a unique style. Santana tried a prototype and gave several feedback notes, which Yamaha worked on for a while. After implementing all the necessary changes, Yamaha issued the SG-2000, a guitar that reflected everything that Santana’s style was about.
The Yamaha SG-2000 is a solid-body electric guitar with a maple top, mahogany body and neck, and an ebony fingerboard with 24 frets. It features double OPG-1 Alnico V humbucker pickups and a sustain block located under the bridge of the guitar. It comes in different finishes, like Cherry Sunburst, Brown Sunburst, and Black. Santana’s particular version has a dark natural finish and custom Buddha decals.
This guitar has a unique and powerful sound, with a bold tone and incredible sustain. Santana used this guitar during live performances and recordings for more than eight years. This was his favorite guitar when he stepped away from commercial music and started experimenting with jazz fusions.
Nittono Model-T Jazz Nylon
Santana is well-known for his electric guitar performances, but he has also used acoustic ones for recording his albums and live performances. This particular electro acoustic guitar is a unique find from an expert, but far from mainstream craftsman called Toru Nittono. Throughout the 2000s, Santana used one of Nittono’s most popular acoustic guitars.
The T-Model, which is Nittono’s more popular one, is a handmade guitar that may have taken up to one year to make from scratch. Santana was first seen with this guitar in 2003 and has performed several times with it since. This instrument is considered perfect for jazz and blues sounds.
The Nittono Model-T Jazz Nylon has a carved spruce top and mahogany back and sides. The neck is also mahogany, with a custom shape as requested by Santana, while the fretboard is ebony. It also has a built-in preamp and an LR Baggs T-Bridge pickup. There are several different finishes on the market, but Santana’s custom guitar has a natural finish and a black pickguard.
This unique guitar is undoubtedly one of the most precious instruments in Santana’s collection. You can see Santana play it in this 2011 performance:
Alvarez Yairi CY-127CE
The Alvarez Yairi CY127CE is a classic-electric guitar with a cedar top and rosewood back and sides. The neck is mahogany, and the fretboard is ebony. This guitar features an Alvarez pickup system with treble and bass controls and three-on-a-plate tuners. It has a full and clear sound, both when it’s used plugged in and unplugged.
When it comes to acoustic guitars, Santana seems to trust Japanese makers more than anyone. Before he got the Nittono guitar mentioned above, he used an Alvarez Yairi CY127CE for his acoustic performances and recordings. Kazuo Yairi is a master craftsman who builds guitars with the utmost care, using the finest materials for each instrument he produces.
Santana’s particular guitar was handmade according to his requests, and only a very limited number of similar guitars were made. It’s not clear when Santana first got this guitar, but it’s safe to say he used it consistently until he purchased the Nittono.
After getting the handmade Nittono model, Santana retired this guitar, but it’s safe to say that this guitar is somewhere in his collection. You can see him play this guitar in his music video for “Maria Maria,” his 1999 hit from his album “Supernatural”:
What Brand of Guitar Does Santana Use?
When Santana started his career, he mostly used Gibson guitars, particularly Customs and Les Pauls. He later moved on to Yamaha and then Paul Reed Smith.
As a skilled guitarist with a career spanning almost 60 years, Santana has tried and tested a lot of guitars during his career. It’s safe to say that Paul Reed Smith is probably his favorite, considering that he has released multiple signature guitars under this brand.
As for electro-acoustic guitars, Santana has used multiple different brands, but he seems to prefer unique, handmade guitars made by expert Japanese guitar makers like Nittono and Yairi.
What Guitar Did Santana Play in “Smooth”?
When recording his hit album, “Supernatural,” Santana mostly used his brand new PRS Santana II guitar. This is probably Santana’s most popular and favorite guitar in his collection.
It’s not clear what guitar Santana used to record “Smooth” in particular since there is no official information, but one can assume that he played the PRS Santana II.
Santana is one of the most legendary musicians of the last 50 years, with an illustrious career and multiple accolades and achievements. He is well known for his unique songwriting, fusion of genres, and signature guitar-playing style.
Santana has used many guitars throughout his decades-old career and seems to have moved from one favored brand to another. He started with Gibsons, then with Yamaha, as he started experimenting with jazz fusions. He continued with Paul Reed Smith from the mid-1980s and seemed to have found his preferred instruments with this brand.