A self-serving guitar solo is the near equivalent of musical masturbation, requested only by that drunk guy at the bar who also asked three times for “Freebird.” This is the golden rule for any guitarist.
But the rule is ambiguous when applied to songwriters known for their guitar playing—Frank Zappa, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana all come to mind.
For any accomplished guitarist, it’s difficult to also become a distinguished songwriter. While Jimi Hendrix escaped this problem through songs like the ethereal wonder “Third Stone from the Sun,” other artists—especially instrumental artists—haven’t fared so well.
Being an instrumentalist is a tough fate, a life sentence in an inescapable rut of solo excursions. There’s no denying their talent, but they can’t grab anyone’s attention through sweeps and arpeggios unless it’s some seven-string Ibanez-toting wannabe.
Surprisingly, Santana has had hits like “Europa” and “Ain’t Got Nobody” played all over the FM dial, a rare occurrence for any instrumentalist. For Santana, emphasis is not on technicality but on finding a voice. An artistic assemblage of Django Reinhardt’s gypsy voicings, John Lee Hooker’s tramp-stomp blues and Tito Puente’s conga rumblings, Santana pioneered an eclectic mix of Latin-rock fusion chronicled through the Woodstock-helmed series Abraxas, Santana III and Caravanserai.
And since Woodstock, Santana (the band) has been a collaborative effort between musicians. It’s never really been about that one extremely virtuosic over-player, feigning a sort of emotion with facial scowls only a mother could love. On “Soul Sacrifice” and “Game of Love,” he lets the songs take shape, leaving room for vocalists and percussionists as his parts lend themselves more to vocal melodies rather than meandering, jam band excursions.
Of course, there is a virtuosic strain to Santana’s work. I’ve always seen Santana as a close musical cousin to John Coltrane. As seen in Coltrane’s magnum opus A Love Supreme and Santana cuts like “Batuka” and “Europa,” both artists employ the sheets of sound technique: an array of transcendent melodic runs channeled through rapid-fire riffing. It’s reminiscent of an endless and indulgent solo search. But amidst the squeals and jazz aplomb, it’s never over the top or self-aggrandizing. You just can’t help but go along.
7:30pm Tue, Sept 30
Tobin Center for the Performing Arts
100 Auditorium Circle
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