"I like to make women happy. I don't play for guys": That time Carlos Santana made an album of classic rock covers including songs by AC/DC and Led Zeppelin

Carlos Santa headshot (1996)
(Image credit: Luciano Viti via Getty Images)

Guitar hero or not, Carlos Santana readily admitted to finding his 2010 project something of a challenge. Guitar Heaven: Greatest Guitar Classics Of All Time consisted of a dozen covers of some of the most revered rock songs ever, from Led Zeppelin and the Stones to Deep
, Cream, AC/DC and beyond. It was the brainchild of record mogul Clive Davis, CCO at Sony and co-producer of Santana’s last three studio albums.

“Clive went out of his way to convince me to do it,” the 10-times Grammy winner told us, relaxing at his home in LA. “Three times he called me before I deferred to him. I was like: ‘Man, I don’t wanna touch them ten songs. Those songs are scary; they’re already done. I don’t wanna touch any Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton thing.’ But Clive said: ‘Yeah, but only you can do it, man. C’mon, you can do it. You can do it!’”

We spoke to him about the album in Classic Rock 151, published in November 2010.


How did you go about stamping the songs on Guitar Heaven
with your own personality?

These songs are all Mona Lisas, and I wasn’t afraid to go on a date with all of them. The question that most people ask me is: “Did you use the same pedals and amplifiers?” And my response is: “No!” If I’m gonna date this Mona Lisa, I don’t wanna wear the same cologne and clothes as the other guys wore. It’s all about honouring and complementing, not about competing or comparing. It takes a lot of courage to take on something like this, because these songs are perfect in their own way. That’s why I call them Mona Lisas.

Was the record something you laboured over in the studio?

Actually, it all happened really quickly. Everything was one or two takes. What I go for during the first hour with a song is to make the bed, so that when the lady gets in she really likes it. For me and these songs, the only thing I invest with laser-beam concentration is the fact that I like to make women happy. I don’t play for guys.

How did you start the ball rolling?

The first day in the studio we cut Sunshine Of Your Love, While My Guitar Gently Weeps and Back In Black. And that set the tone for the whole thing. When we were first trying Back In Black, I stopped the band halfway through. I said: “No, no, no. We can’t play it like this.” I went: “Y’know, at the risk of being rude or crude or raw, we can’t do it this way. We sound like Los Angeles studio musicians, and that’s not what I want. This isn’t how these songs are played. I want you to play like real mean motherfuckers.”

It was a motivational thing. I didn’t mean to disrespect Los Angeles musicians, but at the same time this isn’t bathtub jazz, it’s not background music. This is music you listen to on any level and it’s like, ‘Damn!’

Your great friend Eric Clapton played on the originals of two of the songs covered on Guitar Heaven: Cream’s Sunshine Of Your Love, and The Beatles’ While My Guitar Gently Weeps on which he played the guitar solo. What does he think of them?

Well, I sent it to him, but I haven’t heard back from him yet. So I’m hoping he’s still my brother and my friend. I’d worked with Rob Thomas [Matchbox 20 singer] before, on Supernatural, but this track is really powerful. I decided inwardly to open it right up, leaving some open spaces [sings his own Sunshine Of Your Love rhythm]. That gives it a feeling of ‘You eat, then you swallow.’ Know what I mean?

And it really works, because you don’t ever get tired of that riff. With the Beatles song, we had an intro to this, which I’d learned by listening to the way Wes Montgomery interpreted a few Beatles songs on an album with arranger Don Sebesky [1967’s A Day In the Life]. I feel grateful that we sent [George Harrison’s widow] Olivia this song to see how it felt to her. She sent me an email saying that while she was listening to it she jumped with joy and was crying at the same time. She told me that George knew about me and was aware that I had a deep capacity for compassion.

When you get a validation like that, your heart takes off like an eagle. I had to try and put aside any trepidation about doing a song like this. I mean, the original is a Beatles song with Eric Clapton playing guitar! But Eric’s my brother, and I do my best complement, rather than compete with, him. That’s why I didn’t feel any nervousness or conflict.

There are some less obvious choices on Guitar Heaven, too: the Def Leppard and Van Halen songs, for example.

No, Photograph and Dance The Night Away aren’t the most obvious choices, but they’re live’s song choices. Both of those were a little more challenging to bring to the Santana camp. For me, I needed to make Photograph dance like Puerto Rican women – it wasn’t just a normal dance. So I had to mess with it a lot more, while also respecting where it came from. But, like I say, I like to please the women, so we had to change the bed.

You proposed marriage to your drummer, Cindy Blackman, four songs into a Santana show in Illinois this summer. That’s a brave thing in front of an audience of many thousands.

It felt very natural and normal for me. I knew that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her and, the way she looks at me, I knew she felt the same way. So I just asked her: “Cindy, come over here.” She came over and I said: “Will you be my wife? Will you marry me?” And she said yes. It was as simple as that. The crowd went crazy. It was like we’d all just won the World Cup, scoring in the last minute of extra time: Goooaaaal!

Rob Hughes

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2008, and sister title Prog since its inception in 2009. Regular contributor to Uncut magazine for over 20 years. Other clients include Word magazine, Record Collector, The Guardian, Sunday Times, The Telegraph and When Saturday Comes. Alongside Marc Riley, co-presenter of long-running A-Z Of David Bowie podcast. Also appears twice a week on Riley’s BBC6 radio show, rifling through old copies of the NME and Melody Maker in the Parallel Universe slot. Designed Aston Villa’s kit during a previous life as a sportswear designer. Geezer Butler told him he loved the all-black away strip.