Santana and the Guitar

February 24, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Carlos Santana’s big Grammy- winning night capped a remarkable comeback for one of rock’s most famous guitarists. Here’s a clip from his performance at the Grammy event in Los Angeles. The song is called “Smooth,” with singer Rob Thomas.

— performance —

JIM LEHRER: There’s a new book which charts the history and influence of the electric guitar. It’s called “Instruments of Desire.” The author, an amateur guitarist, is Steve Waksman. He’s a Professor of History and American Studies at Miami University of Ohio. Mr. Waksman, welcome.

STEVE WAKSMAN: Thank you, it’s good to be here.

JIM LEHRER: First, what is it that Carlos Santana does with an electricity guitar that makes him so great?

STEVE WAKSMAN: Well, Santana is a great player who comes from an era of great guitar heroes, and I think he is one of a number of guitarists like Eric Clapton and Jimmy Paige who really made the guitar into a great symbol in popular music of individual expression by drawing upon some of the earlier traditions that had been coming up through American popular music, especially the blues, which had a great influence on that generation of musicians. And I think part of Santana’s greatness nowadays is that he represents a set of values in popular music around the high quality of musicianship around virtuosity of electric guitar performance that a lot of listeners think has been lost in a lot of the music of the day when you hear music like Britney Spears and such – I don’t want to say too much about that. But I think a lot of listeners are looking for something different, something that goes back to an older set of values of musicianship and craftsmanship and inspiration that they’re not hearing in a lot of the music today. And that’s what Santana brings.

JIM LEHRER: In other words, technically he is a superb musician, is that what you’re saying? The way he plays the guitar he does it better than most if not better than anybody else?

STEVE WAKSMAN: I wouldn’t say better than anybody else. I mean, a lot of guitarists get tired with the impulse to rank as though it’s a sport. There is a lot of competition around playing the guitar better than whoever it is, but guitarists themselves tend not to want to look at things in those terms and I know Santana is a man with a great sense ever humility would not want to position himself as such. But, yes, the technical skill is definitely a big part of that but it’s more than that, I think. The blues impulse that underlies Santana’s music, that underlies so much of the music of that generation, also speaks to a deeper reservoir — a feeling among these musicians that when blended with the technical skill makes for something special. And I think that’s what the electric guitar has been. That’s been its main contribution is that combination of elements in the music of today.

JIM LEHRER: What happened to Santana? He made this tremendous comeback. That’s, of course, the headline of the day after last night. He was big in the 60’s, and then nobody paid any attention to him. Now here he is. What brought him back?

STEVE WAKSMAN: I think he is riding on a couple of difference waves. First of all, as I said, I think the fact that he is a musician that in some ways represents the values of an earlier era, a lot of young people, I know students of mine look to Santana as representing values that they don’t hear —

JIM LEHRER: You are talking about musical values, technical musical values?

STEVE WAKSMAN: I’m talking about all of that. I think that the music itself expresses certain values about what good music is, about how someone expresses themselves through music, but I think that also branches out into something that’s not just about music. It’s about taking something seriously, putting yourself into it, and trying to create something that really speaks to people.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Give us — let’s go through some history here on the electricity guitar for those of us who won’t know anything about this. Who invented it when did it happen?

STEVE WAKSMAN: Well, the invention is one of those things that’s a little bit of a contested term. Best guess is that it was invented around 1930 and probably by some inventors in California. There was a pair of brothers named the Dapiera Brothers who were building musical instruments out in California, a couple of immigrants from Eastern Europe. And they started trying to experiment with making guitars that could project more so that they could be heard —

JIM LEHRER: Make the sound louder, that’s what prompted it, right?


JIM LEHRER: That was their motivation?

STEVE WAKSMAN: Oh, yeah, definitely, but as musicians started taking it up, it wasn’t just about the pragmatics of making it louder. It was also about getting a different sound. And that’s where someone like Santana, for instance, I think really stands out. One of the things that is so unique about his guitar style is his sound — that he really knows how to master that sound.

JIM LEHRER: Well, now, the squares in the audience, including myself, here, would, the first one that we ever heard of was Les Paul in the 1950’s, what did he do to the electric guitar?

STEVE WAKSMAN: Les Paul did a whole lot for the electric guitar. He was a great inventor regarding the instrument. And that’s not to say he invented the instrument. But he made some modifications to the design of the electric guitar that had a great influence. The guitar I’m holding in my hand right now is what’s called a solid body electric guitar. And it’s different from the earlier models in that the earlier models were basically hollowed out acoustic instruments that had electronics put on them for amplifications. This kind of guitar has no hollow parts to it. It’s all based on the electronics. And that also means you get a different kind of sound —

JIM LEHRER: Is that the kind Les Paul developed.?

STEVE WAKSMAN: That is the kind that Les Paul developed.

JIM LEHRER: Can you play “How High is the Moon?”

STEVE WAKSMAN: Sure. I can try to. Let me say that the sound he got was something that I call a pure electric tone — one that was trying to eliminate all the distortion and the noise that later guitarists actually took as being the basis for what they wanted to do. So Paul’s pure electric tone he put into use on song like “How High is the Moon.” (playing) So it’s that clean tone of the electric guitar that Les Paul was most working on with his innovations in electric guitar design around the solid body guitar.

JIM LEHRER: Now, then Jimi Hendrix, he played the electric guitar.

STEVE WAKSMAN: Oh, he sure did. Carlos Santana can tell you something about that, because Carlos took a lot from Jimme in inspiration and in technique and everything.

JIM LEHRER: Who else should we know in modern day times?

STEVE WAKSMAN: In modern day times you mean like today?

JIM LEHRER: No. In the last — from Les Paul on in all kinds of different kinds of music, people who took the instrument that you are holding and did something special with it.

STEVE WAKSMAN: Well, the folks that I like to emphasize, a lot of black musicians who really moved the instrument forward and really tried to get a different sound, for instance, the Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and the whole school of Chicago Blues musicians who came up in the 1940’s and 50’s and who got away from the pure sound —

JIM LEHRER: What was their sound like? How did it differ say.

STEVE WAKSMAN: It was a little more dirty. It wasn’t quite like Hendrix but they were kind of the bridge to the dirtier, more distorted —

JIM LEHRER: What do you mean dirty?

STEVE WAKSMAN: Well dirty — I can plug in here and get something going on.



STEVE WAKSMAN: That kind of sound is something that’s a little more extreme than what the musicians in the 1950’s were doing, but they were laying the groundwork for making the electric guitar into an instrument that could express something different, that could express something that was more of a confrontation with mainstream values; whereas Paul’s sound I think was more of an accommodation to mainstream values. Jimi Hendrix took it to the next level and really took things far.

JIM LEHRER: Let me ask you – yeah — go ahead, I’m sorry – I didn’t mean to interrupt –

STEVE WAKSMAN: With the sound that he got which is more like what I just created and putting that into practice in a piece like the Star Spangled Banner or in pieces that were more strictly blues influenced but yet had that extreme approach to the music.

JIM LEHRER: Is it hard to play an electric guitar?

STEVE WAKSMAN: Well, it is as hard or easy as any. I think some purists who are really into classical music think that an electric guitar is too easy, because you’ve got the volume on your side; you don’t have to work as hard to make the —

JIM LEHRER: Are the finger manipulations and the knowledge of music that it requires the same that it would require for a regular guitar?

STEVE WAKSMAN: Yes, definitely, and there is the added complication of having to also know how to deal with the sound of the instrument. Electric guitars — to my mind — are most significant for paying attention to that sound and for making popular music itself sound differently through things like those different sounds I was just trying to play out there.

JIM LEHRER: All right. I hear you and I appreciate your coming and being with us tonight. Thank you very much.