1969 was a thrilling year for guitar virtuoso Carlos Santana and the band bearing his surname. They had recorded their first album and played Woodstock — where Santana wielded his SG Special like a Viking warrior — before its August release, creating a buzz that sent “Evil Ways” into the pop singles top 10 and Santana to number four on Billboard’s albums chart. By the time they returned to the studio in 1970, they were superstars and a tough act to follow – even for themselves.

The band had been playing most of the songs on Santana for three years. “All of a sudden, we had to go hunt for or create new songs,” Carlos told Rolling Stone writer Ben Fong-Torres in a 1998 interview. “There was pressure to come up with a follow-up to the first, which was so successful, with something as good or better.”

But Carlos and his cohorts — drummer Michael Shrieve, bassist Dave Brown, singer/keyboardist Greg Rolie, and percussionists Jose Areas and Mike Carabello — did exactly that with Abraxas. The recording sessions from April 17 through May 2, 1970 compelled the band to grow and gel in new ways, and drove Carlos to put a finer edge on his guitar tone. That, plus Shrieve’s replacement of original drummer Bob Livingstone and the recruitment of Fred Catero, who’d worked with Big Brother & the Holding Company and Chicago, to co-produce Abraxas with Carlos allowed Santana the band to play more subtle and complex arrangements, and to record them better.

As a result, Abraxas was one of the best-sounding LPs of 1970. “Black Magic Woman” reached number four and “Oye Como Va” number 13 on the pop charts, and those songs along with “Incident at Neshabur” and “Hope You’re Feeling Better” remain beloved staples of Santana’s live performances 40 years later.

Carlos was still playing Gibson SGs for Abraxas. His two main guitars were the red SG Special with P-90 pickups he played at Woodstock and a sister instrument with humbuckers. In 1972, he would switch to Gibson Les Paul Standards and Customs, and later in the ’70s he occasionally used a white Gibson SG Custom with three pickups and a Gibson L-6S.



His goal was to find tones that were subtler, yet beefier than those on Santana. So Carlos experimented with amps during the preproduction and recording period of Abraxas, trying Marshalls and Fenders onstage, but ultimately relying on a Fender Twin Reverb, typically opened all the way up, for the sessions, just as he had for Santana. Guitar lore has it that Carlos’ Twin was modified, possibly by Bob Gallien, who had sold the guitarist his first prototype Gallien-Krueger amplifier in 1968.

To achieve the more subtle chords, volume effects and melody lines woven into the fabric of tunes like the opening “Singing Winds, Crying Beasts” and “Incident At Neshabur,” Carlos employed a few techniques that have become standard for performing six-stringers today. He would turn up his guitar’s volume knob at the end of certain notes or hit a note with the volume rolled all the way off and then turn it up to achieve a swell. He also pointed his guitar’s pickups toward his amp to achieve feedback — a move every heavy rock guitarist who saw Jimi Hendrix quickly copped. And he used the studio trick of overdubbing, doubling some of the dramatic screaming, sustained notes he played on tape to add heft.

Although the cornerstones of Santana’s sound on Abraxas are his Gibson SGs, volume and the pureness and control of his touch, there are spots where he audibly used a wah-wah pedal to attenuate his tone. On “Samba Pa Ti” he left the pedal cocked to an open position throughout the song, achieving a sweet, warm distortion that produced the album’s most subtle guitar tone. The wah also appears on “Hope You’re Feeling Better,” where it’s more slashing.

Beyond his own explorations, the larger question bearing on Carlos was where to take the band. “Black Magic Woman” nearly fell into their collective lap. One benefit of superstardom was the new friends it attracted, from Miles Davis — who phoned Carlos during the sessions to offer best wishes — to early Fleetwood Mac’s Les Paul guru Peter Green. The British guitarist lobbied Santana to play his tune, explaining that it had taken him a year to convince his own group to record “Black Magic Woman” and that they didn’t want to play it. At a pre-concert sound check Carlos led the band through “Black Magic Woman” into a segue with Gabor Szabo’s “Gypsy Queen” and was so pleased with the results that the band recorded both tunes the same way in the studio. The “Gypsy Queen” tag was edited away for Top 40 radio.

Carlos also decided that he wanted to further the group’s dedication to Latin music with jazz elements. That allowed him to make the best use of drummer Shrieve, who had proved himself a master of polyrhythms with his solo at Woodstock during the group’s performance of Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice.” Abraxas’ “Oye Como Va” and “Incident At Neshabur” became the centerpieces of this pursuit.

“Oye Como Va” was originally recorded by Tito Puente, the great New York City-born Afro-Caribbean bandleader and composer of Puerto Rican descent. “I thought, ‘This is a song like ‘Louie Louie,’” Santana told Ben Fong-Torres. “This is a song that when you play it, people are going to get up and dance.”

He was right. The relaxed patter of the drums and percussion along with dynamic breaks and Carlos’ simple, gently swinging melody immediately pushes the hips.

“Incident At Neshabur” is far more cerebral. The instrumental was composed by Carlos with blues and jazz pianist Albert Gianquinto. The tune’s brisk tempo changes, dense harmonic colors, groove-oriented breakdowns, polyrhythmic drive and slamming improvisational guitar solo are complex and intoxicating — so much so that B-3 player Rolie recalls thinking “I hope I make it through this!” while the tape rolled in the studio. The song has since become a springboard for grandiose improvisations live, sometimes expanding its original 4:58 to nearly a half-hour. It also helped establish Santana as one of the earliest harbingers of the World Music scene. Reviewing the disc in Rolling Stone upon its September 1970 release, Jim Nash proclaimed that Santana “might do for Latin music what Chuck Berry did for the blues.”

Carlos Santana achieved his goal of creating a better sounding and more successful album than his band’s debut with Abraxas, and satisfied his desire to make richer, more complex music. To date, Abraxas has sold more than five-million copies.