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This article was originally published in issue #48
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GI's Editor, Gary Cooper, interviewed Carlos Santana in 1978 and came face to face with the stunning Buddha inlaid Yamaha SG-175 that help revolutionise the world's view of Japanese guitars. It's not an encounter he would forget...
Interviewing Rock stars can be a fraught business - but not always for the obvious reasons. Take my encounter with Carlos Santana. It was 1978 and with almost no notice I'd been offered a chance to interview the man who was still, at that stage, a very hot property indeed. Gone were the hippy days. Santana had gone very spiritual having fallen (along with John McLaughlin, who had introduced them) under the influence of a guru known as Sri Chimnoy. The gig was that very evening and I'd been told to meet a man called Ray Etzler at the famous Hammersmith Odeon venue in West London.
There was no Internet in those days, so I was unable to do the first thing you'd do today, which is to research beforehand to find out who you were meeting and what was going on. All I knew was that Etzler was 'Mr Santana's manager'. I'm inclined to believe, looking back, that the legendary Bill Graham was actually Carlos's manager at that time and that Etzler was the 'on the road guy' but that aside, I'd been warned beforehand to tread carefully. Santana's latest album had not been well received by the general music press and it was suggested to me that he was not really very keen on being interviewed at all. I was told the best way to get him to talk was to sidle up to him and 'just start talking about guitars'. So, ten minutes before a man walks on stage at London's premier Rock venue, doesn't like doing interviews, and having just been mauled by the press, you somehow 'sidle up to him' in his dressing room and casually engage you him in guitar chatter. Fine. No pressure, then.
As it turned out, the prognostications were wrong. Mr Santana was very gentlemanly and seemed happy to talk about the stunning guitar he was strobe tuning while I asked dumb questions. It was the early Yamaha SG-175 that was going on stage with him that night, a Les Paul being relegated to first reserve. That was curious in itself as for some time Gibson had been heavily advertising the L6-S as Santana's favourite guitar, so for him to be strolling on stage with a Yamaha instead was, for me as a guitar hack (yes, even then), something quite significant. It was even stranger because, hard though it is now to believe, Japanese guitars in the mid-late 1970s were still regarded as lesser beings. Tokai would finally set that to rights in the early 1980s when it showed Fender what it was doing wrong, but even before Tokai came on the scene in the West, Yamaha took on the, then, dominant guitar brand, Gibson, and pretty much did to it what Honda and Toyota did to complacent European and American car manufacturers.
Santana, I recall, was clearly deeply impressed by his SG-175 and it wasn't hard to see why. The guitar was everything an L6-S wasn't. It had been hand made from Honduran mahogany and into the top was inlaid the most stunning abalone Buddha. The L6-S, for all its merits, was a pretty rudimentary beast in comparison.
That SG-175 guitar epitomised late 1970's thinking. It was heavy and had a pair of powerful humbuckers poking out great gobs of midrange. It even a brass 'sustain block' beneath the bridge. Back in those days it was more or less universally believed that the heavier a guitar, the better it sustained. It's an argument that has flowed back and forth ever since. Current thinking among younger players is that exactly the opposite is true but then, weight was regarded as a Good Thing and brass was even better - so much so that many fine vintage guitars had their bridges and nuts replaced with brass equivalents - all in search of that mythical sustain which, however he got it, seemed to pour out of Carlos's fingers, whatever he played.
What he loved about the guitar, he told me, was that it was so obviously hand crafted and made with such care. In my original article I made the observation that this wasn't really a fair comparison as an L6-S was a factory produced guitar (and one that fell from grace - my wife eventually picking one up secondhand in Rhode Island for $280!). Then again, Gibson in the late 1970s was a mess and it may have been the case that the company simply wasn't capable at that point in its history of the sort of lavish attention to detail that its Japanese rival showed. Or maybe they didn't cherish his endorsement? Who knows?
The story goes that Santana was later to report that the frets on the SG-175's ebony fretboard were too thin, and there were one or two other improvements he wanted. Already by then Yamaha's research team had more or less formulated what was to become the pinnacle of that era's sustain monsters, the SG 2000, which duly became Santana's main guitar until he switched brands once again, in the early 1980s, having been presented with an early Paul Reed Smith by its maker.
I had approximately ten minutes with Carlos before we went on stage. A lesser being would have kicked me out of the dressing room but he seemed completely unfazed. We talked about a brand of amplifiers that, at that time, hardly anyone in the UK was aware of (Mesa Boogie) and his use of a strobe tuner - an idea, he told me, he had picked up from Eric Clapton. There were no headstock clip-ons with LEDs in those days.
I can't pretend I greatly enjoyed the show. There were electrifying moments (there always are) when Santana's playing caught fire and, of course, his rhythm section was amazing but I was uncomfortable at having been put in the position of sticking a microphone under an artist's nose just minutes before he walked on stage. And, to be frank, some of the music left me cold. The reviewers might have been right about that album.
What really remains, though, is the memory of Carlos Santana as unflappable and gentlemanly, a fabulous guitar that summed-up contemporary thinking and the lesson that I learned that night. Take people as you find them, not as their assistants and attendants want to portray them.