Although he’s grabbed a Strat from time to time, Carlos Santana has always gravitated towards humbucker-loaded guitars: first Gibson’s SG, Les Paul, and L5-S models; Yamaha SC-2000 axes later in the 70’s; and Paul Reed Smith electrics since 1982. Today, he plays on one of several PRS Carlos Santana models, all based on the original guitar built for him by the guitarmaker.
Carlos current favorite PRS is dubbed “Number 1”. This gold-stained guitar is a replica of the original PRS that Paul built for him many years ago, but it differs from the production Santana in a few ways.It has no tone control and a single volume control, while mini toggle switches control de neck and bridge pickups. The peghead and wooden truss rod cover boast custom mother-of-pearl inlays (the bird motif is common to all PRS Customs). Identical copies of this guitar were built for Carlos, including a turquoise model with a PRS tremolo and separate volume and tone controls. Each guitar has mini toggle switches to activate the pickups or turn them off. For the occasional acoustic parts he plays onstage, Carlos also uses an Alvarez-Yairi Electric Classic nylon-string.
His amp journey started with ancient Fender Twins and Gallien-Krueger amps. But then Carlos hooked up with yet another “Smith” -this time with guru Randy Smith- and the result has been a 20-plus-year association with MESA/Boogie amplifiers. With Boogies on the backline and PRS in his hands, Carlos has codified a sound that has become synonymous with soulful rock guitar.
The essence of Santana’s tone can be recreated with the combination of humbucking pickups and a tube amplifier. If you already have a good solid body electric -preferably with a maple body and maple top (like PRS or Les Paul)- you need to find a good amp, preferably a tube model. Carlos gravitates toward a warm, creamy amp sound that really accentuates the neck-humbucker pickup setting he often uses. MESA/Boogie Amps are renowned for their multi-stage pre-amps that create a “saturated” type of gain, that is, super rich and full of sustain and harmonics. This might sound like the formula for a heavy metal guitarist’s tone, but within the context of Santana’s music the result is light and elegant. Santana’s original Boogies were 1x12 combos, but today he employs several 4x12 stacks onstage for maximum impact.
Carlo's live setup is elegantly simple. His MESA/Boogie amp rack contains two Mark I heads and a Mark IV Head. The top Mark I is for quintessential Santana lead tone -think "Europa" or "Samba Pa Ti". The one underneath is its backup. The Mark IV on the bottom is used for especial guests who come onstage to jam, or occasionally, for clean guitar parts.
On the right is the "Heartbreaker rack". On top is an Alesis QuadraVerb II. Carlos uses a program called Ambient Chorus, to which he adds 510ms delay to beef up the "Marshall sound" he uses for power cords. This Marshall type sound -a big, fat rock tone with plenty of bottom end- is delivered by a Heartbreaker head. If Santana is going through the Mark I and decides to pump it up, he can turn on the Heartbreaker head, combining the two for an even fatter tone.
A second Heartbreaker underneath is used for clean tones. Each of the Heartbreakers drives a 4x12. There's a slave signal from the clean Heartbreaker that also goes into the Boogie SimulClass 2:90 power amp located under the QuadraVerb. This power amp goes out to power the two Revolvers, which are MESA/Boogie's answer to a Leslie rotating speaker cabinet. These are always on for clean parts.
His cabinets include a Boogie with 1x12 Altec speaker (main lead tone from the Mark I head), a Boogie 4x12 (powerd by the top Heartbreaker head for the "Marshall sound", a Revolver rotating-speaker cabinet, another Boogie 4x12 (bottom Heartbreaker for clean), and a Fender Twin to run an old Echoplex for spacey effects, often used at the end of "Exodus". It also serves as a last resort backup amp, or if he simply decides he wants to play with a little Twin sound.
On his pedalboard, Carlos has an amp switch which can turn any amp on or off, both independently and in combination. Next is the QuadraVerb bypass pedal (marked "Echo Bypass"), follow by an Ibanez Modulation Delay pedal labeled "Boogie Echo" (this is in Boogie Mark I's signal path). On the far right of the board is a Mu-Tron wah-wah from the early 1970's.*
*Taken from Gear Secrets Of The Guitar Legends
Check out The PRS SE Santana Review by Guitar World's Paul Riario: