Carlos Santana has been in a life-long quest to find the “perfect” tone. Simultaneously, guitar maker Paul Reed Smith had the ambition of making a guitar for his hero: Carlos Santana. Luckily, the two met, and guitar history was made.
Paul Reed Smith and Santana: Before the Signature Model
Before his manufacturing company, Paul had developed a reputation as a custom guitar maker, with clients like Al DiMeola, Ted Nugent, and Howard Leese (Heart). The first time he and Santana met, Carlos was impressed with Smith’s personal guitar: P90 pickups, Mahogany body, and dragon fret-board inlays. Carlos asked to used the guitar on stage that night. He had troubles with the axe, but agreed to try another.
Santana eventually ordered his own guitar. One of his requests was a tremolo unit that would stay in tune. (At this point, one might ask: Why? Since Carlos rarely used one, it seems superfluous.)
Smith agreed, and Santana’s first custom made PRS guitar included a tremolo system with Stars Guitar bridge, and locking tuners. The guitar also featured Seymour Duncan pickups.
Santana Becomes a Believer
Although he loved the guitar, Santana cautiously termed it “an accident of God.” He may have been leery, after his long-term relationship with Yamaha, to tie himself down to one company.
There were several things that made the PRS guitar a good fit for Carlos, including the reachable high notes. In many ways, 24 frets is a perfect amount for a guitarist, as it allows a full four octaves without bending any notes: from low “E” to high “E.” Paul Reed Smith’s generous double cutaway made the high notes not just available, but easily accessible.
In addition, by using Mahogany for the body, Paul Reed Smith provided the enduring sustain and thick, woody tone that was so critical to Santana’s style — without the spine crushing weight of a Les Paul.
Finally was the curly Maple top, which appealed to Carlos’ aesthetic sense, and may also have added punch and clarity to the sound. Later, Smith created a second guitar for Santana, which Carlos also ascribed to divine intervention. By the third instrument, however, even Santana had to admit Paul knew what he was doing!
Paul Reed Smith Santana Signature is Born
Santana played PRS guitars for more than a decade — during which time Smith launched hs actual guitar manufacturing company. Finally, in the mid ’90s, he and Carlos decided to develop the PRS Santana Signature guitar. That model was only offered for a few years (1995 to 1998), but it helped to heighten the profile of Paul Reed Smith guitars in the industry.
It wasn’t until the next model was released (Santana II, around 2000) that the original guitar was referred to as the Santana I model.