Originally from a small, rural town in Mexico, Carlos Santana grew up in a musical household. His own father played violin and performed professionally with a mariachi band. Santana’s own abilities on the guitar brought him to America, where he would go on to influence the mainstream musical landscape from the ’70s all the way into a new millennium.
While America had a long history of infusing blues with R&B and rock and roll, Santana was the first commercial musician to infuse latin-inspired stylings with the electrified rock genre. He’s won countless awards for albums like Supernatural, and is critically acclaimed for his many collaborations with artists from Rob Thomas to Nickleback’s Chad Kroeger. A multi-generational talent, take a deep dive into the best Santana songs below.
10. Evil Ways
A latin-inspired, bluesy number about a man who’s pleading with his woman to change her hard-partying lifestyle so she’ll stay faithful to him, Santana and his band debuted ‘Evil Ways’ at the infamous 1969 Woodstock Festival in New York. Still a young, California-based band, they made a huge statement at the event with a killer set. They debuted their first album soon after, making sure to include set favorite ‘Evil Ways’ on the track listing. Singer Gregg Rolie headed up vocals for the grooving tune, and Carlos rips into an almost 2-minute guitar solo to top things off. This was a pivotal tune for Santana, but it wasn’t an original. It was written by guitarist Sonny Henry in the mid. ’60s. One of Santana’s biggest influences, latin-blues pioneer Willie Bobo recorded it first.
9. Into the Night (feat. Chad Kroeger)
A deeply spiritual track with plenty of R&B-inspired Santana riffs to kick things off, ‘Into the Night’ quickly breaks into a rock number with guest vocalist Chad Kroeger from Nickleback. This was the second collaboration between the two musicians, with top ten hit ‘Why Don’t You & I’ being their first duo effort together. The lyrics reflect Santana’s thoughts on angels, and how they come to save us when we need them most. The spiritual undertones of the track come full circle about two minutes in, when Carlos take off on a lengthy, passionate solo with latin percussion and Kroeger’s background vocals keeping a solid foundation. With an impactful story listeners can easily relate to, the pair scored another hit with this dreamy single.
8. Europa (Earth’s Cry Heaven’s Smile)
A moody, electrified jazz instrumental, ‘Europa’ remains one of Santana’s top songs. Before scoring collaborative number one hits with mainstream artists like Michelle Branch and Rob Thomas, Carlos was releasing music that landed him on Spanish charts time and again. He wrote this eclectic piece some time ago in the ’70s, but didn’t do anything with it for a few years. While attending an Earth, Wind and Fire concert and chatting with the band backstage, he played them the tune and they encouraged him to record it. Following a delicate progression similar to the highly-regarded jazz classic, ‘Autumn Leaves,’ Santana penned the instrumental for a friend at the time who was struggling with addiction. ‘Europa’ topped the “Spanish Singles” chart in ’76, and several jazz artists have gone on to cover the enduring piece.
7. Samba Pa Ti
A song that is now always included in Greatest Hits compilation albums for the guitarist, when Santana and his band first released it in 1970, their label never thought of ‘Samba Pa Ti’ as single material. Carlos was emotionally connected to the instrumental piece. It was the first song he felt he wrote in his own voice, without any other influences he grew up listening to and trying to emulate coloring the track. A dynamic, musical story that starts out soft and gentle and ends with a wide open rush, much to his label’s surprise, after they finally released it the single quickly climbed UK charts well into the top 40.
6. The Game of Love (feat. Michelle Branch)
After the massive success Carlos Santana had with his ’99 album, Supernatural, he was looking to do it again in the early 2000s. While he was searching for new music to record, the head of his label at the time, Arista’s Clive Davis, sent Carlos a demo cut of ‘The Game of Love.’ Davis considered it to be a long shot because it was a simple pop song, but Carlos liked it enough to try his hand at it, adding in his own latin flavor to spice up the mix. A song from a female perspective about the complications of early-stage romance, Santana first recorded it with Tina Turner, but Davis was trying to appeal to younger audiences so they ultimately went with breakout artist Michelle Branch who helped turn the fun track into a hit.
5. Corazon Espinado (feat. Mana)
“How it hurts to be alive, without having love at your side.” This hit single helped Santana clean house at the Latin Grammy Awards after the release of the critically acclaimed Supernatural album. Featuring guest vocalist Mana, the sexy tune tells a heartbreaking love story about a man who can’t get over his former flame who’s hurt him terribly, no matter how hard he tries. ‘Corazon Espinado’ was a huge hit in Italy and Spain, and took home multiple accolades including Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group at the Latin Grammy Awards show. Years later, Latina singer and Latin American Idol winner Mayré Martínez recorded a new rendition of the emotional tune that featured her near-super human vocal range, and it became one of her signature releases.
4. Maria Maria (feat. The Product G&B)
When Carlos wasn’t raking in awards at the Latin Grammys in 2000, he was stateside, winning several at America’s own Grammy Awards show for his blockbuster album, Supernatural. While ‘Corazon Espinado’ got him to the top of the charts in countries like Italy, ‘Maria Maria,’ featuring the duo “Product G&B,” helped Santana take the top spot on U.S. Billboard charts. Not only did he win a Grammy for his collab with this track, but he won a total of eight others, including Album of The Year. This sensual single incorporates the tale of the popular play West Side Story, focusing on the musical’s main character Maria, as Carlos adds sexy, flowing guitar riffs in between lines and verses.
3. Smooth (feat. Rob Thomas)
Carlos Santana is one of rock music’s most enduring and significant guitarists, which is partly why Supernatural was such a huge success. Behind the scenes though, legendary record producer Clive Davis was at the helm, pairing Carlos up with voices of the new rock generation as the team looked for chart success after Santana’s string of hits in the ’70s. The strategy worked several times over, including their teamwork with Matchbox Twenty frontman Rob Thomas for the album’s most popular hit, ‘Smooth.’ With a “classic Santana groove,” and romantic lyrics dedicated to Thomas’ wife Marisol, the single took radio by storm and completely relaunched Santana’s reign as rock innovators.
2. Black Magic Woman
Long before Santana’s pivotal Woodstock performance that propelled them into the international spotlight, Carlos loved heading out on the town in the late ’60s and catching one of his favorite blues band’s sets, Fleetwood Mac. Yup, you read that right. Before Fleetwood Mac went on to become mainstream rock royalty, they were known as a killer blues band among musician circles. Deeply inspired by former Fleetwood Mac member Peter Green’s tune ‘Black Magic Woman,’ he decided to work up his own live version. While he kept the song’s classic bluesy vibe, he added in latin percussive stylings and his own seductive guitar work by way of his Gibson Les Paul. While the song itself is considered to be one of the rock genre’s most innovative tunes, even more interesting is Carlos’ ability to infuse a song within a song. His epic guitar solo about halfway through is a reimagining of the instrumental ‘Gypsy Queen’ by jazz great Gabor Szabo.
1. Oye Como Va
Santana’s signature salsa-inspired track, ‘Oye Como Va’ appears on the group’s popular 1970 album Abraxas. A follow-up to their debut album, both ‘Black Magic Woman’ and ‘Oye Como Va’ were released on the record and soon became synonymous with Carlos’ unique sound. His incredible skills on guitar were obvious, but listeners and critics alike also discovered how talented of an interpreter he was with the release of this spanish tune. Originally written by Tito Puente in the ’50s, Santana’s cover release brought the grooving track into the mainstream and helped Puente gain much-deserved attention. Despite Carlos eventually becoming a multi-decade hit machine, ‘Oye Como Va’ has stayed in the limelight for over 40 years. The song not only represents the early days of Santana, but offers a glimpse into the rock phenomenon the band would become, with frontman Carlos leading the charge and laying down his spicy, latin-fusion “sabor” (flavor).