Few brands and players go hand-in-hand as much as Carlos Santana and Paul Reed Smith. In fact, the entire PRS-SE line was launched of conversations with Santana of making an affordable, quality, off-shore model into the hands of early players. Yet well before Santana and Paul teamed up, the former had a long and lasting relationship with another industry heavy-weight: Yamaha.
Incidentally, both Yamaha and Santana’s rise to fame ran parallel.
As Yamaha emerged as a premier builder and exporter of made in Japan acoustic and classical guitars in the late 1960s, by the end of the decade the wave of rock and roll had swept around the globe and left a demand for solid body electric guitars in its wake. As Yamaha sought to meet this need, their designs were at times dramatic and arresting and in others rather safe bets to appeal to an international market. For example, while the SG-40 had the look of a vintage Supro or Airline instrument, the SG-45 bore a family resemblance to a Gibson Les Paul or Guild.
Santana and crew were on a roll of an album almost every two years from the late 1960s. The world was getting used to a band where the lead guitarist was essentially the front man. With that type of front of stage exposure and hype, getting the right guitar in Santana’s hands was as much a marketing move as it was a creative one.
Though Yamaha’s growing SG models were increasingly known, they were yet to land a broad audience stateside. So in 1975, Yamaha reached out to Santana and offered to build a custom instrument. They initially offered Santana the SG-175. Though the guitar was mostly a match, Santana asked for a few improvements and fresh appointments.
The resulting design was the perfect blend of flare and precision to fuel Santana’s electrifying style. Visually, the guitar had some one of a kind features. At the butt of the body offset from the bridge was a massive pearloid Buddha figure that stood out in stark contrast to the natural stained wood around. These were balanced with a unique almost arrow-like type of fret inlays that drew your attention to the equally adorned headstock.
Sonically, Santana also insisted on some hardware features that would improve the sound. These included: growth to 24 frets on a one piece neck, a sustain plate below a wide-travel bridge, and a set of newly designed OPG-I humbuckers.
By the mid to late-1970s, Santana was routinely sporting his custom SG Budda. This partnership resulted in a spike in orders for the SG-175 and now SG-2000 around the world and particularly in the USA. As Yamaha grew this distribution they made a final tweak to the line. This time, the advice was not from their leading artist but from legal counsel. To avoid a potential lawsuit with Gibson over the use of the “SG” moniker, Yamaha made the subtle change to “SBG.”
Santana and Yamaha’s partnership thrived through the rest of the decade. However, by the early 1980s an emerging luthier with incisive and inspiring designs crossed Santana’s path. The bold young Paul Reed Smith turned up at a Santana gig unannounced and convinced a roadie to show his instrument to Santa backstage. When Paul was invited back for a meet and greet, he found Santana engulfed in incense and absolutely roaring up and down the fretboard on the prototype.
Safe to say, that this chance meetup effectively marked the end the Yamaha-Santana partnership and the beginning of a new one that would impact guitar gear and music history until the present day.