Legendary guitarist on new records, friends, and the road to forever.
By: Steve Karras/Web2Carz.com
Legendary guitarist on new records, friends, and the road to forever.
Rock n’ Roll infamy can either by measured by sneer, attitude, or posturing—all the necessary badass rock star ingredients. And then there’s a legendary guitarist like ex-Eagle Don Felder, who embodies the flipside to all of those bizarre heroics that invariably come with the music. He’s a musician’s musician whose power and imagination has spawned some of the most memorable guitar lines (his introduction to “Hotel California” has been called one of the six most memorable guitar riffs of all time) ever played through a tube amplifier.
Nearly five decades after Glen Frey started calling him “Fingers”, Felder continues to make important music. In 2008, he became a New York Times bestselling author with Heaven and Hell: My Life in the Eagles (1974-2001) and has been on the road promoting his second solo album, Road to Forever. We recently talked to Don about his fruitful career and his lifelong love affair with music.
W2C: I always marvel at how great guitarists learned to play in the 50s and 60s, when they didn’t have tools like video instructionals, rock documentaries, and live performance films. There’s a great story about Paul McCartney getting on a bus to go to the other side of Liverpool to learn a B7 chord.
Who taught you to play?
Don Felder: I was born into a very impoverished circumstance—no money—my father worked as a mechanic and my mother worked at the drycleaners. We really had no spare money. There was no music store in Gainesville that taught music, and we couldn’t pay for music lessons, anyway. My dad used to have this old reel-to-reel tape recorder with two speeds on it (seven and half and three and three-quarters speed). He would borrow people’s records and record them on to the tape, and if I wanted to learn something, I would record it at seven and a half and slow it down to three and three-quarters. It would be exactly half-speed and an octave down. So, I would play it, play it, and play it until I could pick out the notes exactly where they were on the guitar. Eventually I got to the point where I could play it pretty well. It was the process of being self-taught, ear training. That was a skill I developed early on out of bare necessity, to tell you the truth. The harder part was learning how to teach myself how to read music and play it back. I know the melody and the song, but when I looked at it from the sheet music it was like Japanese to me. It took me a long time to learn what all that notation meant–time signatures and rests and sharps and flats. But I felt it was imperative to be able to learn to sight read, so I taught myself that too.
When did you learn to sight read?
There was a guy named Paul Hillis who had grown up in Gainesville and was a really good guitar player, and he went away to Berklee College of Music. When he returned, he was no longer playing guitar, which was much to my disappointment. I thought for certain that I would be able to use him to teach me, but he opened up this school called Hillis School of Music in Gainesville and he hired me to teach there. For every hour I would teach a new beginner guitar student, he would teach me music theory and enough about notation to keep me going. Also, every Wednesday a group of people who were studying music composition and theory from him would write a piece, either for a horn band, bass, piano, drums, guitar, and horns, and then we would play each other’s pieces. Not only did it force me to learn to write for brass, or drums, and bass, and write for piano, but it was really a great workshop for me to learn and develop my reading and writing skills. Finally, when I got in the studio in Boston to do session work, I had somewhat mastered the basics of it. But if producers and composers would come in and we’d do eight or ten tracks in a three hour session and throw down these sheets in front of you, they’d expected you to sight read.
Did you have jazz chops?
I studied jazz in Gainesville. I copied all of Howard Roberts’ solos off the reel-to-reel tape recorder and then I started buying Mel Bay Jazz guitar books, learning how to play major sevenths, augmented chords, diminished ninths, and all these forms of chords. So, when I got sheet music or song sheet music I would at least know what that chord was and could figure out pretty much anything in the charts. I just taught myself. There was no other choice really.
You were playing with a Jazz fusion band, right?
I had a Jazz fusion band that I went to New York with after Gainesville called FLOW, and the greatest part of that band was how I learned to improvise on the spot, much like jazz players do. We would have a couple of verses, a chorus, and these extended solo sections. One of the guys played a Hammond B3, a soprano saxophonist played like Miles [Davis] and then there was me. Between the three of us, we could step out and make up solos and those skills proved to be helpful in the studio with The Eagles. When it was time to write a solo, I’d just make up five or six different solo ideas and usually one of them would work. All of the skills I developed along the way—improvising, sight reading, writing charts, playing guitar on anything, producing singers, producing bands, engineering, and learning how to make records—were all necessary tools under my belt. So, when I got to LA and went into sessions I knew what microphones I needed on my amps as well as how to record guitar parts. I felt that the more I was capable of doing the greater the chance I’d have of making a living somewhere.
Louis Armstrong once said, “You’ve got to have the chops for the dots.” In addition to having the chops you at least knew the dots. And, what’s interesting is that all the music you were playing before the Eagles seemed to be more harmonically sophisticated than the growing trend of country rock at the time that you’d eventually be playing.
Yeah, but Bernie [Leadon] and I had a bluegrass band during the week in high school; I played flat top guitar, he played five string banjo, and another guy who played mandolin. I played everything, from blues, country, rock and roll, to Chet Atkins stuff, and it wasn’t a matter of sophistication.
Some people think Jazz is more sophisticated than country. For me, it was the challenge of stepping into that idiom and being able to learn it and make it my own—to be able to improvise in jazz or play steel guitar on an Eagles album. I love those challenges that test your musicianship.
I’ve never looked down on any job. For example, one time I had a job playing gut-string guitar at a Holiday Inn in Boston, playing movie themes while people ate their dinner. I’d do that until 9, then get on a train and play in a cover band, and I’d be back in the studio at 9 a.m. doing sessions. When it came time to re-arrange “Hotel California” in the unplugged version on Hell Freezes Over, I said, “If we’re going to do it non-electric we should do it on acoustic guitars.” At first I tried it on steel strings, but it sounded like a couple of flat pickers playing Hotel California. At the time that didn’t sit well with me. So, I picked up the nylon-string guitar and all the chops that I developed sitting in the Holiday Inn kind of came back to support me when I needed the skills. I enjoy the challenge of different types of music.
When I got to LA, Bernie had told the people at Geffen-Roberts management who managed Crosby Stills Nash, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Eagles, and Joni Mitchell that I was in town, was a great guitar player, and that someone should give me a shot. That was very nice of my old high school buddy Bernie to do. So, I got a call from someone at Geffen-Roberts that one of their artists, David Blue, who had written “Outlaw Man” for the Eagles’ second record, needed an accompanist to play with him in clubs, eventually opening for some bands. When they asked, “do you play mandolin?” I said I did. Then they asked, “do you play lap steel?” I said yeah, and I had never touched either instrument. (laughs).
How much time did you have to learn?
On a Thursday I drove into LA from Topanga Canyon to a place called Westwood Music to meet a guy called Fred Walecki. I said, “Fred, I have this gig but I don’t have any money but I need a mandolin and a lap steel.” He loaned me the instruments that night and said, “if you get the gig, pay me later.” So, I barely slept learning to play the parts that David Lindley had played on David Blue’s record. Then on Monday afternoon, I drove to Joni Mitchell’s apartment where David was living. I played for him and he said, “you got the job.” The next thing I knew, I was on a plane off to Denver to play a club. When word got back to Geffen-Roberts that I was doing a good job, they had me put a whole band together for David. Our first gig was opening up for the Eagles at the Santa Monica Civic Center.
You also eventually opened for Crosby Nash. Did you ever tell them that you had played in a high school band with Stephen Stills?
I never told them. When David Lindley got sick at the Watergate Hotel and I stepped in to take over his job, I would go out and play Stephen’s parts with them. When we got to Denver where Stephen was living he came out to sit in. So, I’m on stage playing, he comes up and he said, “what are you doing here?” I said, “I’m being you.” (laughs) It was the first time since he left Gainesville that we were seeing each other. I think David and Graham were overly impressed that I hadn’t named-dropped or thrown Stephen’s name around along the way.
Who were some of your favorite guitar players around the time you joined the Eagles?
Obviously, the late 60s players like Jimi Hendrix and Clapton were both a huge influence, all the way back to Dave Davies in the Kinks. Everybody wanted to have that nasty amp sound from the Kinks records. I learned to emulate Chet Atkins at 14. When I saw him live once in Daytona Beach he played this song, where on the bottom three strings he was playing Dixie, and on the top three strings was playing, “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” So, I stayed up all night until I learned how to play it until my brain was dead. There were a lot of things that came across my musical career that influenced me on a lot of levels and styles. But Duane [Allman] was always my primary influence, and was the best I’d ever seen play live.
Were your parents supportive?
My father loved the horn bands like Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller and was very encouraging. When I kept breaking my guitars he said, “If you’re going to keep breaking these, you’re going to learn how to fix them yourself,” so he taught me how to solder my guitars back together.
That had to have come in handy later on.
Absolutely, when the Eagles finished Hotel California and we were on the soundstage trying to figure out how to do the song live. I had played so many different parts on the record— the intro on a 12-string and the solos on a 6-string. It turned out that I got a double neck guitar, drilled another hole in the top, put another output jack, and wired it so the two guitars were segregated. When the switch was in one position, the output went out of one jack into a Leslie cabinet, with a little echo on it, and was mic’d for that simulation of the acoustic introduction. Then I could flip the switch down that would come out of another output which I wired to go into a pedal board for all the solo stuff. I remember while I was wiring the stage for all of that I thought, “I’m sure glad my dad taught me to solder.” (laughs)
Let’s talk about the new album. How did it come together?
As I was writing my autobiography and doing these series of daily meditations about specific areas of my life and my experiences (I’d gone through a divorce with my wife of 29 years and left the Eagles after 27 years) and I was having these emotional memory resurgences of experiences. There is one way to tell the story in text and the other way, which is an emotional release in music—to write, sing, and play. Since I have a studio in my home I’d take those ideas and develop them there.
The track “Life’s Lullaby” kills me. I wrote that for my little boy, who’s now three and a half, when his mom was about nine months pregnant, right towards the very end of her pregnancy. She just had that really wonderful glow about her, and anticipation of having her first child. It was just a beautiful moment that I wanted to capture in song and so I wrote that for the two of them.
“Fall from the Grace of Love” was written about my separation and divorce from my wife, which was one of the most heart-breaking times I’d ever been through. After promoting my book, and having my own band on the road for about 10 years, the one thing I wanted to have was new music to play on the road. So, I took the songs I’d written in the studio and took them to a producer named Robin DiMaggio, and we started building on top of these tracks—replacing drum machines with live drums, replacing my bass for Leland Sklar or Chris Cheney, depending on who we thought was most appropriate for that song. We did keyboard and percussion at another studio and we had it mixed by Ed Cherney, who probably has the most substantial record credits of anyone I know.
Writing is like a muscle.
How often are you writing to develop it?
I have piles of legal pads and notes on my Mac and iPad of song ideas and lyric lines that run through my head. I try and allocate a block of time to flush out a track idea, demo, and guitar licks, and then spend a couple of days working on it before putting them away.
And then you come back to them?
Yeah, it seems to work for me. That’s what I did when I wrote for the Eagles. It’s kind of like writing for a sitcom. I know how Henley plays, I know I can’t write drum parts that are too complicated that he can’t sing and play at the same time; I know everyone’s vocal range, so I know what keys they have to be written in. I know how Joe [Walsh] and I play together, so I could write for that specific cast of characters. Once I had the hand-cuffs taken off, when I left the band I could write anything.
But you seem to have the luxury of a rolodex of some of the finest musicians to call in and help.
Well, part of it is knowing styles and talents well enough to know who to call in and play on what track. On the song “Someday,” the best bassist that I know in Los Angeles is Randy Jackson. Everybody says, “You mean the guy on American Idol.” He’s just a monster and he was able to come in and throw his magic on that track. For me his playing took that track another level. Randy’s a bright, up, and positive personality.
[Guitarist] Steve Lukather also came into play on Road to Forever. He’s one of the funniest guys in the music business and is an amazing player. I knew he’d walk in with a great, uplifting spirit to that song and nail it.
Is that kind of positivity a far cry from your past experience?
Well, with the Eagles, there was a great deal of arguing and contentiousness and drama. Going into the studio this time with a lot of easy-going and talented people, I had a ball. There was no drama and for me it made the entire experience a delightful one.
I think that anyone who has been in a band (garage or otherwise) knows that it’s no-less a marriage than any kind of relationship.
Look, I’ll tell you that the Eagles had five extremely talented people in it. Everybody could write, sing, and play. And, every one of us could have fronted their own band. So, anytime you get triple type A-plus personalities in the same room, there’s going to be a struggle for whose song is going on a record, what lyrics are good, who is going to play, sing, etc. There’s always the question, “Who’s at the helm of the ship?” There’s always that kind of struggle. And, when I was out of the band, doing my own record, there was none of that. Now, granted, a lot of that contentiousness and disagreements that took place in the Eagles really proved to produce some amazing recordings together. I don’t think anyone individually has come close to that degree of success.
Are you in touch with any of the old band mates?
Bernie and I exchange birthday cards. If he’s in LA or I’m in Nashville we see each other. I just talked to Randy [Meisner], whose health is sort of an issue these days.
Are you able to compartmentalize your thoughts and look back on your experiences fondly?
I count my blessings every day. I look at the path I have led, from an impoverished upbringing on a dirt road in Gainesville, through all the trials and tribulations of starving in NY, working in a studio in Boston, and getting to LA and it’s a real insight into the good and bad that life can bring you. I choose to look primarily at the good, but remember that there were some bad times as well, and learn from those, and go forward without making the same mistakes in the future.
Do you still get the same jolt from playing music that you did as a teenager?
I was bitten when I [was] ten years old, and whatever poison was in that bug still pulses through my veins today. I love playing music, and I’ll do it until arthritis stops me. When I think of playing music, I think of kids playing together and the enthusiasm, and the joy of doing it. To me, that’s what music playing is. You don’t say, “I have to go work music.” You go and play music. It should be fun, uplifting, and joyous. That’s what my approach is these days.