The Eagle Soars

By Paul Rigg

Don Felder (21 September 1947) is an American guitar legend who was a key member of The Eagles, with whom he played for over a quarter of a century. Among his enormous contributions to the band, he cowrote the huge international hit Hotel California.  

Felder also played and toured with Crosby and Nash, among many others, and in 2008 published a critically-acclaimed autobiography Heaven and Hell: My Life in the Eagles (1974-2001).

Beyond his studio albums with The Eagles, Felder has three solo albums, including his latest American Rock ‘n’ Roll (released
5th April 2019).

Guitars Exchange
catches up with Felder on the phone while he is at his Los Angeles home. He is busy preparing his suitcases to go on tour and is juggling press interviews with rehearsing his new songs. “It’s one thing to write the lyrics and to have them on a music stand while you are singing them, but it is another thing to do vocals and new guitar parts live in a show,” he says. Nonetheless, despite that stress and many problems with the call’s sound quality during the conversation, he is always patient, polite and thoughtful in his responses; and in fact manages to transform a difficult experience into one of the best interviews this magazine has ever done. Here, Felder opens up about his early days, being taught slide guitar by Duane Allman, and the thrill of recording his latest album.

GE: You have recently pre-released your album’s title single, ‘American Rock ‘n’ Roll’...can you tell us about the inspiration behind it?

DF: Yes, I had been thinking of my experience of being at Woodstock in 1969 - not performing but just as a spectator - and seeing
Jimi Hendrix; Carlos Santana; Janis Joplin; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and all those people who were there, and thinking that it was just an incredible moment. Not just for myself; it may have been the largest nuclear rock explosion heard around the world! I was heavily influenced by witnessing that, and also by the fact that over the decades a lot of the people who had gone on to become successful icons themselves had been influenced by that scene of American rock ‘n’ roll. So I thought it would be good to write a song about that evolution and instead of just writing and recording this song, it seemed to me that I should have some of that musical influence on this record. So I asked [Fleetwood Mac’s] Mick Fleetwood if he would play drums on it - we used to co-headline together back in the 70s, we played golf and did charity work together, and became friends – because I knew that he had the perfect sound drum-wise, to start this thing off with an early 70s kind of feel. Later, about half way through, [Red Hot Chili Peppers’] Chad Smith joined us, and it suddenly felt like a 500lb gorilla was on the drums – the power, strength and energy that Chad played with really elevates that track.

If you look back to the music in the early 70s, and later in the 80s and 90s, that growth in rock ‘n’ roll musically [was partly in the] drums, so it was a great combination to have Mick and Chad on it. On the other hand I had written this one verse about Guns n Roses and mentioned Axl Rose and, as
Slash lives right down the street from me, I thought it would be great to have him play a little in the middle of that verse, so I called him up and he came up to my studio with his guitar and, suddenly, I had a fresh and different tone to play off of. The whole thing fell together in a very organic way and it kind of demonstrates the growth of Rock ‘n’ Roll from Woodstock on to the current times. 

GE: Is there a song that for you has a special story behind it?

DF: Yes, there is a song that I asked Peter Frampton to play on, which is a ballad about heartbreak, called The Way Things Have To Be. I wrote the song on piano, which is rare for me. I asked Peter to do this, almost two years ago - because he has a certain beautiful, almost magical tone -, and he said ‘sure’. But later he announced that his next tour would be his last, because of his physical decline, and when I heard that, I thought the song title was kind of ironic, and fitting, for what he must have been going through at the time. It is a sad story, but it has ended up as probably the most apt title on the record. 


GE: Are there any other songs on the album that particularly stand out for you?

DF: Yes I like the song Rock You, which we’ll probably start doing when we play the bigger Summer stadiums. Then there is a song called Falling in Love Again which has a really nice guitar solo at the end of it. [In relation to that song] I have been working with a master builder at the Fender Custom shop to build me a guitar that has three different sounds in it: one is a Strat with a splittable humbucker pickup down by the bridge, so that when it is all the way down there is a single coil, and when you come up to the second position on the five position switch there is a humbucker in the back, and when you come to the middle position there is a DiMarzio pickup in the bridge that is going to be able to go out of another output into a DI and right into the house, so that will be an acoustic sound - so I can play acoustic, Les Paul, and Strat. Then up at the neck pickup position there’ll be a sustain; as there are a couple of moments when I’ll play a kind of long sustain in the solo. In fact, we are actually building a guitar so that I can play that song live! [Laughs] 

GE: Do you have any other special anecdote about your new album that you could share with us?

DF: Yes, an interesting sideline, which has gone un-noted, is that it is Bernie Taupin’s artwork on the front cover. A friend of mine opened this brand new hotel last year in Nashville and had invited me to the opening, and Bernie was exhibiting his art in the hotel lobby; we have known each other since the 70s when The Eagles played with Elton John at Wembley Stadium, so it was a nice reunion. I really loved his art, so when later we were doing American Rock ‘n’ Roll I remembered one which had a Stratocaster with an American flag wrapped around it and I asked him if he’d allow me to use it on the album cover, and he was delighted to do so. So that provided another contribution from a musical icon; but in the artwork.

GE: Could you describe your creative process for us?

DF: Yes, I spend a lot of time singing into my iPhone. I can’t do it on the freeway because I’ll be stopped by the police, but even if I am just sitting and watching a movie, I might record something, and then later I’ll go and get my acoustic guitar and figure out what that progression is. When I have the time I’ll go into my studio, and plug my iPhone into a little amp and then I’ll put bass and some guitar on it, and create a sketch, pretty much like what I did for Hotel California. I learnt years ago to write things down, record it on a little digital recorder or an iPhone; otherwise it’s just gone, it’s like a dream, you need to capture it when it’s fresh. So I’m constantly collecting guitar parts, lyrics and whatever, until I have enough time to go into the studio and actually turn them into a tune.

GE: Going back to your childhood now, I read that you got your first guitar at 10 years old - what brand was it?

DF: I have no idea; all I remember is that it had a crack in the front and it was missing a few strings. At that time I used to return old Coke bottles, I think I got two cents a bottle, and when I had enough money I’d go to the store and buy some Black Diamond strings. I couldn’t afford to buy a whole set, so I would buy one missing string one week, and another missing string the following week [Laughs]. Once I had all the strings I needed I asked a guy who lived around the corner to tune them up for me. He did that and then showed me some chords to play, and a really simple song called Red River Valley.

I would leave my school in Florida around two or three o’clock and I’d walk home, because both my parents worked, and I’d sit on the porch trying to figure out how to play, because we didn’t have enough money for music school or classes. Then eventually we’d record music on tape recorders and play them at half-time, so as to more easily hear the notes that were being played. They would be an octave down, but you could work it out, and then I would start practising so I could play along with the record.  

Later my dad bought me a Silvertone Archtop acoustic guitar, mail order, no cutaway, with F holes in it, but I wanted to play rock ‘n’ roll so later I saved up and added a De Armond pick up. Then, instead of buying an amp, I used to plug the guitar into the back of our black and white TV, as it had a jack in the back, …  So I would sit around on  Saturday mornings and watch cartoons with the sound off, but playing guitar; I guess I was writing my first film score! [Laughs]

So that was my first real guitar. After that my dad found a used Duo-Sonic, and it had a little Tweed Champ amp with it, so that was the coolest thing that I had in my life. It was a solid body electric guitar. The amp wasn’t loud, which was a good thing because our neighbours were so close they would have been complaining the whole time if I’d had a bigger amp! 

I have a couple of Champs now and I used one when I recorded the Eagles’ Victim of Love; everyone thinks it was a Marshall, but it was just an old Tweed 57 Champ. Now I’ve got a few amps that have been modified by Alexander Dumble, he does magical things. I have a Fender Dumble amp, for example, called a Little Tiger.

GE: Some years later, I understand that Duane Allman taught you slide! How did that come about?

DF: We kind of grew up together. His mother lived in Daytona beach and they were always coming to Gainesville for parties at the weekend, and my band, and later
Tom Petty’s band, were playing those same fraternity parties. During the summer when the universities were closed we would go to Daytona and play clubs. They always had a band playing out on the pier, and the Allman Brothers would be there, and so we became friends. We all would get off at about one in the morning and we would go to a diner, and Greg and Duane and myself and Bernie Leadon would go and have breakfast at like two in the morning, and then we would go and crash on their couch in their mum’s house.

So one night we were sitting there and Duane was playing slide and I said: ‘you’ve gotta show me how to do that, how do you tune this thing?’ So he showed me how to tune it to a regular D major chord, and he had a Coricidin [medicine bottle] model on his finger - this was before slides were actually made – and he showed me how to pull down on the fifth, and how to slide up on the third, and make things go a little flat on the third so it is not like a perfect true third, but more of a bluesy tone; and how to pull up on a fifth and a seventh at the same time; he showed me the basics. I never tried to copy him; he was so far advanced beyond anything I was able to do. There was nothing on record that I could listen to and learn his style; but I did develop my own style based on his foundation.  

We were always in ‘Battle of the Bands’ together, when the Allman Brothers Band was called The Spotlights or the Allman Joys, or something, and they won every battle; they were by far the greatest band to come out of that neighbourhood. I always had the ultimate respect for Duane and Greg, and that whole band.


GE: Later on you joined Crosby and Nash; how did that come about?

DF: It happened in a really unusual way as they had hired David Lindley, who is a brilliant musician, and I was playing with a guy called David Blue as their opening act - because Nash had produced David Blue’s record and he wanted Blue to be on the show to help promote it. We got to Washington DC and David Lindley got really sick and so Graham called me up and said ‘Don, I’d like you to go and get your guitar and come up to my room.’ So I said ‘ok!’ and I grabbed an acoustic and went up to his room, and we sat there and went through all the songs, and then he said: ‘you’re playing the show tonight!’ So I played David Blue’s show and then came back out and played Crosby and Nash’s show; David Lindley was really sick and had to go home, so I finished the rest of the tour. I expected David to return afterwards but they decided that having one guitar player playing those shows, and only having one hotel room instead of two, was better. I was very happy to be with them as they paid me 1,500 dollars a week at the time, and in 1973 that was a lot of money; it would be the equivalent of five or 6,000 dollars a week today.  

Then I got a call to play slide guitar on a Good Day in Hell with The Eagles, and was asked the following day to join them, so I had to go to Graham and ask him what I should do, because my wife was pregnant with our first child and 1,500 dollars was a lot of money; I could raise a family on that. And Graham said ‘you need to go and join that band, you don’t want to be a sideman for the rest of your life; it will be a great career move for you and you should go to it.’ So I took Graham’s advice and left Crosby and Nash.

GE: What was the main difference between playing with Crosby and Nash and The Eagles?

DF: Both groups had impeccable vocals but there was a lot of tension between Crosby and Nash and a lot of tension amongst the Eagles, so I kind of went from one turbulent band to another; but I was a full one-fifth member with The Eagles and I was just a sideman with Crosby and Nash. 

GE: How would you describe your relationship with Graham Nash?

DF: Graham Nash and I have been friends on and off since ’73 and our paths have crossed numerous times. Actually I saw him when I was in High School because The Hollies played at the University of Florida and I went to watch him sing – I just loved his vocals, even in the days of The Hollies.

GE: Do you think that tension in Crosby, Stills and Nash and in The Eagles was necessary for the bands to be creative?

DF: I think any time you get that many ‘A type’ personalities – any one of them could have been, and have been, the front man -, you put those people together, with that much talent, there are going to be disagreements, conflicts, differences of opinion, for example, about what songs should be recorded – but the result of wading through all of that with The Eagles, I think, produced some of the best recordings that we have ever done in our lives.

GE: Your wife said she has the original demo of ‘Hotel California’ on her iPod … is there any any chance that piece of history will be released one day?

DF: Yes, I think so, because a lot of people have asked me to release it. But one thing is that it is in the key of E minor, which was the original key that I wrote it in, which is a much better guitar key than B minor. But it was too high for Don Henley to be able to sing, so we had to lower it to D minor – still too high; C minor -still too high; A minor - too low; and so we wound up with B minor. So if you look at me playing it, there’s always a capo on the seventh fret, which puts it in an E minor chord, but for all the solos it is not a usual key that you play in. Everything had to be changed from my original demo into that other key. I don’t think it will come out anytime soon, but I think it will be released after my passing.

GE: Your duo with
Joe Walsh on ‘Hotel California’ is considered by many to be one of the best guitar duos ever. Is there any other guitarist you’d like to play that solo with?

DF: Well Peter Frampton and I have played it, and that was a lot of fun. I love Peter I love his tone and his style, and he plays with a big smile on his face, which is even more inspiring. Orianthi has played that with me – she is on this new record, with Richie Sambora, on the track called Limelight. About a month ago we did that for a charity fundraising, and
Billy Gibbons, Orianthi, Stephen Stills, and a bunch of other people played it with me, and it was just great. But it doesn’t quite feel the same as when Joe and I play it together.   

GE: Glenn Frey passed on January 18, 2016…is there something more that you never said to him that you would have liked to?

DF: I made a comment on that when he passed, and I would like to leave it there. That is what I wanted to say and I’ve said it; so ‘no comment’. [* Felder’s statement is repeated in full below]

GE: Turning to guitar questions,
if your house was on fire, which guitar would you grab to take with you?

DF: My ’59 Les Paul.   


GE: You once said that ‘guitar magic is in the player’s fingers’…but is there something ‘magical' in the 59 Les Paul?

DF: No, but there’s something magical that comes out of me when I play it. I’ve had that guitar since, I think, ‘73 or ’74. I know everything about it and it’s responsive to my touch. It has been the love of my life and we get along unbelievably well; it’s like cuddling up to someone that I’ve known for 40 years.  

GE: And if you had to grab
one acoustic guitar from your collection as you left your burning house, which would it be?

DF: I have a ‘64 or ‘65 Martin D35. When I was working in a music store in Gainesville, they sold a lot of Martin guitars, and so every week we would get a shipment of acoustic guitars from Martin, and I would go through, in my spare time, every guitar that came in. I would take the best one out and set it aside. I would then sell the remaining ones until the next shipment came in; then once again I’d choose the best and sell the other ones off from the previous shipment. After about six months of this, this one D35 came in that was just spectacular – the tone of it, the playing of it, the resonance of it, was just brilliant. And as a matter of fact it is on just about every Eagles record, where there is acoustic, up until the day I left the band. It was the best sounding acoustic that any of us had. 

GE: What plans do you have for 2019?

DF: I am doing extensive touring and promotion of this record. When I’m home on my days off I go into my studio and start recording, as I am consciously trying to focus on getting another record out in the next two or three years. I do that instead of taking time off; I don’t even know what taking time off is anymore, to tell you the truth!  [Laughs]

Guitars Exchange
closes the interview by thanking Don for his time and apologises for the poor call sound quality, and he responds “I appreciate your time to do this. I wish we could have had a better connection; maybe next time we can get on a T1 line, with headpones on, and a nice microphone, so we can actually hear each other, and make the whole thing better.” But in reality, with Don Felder’s enormous goodwill, clarity and generosity of spirit, the interview could not have gone much better; we hope you agree.


Don Felder’s statement on Glenn Frey’s passing:  

“Glenn’s passing was so unexpected and has left me with a very heavy heart filled with sorrow. He was so young and still full of amazing genius. He was an extremely talented songwriter, arranger, leader, singer, guitarist – you name it – and Glenn could do it and create “MAGIC” on the spot. His visions and insights into songs and lyrics have become legendary and will echo throughout time on this earth for decades to come.

Glenn was the one who invited me to join the Eagles in 1974, and it turned out to be a gift of a lifetime to have spent so many years working side by side with him. He was funny, strong and generous. At times, it felt like we were brothers and at other times, like brothers, we disagreed. Despite our struggles and difficult moments together, we managed to create some magical songs, recordings and live shows. His charisma on stage was felt and loved by millions of people all over the world. I have many wonderful memories of those years and the many miles I traveled with Glenn, filled with laughter, song, parties, hugs and brotherly bonds.

Glenn was the James Dean of the band. He was the leader that we all looked to for direction and by far the coolest guy in the band. It saddens me a great deal that we were never able to address the issues that came between us and talk them through. Sadly, now we will never get the chance. The planet has lost a great man and a wonderful musician today. None will ever be able to take his place. May you rest in peace Glenn Frey, and may God bless you and your lovely family.”