Don Felder reflects on Eagles heights, Jimmy Page kinship, beauty of improvisation upon summer shows

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MARIETTA, Ohio (WOUB) – The Eagles’ Greatest Hits (1971-1975) is the biggest-selling album in American history. Incredibly, however, the Eagles’ greatest hit song was yet to come.

As their first hits collection glided atop Billboard’s albums chart, the Eagles commenced recording their high-stakes next studio album. Guitarist Don Felder cut demos for numerous new instrumentals at a Malibu home that he rented with his wife and two young children. Among them was an astonishingly hypnotizing composition with a 12-string guitar. Eagles bandmates Glenn Frey and Don Henley latched onto this track immediately — and it was given the working title of Mexican Reggae, as they were mesmerized by the seemingly disparate Latin and reggae music styles woven together so seamlessly.

Frey and Henley shrewdly realized the extraordinary cinematic potential in Felder’s demo; and they transformed it into the magnum opus, cautionary tale of Hotel California. The song set the thematic stage for what turned into the Hotel California album, which became a de facto “greatest hits” successor itself, as the Eagles worked through their disillusionment with the rampant hedonism and turbulent excessiveness of working and living in Los Angeles — thousands of miles from where each Eagle grew up.

The Eagles’ contemporary critique of this infamous era wound up becoming inseparable from reflections on the “Me” Decade… yet, its popularity has never wavered — transcending the many wide paradigm shifts that have transpired in the nearly half-century since its premiere. In fact, Hotel California wound up becoming the third-biggest selling album in American history; only Michael Jackson’s Thriller stands between it eclipsing the Eagles’ first Greatest Hits.

The endurance of Hotel California’s popularity is so compelling, that the Eagles concluded their retrospective Hotel California Tour just weeks ago. They performed the entire Hotel California record, from start to finish, to a whopping 83 arena audiences… however, one couldn’t help but notice the glaring absence of the now-former Eagle — Don Felder — who recorded the preliminary demo for the song that their tour was named after.

Fortunately, classic rock aficionados still get a chance to catch Don Felder performing his legacy-defining rock standard in concert with his own band. Felder also presents a unique opportunity for fans of *both* the Eagles’ country-leaning and rock-oriented phases, to catch a lead guitarist who traded solos with both Bernie Leadon and Joe Walsh in each of the Eagles’ hallmark stylistic periods.

Don Felder will return to Ohio — where his iconic “Hotel California” double-neck guitar is enshrined in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame — for concerts at the historic Peoples Bank Theatre (222 Putnam St.) on Wednesday; followed by MGM Northfield Park (near Cleveland) on Saturday, August 26.

WOUB had a wide-ranging, in-depth conversation with Felder ahead of his Ohio shows. He called me from his home studio in — naturally — California.

Listen to WOUB’s exclusive interview with Don Felder in the Soundcloud link embedded above by clicking “play,” and find a transcript of the conversation below. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

A promotional picture of guitarist Don Felder, holding a double neck guitar, wearing a scarf and a leather jacket - posed against a white background.
Hey, this is Don Felder! How are we doing?

Hi, Don! I’m great. How are you?

I’m doing just wonderful. I’ve just had my first and second cups of coffee — so I’m up, and ready to chatter! <laugh>

Awesome! Yeah, I had two [cups of coffee], and then I started to feel that, you know, borderline of “is it enough?” and “oh, it might be too much.” <laugh> So I’ve switched to H2O.

<laugh> Well, I get up early, out here in LA — I get up somewhere between 4 and 5:30 in the morning, and I always have an hour or two of just that early sunrise coming up, where everything’s still and quiet. There’s no traffic, there’s no phones going; and I can actually think, and concentrate on stuff, being undisturbed. So I always have a cup of coffee when that happens — but then now it’s, you know, five hours later. So I went, “well, I better get another cup” <laugh> so I can make complete sentences in this interview.

Absolutely! <laugh> Well, I’m very impressed by your pacing. And of course, you know, I could spend the next 10 minutes punning about “Life in the Fast Lane,” but I’ll spare you of the corniness.

<laugh> Well, it’s both. I get on the fast lane at 5 a.m., and get off usually about 10 p.m. at night. So it’s just nonstop.

All right! Well, first of all, thank you for speaking to WOUB. We are a source of NPR in Ohio, where you’ve got two shows coming up. You’ve got the People’s Bank Theatre, in Marietta, in southeastern Ohio, on June 7 … and then later this summer, you’ll play the MGM in Northfield — near Cleveland — on August 26. So you’re playing two very different pockets of Ohio. I’d like to kick off with asking: are there any special memories that you have in Ohio, or general observations about the Buckeye State, among the many times you’ve been here?

I think my most vivid memory would be playing Cincinnati. I think it was about ‘74 or ‘75. Jerry Springer was Mayor — so you can date it back then. [Editor’s note: Jerry Springer was Mayor of Cincinnati from 1977-1978.] When we [Eagles] arrived, he showed up and gave us the key to the city — which I still have! In case I ever get locked out of Cincinnati, I’ve got the key to get back in. <laugh>

And then Jerry’s political career kind of dissolved, and he became this huge television star. You know, God rest him for all the time and energy he put in about TV show, because I’m certain millions and millions of people were fond of that show and enjoyed it a lot. So I have very vivid memories of coming through Cincinnati.

Review of the Eagles’ concert at Ohio’s Richfield Coliseum in NOW Magazine, published July 25, 1975 — which mentions Don Felder’s “outstanding” guitar work. Founding member Bernie Leadon departed the Eagles after this tour, replaced by Joe Walsh for their upcoming Hotel California album. See this and more concert clippings at the Randy Meisner Hearts On Fire blog.
Review of the Eagles’ concert at Ohio’s Richfield Coliseum in NOW Magazine, published July 25, 1975 — which mentions Don Felder’s “outstanding” guitar work. Founding member Bernie Leadon departed the Eagles after this tour, replaced by Joe Walsh for their upcoming Hotel California album. [Randy Meisner Hearts On Fire blog.]
Yes. Well, that is such a unique, um, perspective you have of the trajectory of Springer, that… most probably don’t share. <laugh> But that’s amazing. So, I’ll just cut to the chase: there’s no subtler way of stating it — you co-wrote one of the biggest songs in rock ‘n’ roll history. I think few would disagree that Hotel California is in the uppermost ranks.

In preparing to speak with you, I was thinking about Robert Plant, who recently reflected on Stairway to Heaven — which, I think, is one of the very few songs that can be fairly considered a contemporary of Hotel California. He talked about how there was a period where he felt estranged from the song. And he said it’s because “It began intimate and vulnerable and sincere, and then the years carried on. It was no longer ours, and neither should it be.” I’m speaking as someone who was born years after “Hotel California” went #1 [in 1977] — but its endurance meant that I’ve heard it repeatedly, throughout my life, from infancy. So it’s quite surreal to be speaking with you, as I try to imagine what it was like for you to be laying that foundation, and putting it together without having any idea that it would become this rock standard. And then you also see it being channeled in ways far beyond your control, I suppose. Was there a period of estrangement, that you ever felt [with Hotel California], similar to Plant [with Stairway to Heaven? Or is your journey with that standard a lot different?

You know, songs like Stairway to Heaven or Hotel California just come through people. You don’t make it. You don’t create it. It’s just a gift. And it’s meant to be somewhere on the planet, to influence a lot of other people and reach a lot of people.

I’ve played shows for the United Nations, and there were about 500 people present from all countries, all over the world. Most of them didn’t speak English; but when I started playing “Hotel California,” they all knew the song — and they all started singing it, in English! And it was just a moment where I realized the global impact that that song has had over the decades since it was released.

You don’t ever imagine when you’re actually writing something like that — ‘cause I think, for that Hotel California album, I wrote 15 or 16 different song ideas. Demos. One of them became Hotel California, and another one became Victim of Love. But I still have 14 other songs, that just came out [of me] during that time.

The interesting thing that you brought up, though, about Led Zeppelin… the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Metropolitan Museum of Art held this event called “Play It Loud,” and it was a collection of all the most famous guitars in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. And they asked me if they could take my white double-neck [guitar], which was iconically used for decades on Hotel California and put that on exhibit. And I went, “yeah, sure, of course, that would be an honor.” And then they asked me if I could come to the opening.

So I flew to New York, and was there for the opening. And that afternoon, Jimmy Page was there — I am an absolute monstrous fan of him, both as a person, and his musical creations and the things he’s brought to this planet for everyone to enjoy.

Then they said, “would you mind going out and playing Hotel California for everybody?” And so I went, “well, I don’t have a band, but I have some tracks that I can play to…” So they said, “that’d be great.” So they set me up on this little stage, in front of about 200 press people from all over the world — video cameras, television cameras, still photography, newspaper, magazine, everything. This room was just filled with press!

So I walk out, and sitting — right at my feet, in the front row — is Jimmy Page! And I’ve gotta stand there, and sing and play the solos on “Hotel” — the whole thing — just spotlessly. Because if I make a mistake, I would turn over in my sleep every night for the rest of my life, agonizing over that moment. <laugh> I’ve never really been scared [of] walking on stage… but when I walked out and saw Jimmy sitting right there in front of me, yeah, I got a gasp inside. <laugh> Took a deep breath and go, “well, this is gonna be interesting.”

Afterwards, I told [Jimmy Page] how frightened I was by him sitting right there, listening to every note — just waiting for a clam, or a bad fret, or a little sharp pitch, or a flat, or something. And he laughed hysterical[ly]. He said, “you don’t have to worry about me. I know that feeling all too well!” So we became bonded there, at that event, to connect Stairway to Heaven and Hotel California — the two double-neck guitar players — at that moment.

[Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page watches Don Felder play “Hotel California” at the Met in New York City, an encounter that Felder tells WOUB was among the most nerve-wracking of his career. This double-neck guitar is on display in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s “Play It Loud” exhibit.]

Wow! That had to have been… I mean, that’s just extraordinary to imagine! Especially in such an intimate setting, when he’s in the front row… it gives *me* goosebumps! <laugh>

In your five decades of playing — not only [Hotel California], but any of [your songs] quite frankly — I’m sure you’ve encountered fans from all walks of life. So, I was wondering if there are any standouts to you, of people who came from completely different walks of life from you? That just stand out to you as like, “wow, I cannot believe that I’ve been such an inspiration to them” — whether it’s a different race, nationality, gender, generation?

Yeah. I got a call from the CMO, Chief Marketing Officer of Gibson Guitar. I’ve known all those guys for decades. You know, I’ve played Gibsons since I started — Fender and Gibson guitars. So I get a call and he says, “you’ve got to hear this guy play the solo for ‘Hotel California.’” He was in, like, a NAMM show in Dallas. And I said, “uh, do I really have to? I’ve heard everything from bar bands, to mariachi bands, everything! Every person you can imagine, destroy this solo. Do I have to listen to it again?” He says, “no, I want you to hear this.” So I said, “okay, go ahead, put it on.”

So the solo comes out, and it’s NOTE. PERFECT! Vibratos are in time, vibratos are in in tune, all the way through — all the parts of my part, *and* Joe [Walsh]’s part, all the way to the end — the harmonies at the end. And I went, “My God! That’s really good!” He said, the kid’s eight years old.

Oh, my goodness!

I went, “what?!?” Yeah, the kid’s eight years old! I said, “put him on the phone!” So this kid gets on the phone and I say, “How in the world did you do that? I didn’t even own a guitar until I was 10, and you’re already lightyears ahead of me!”

He said, “well, I took my iPad, and I went on YouTube, and I watched you play note-for-note — over and over — and scrolled it back, and watched it until I could copy exactly how you were playing the solo.” And I went, “Wow!”

Modern technology is really giving people access to being able to learn things. When I was learning, I sort of did the same thing on a tape recorder. I would borrow records, record ‘em onto a tape at 7½  inches per second — which was a speed — and I would play it back at 3¾ inches per second, so it would play back at exactly half-speed, and then knock it down. But I could hear all the notes that were going on, whether it was a BB King solo, or Albert King, or Chet Atkins, or whoever I was trying to learn… I could hear the notes until I could figure it out, and then I would speed it up and try to play along with him as fast as it was naturally meant to be. I was sort of doing the same thing [as this kid], you know, 65 years ago! <laugh>

He was doing it with an iPad today, practically the same thing I was doing — but he could *see* it, instead of just hearing it. I honestly think in today’s environment, one of the things that technology enables people to do, is to be able to learn ear training. And I grew up with no lessons — couldn’t read sheet music, had no idea of anything about that — but by being able to listen to something, and then figure it out. And then, finally, I got to the point — even today — I can hear somebody play something on guitar, and go, “Okay, he’s in the key of D. He’s playing on the fifth string and the sixth string, and here’s the line.” And I can play it, because I can hear it, and know what he’s doing.

If you think about children learning music, they can learn their ABCs before they’re two years old with that little song. <singing> “A B C D, E F G…” Some very wise men said, “if you want someone to remember something, set it to a simple melody.” So not only are [children] learning basic scale [with the Alphabet song], but they’re learning their ABCs before they know what an A, a B, or a C even looks like

So I think people who develop that [ear-training] skill *before* they start reading music, or writing music down, have an advantage. For example… I was living in New York, and I went over to Eddie Brigati’s house. He was the singer of the Young Rascals, and he was dating this beautiful Julliard [School] harpist. She had her harp set up in the living room, when we were all hanging out, and she was playing. And I walked up, and I closed her music book, because she was reading music. I said, “Just play something [of your own]. Make up something, and play what you like — play *your* stuff.” She says, “Well, I’ve memorized a few classical pieces, but I don’t really have anything that I’ve written or done.”

And I realized, there’s a way of learning to play music, where you have no creativity in it at all! And you can be a perfectionist, like a typist. You could retype something, a hundred words a minute, perfectly — but you didn’t write it. As opposed to somebody who writes very interesting melodies, and lyrics, and guitar parts, and whatever the music — they don’t have to be masters, like that harpist, from Julliard. They just have a gift: being able to write something that can reach people. And to me, I find that [composition] much more exciting and adventurous [than perfect recitation].

Those [takeaways] are probably [how I wound up composing] “Hotel California” — I had developed being able to make up stuff, by learning to improvise on the streets in New York City, so I could not starve to death. I had a jazz fusion rock band, that did a lot of improvisation, so I could just learn to play.

As a matter of fact, the opening of the acoustic version of Hotel California on the [Eagles’] Hell Freezes Over album [featuring the Eagles’ legendary 1994 MTV Unplugged set]… that acoustic nylon string guitar [introduction], I just made it up on the spot that night, while we were recording. And I could only do that for two reasons… One, I spent a lot of time [early in life] playing in the Holiday Inn in Harvard Square. <laugh> While everybody was eating their dinner, I [had a job of] playing nylon string guitar — not reading, just playing “The Shadow of Your Smile,” and a lot of those favorite dinner classics. So, I had some nylon string guitar chops — but I had learned to improvise in New York City [early in my career].

So right before we started filming and recording [the Eagles’ MTV Unplugged episode], [Don] Henley says, “This song [Hotel California] needs a really special introduction.” And I thought [Henley’s suggestion] was [addressing the audience with], “Hey, you know, here we are. I need to introduce this song in a special way” and then he was going to say something. I said, “well, what are you gonna say [to the audience]?” He said, “No, no, you just make up something [to play on guitar]!” <laugh> Here we are, right before the shoot, right before the show, right before the cameras in the video start rolling — and he throws me this monkey wrench, and I just make up [the instrumental introduction for Hotel California that] you hear on the [Hell Freezes Over] record.

And it’s so funny, because I’ve heard probably a hundred people copying that — and it’s just something I just made up [spontaneously]! To me, the interesting part of music is being able to do that: to just write your own story, write your own music… [rather than] to sit in, and perfectly recreate something someone else has written. The creative part of music, for me, is being able to write, and record, and perform live.

[The Eagles perform Hotel California on MTV Unplugged in 1994. Per Don Felder, the now-famous instrumental introduction to the song was his improvisation after a sudden prompt by Don Henley.]

That’s so striking to me — by the time Hell Freezes Over came along, you’d been performing that song [“Hotel California”] for almost 20 years, and performed it many times. So the fact that this new development of it sprang so organically — when one might think it’s so hardwired for you — is really extraordinary. I was reading a Guitar World interview, where you talked about how Line Six had wanted to take your Tweed Deluxe amp and make an emulation of it — and you said no, because, “I don’t want everyone to sound like me. I have to keep my tone kind of separate and secret.” 

Well, also, digital reproduction is not the same as analog. It just will never sound the same… so I didn’t want people out there thinking they were sounding like me, when they’re not.

Don Felder plays his double-neck guitar during the Las Vegas Raiders’ halftime show in October, at Allegiant Stadium, on October 2, 2022.
Don Felder plays his double-neck guitar during the Las Vegas Raiders’ halftime show in October, at Allegiant Stadium, on October 2, 2022. [Courtesy of]
After a comprehensive chat about musical milestones of the past, Mr. Felder and I switched gears to talk about his shows of the future.

I have to talk to you about my band, and these shows coming up! Because I have an absolutely amazing, killer band. Let me tell you their names, and some of their credits. My bass player [Jeff Coffey] is a great singer, great bass player. He just spent three years fronting the band Chicago, singing and playing bass; he’s worked with Brian Wilson, Melissa Etheridge — just an absolutely Top 10, star player and singer. My drummer is a guy named Seth Rausch. He’s worked with Rascal Flatts, Sheryl Crow, Brad Paisley, Keith Urban, and now he’s out with Carrie Underwood. When Carrie goes out and does little things, he goes and plays with her, and then he comes back and plays with me.

I’ve got a great keyboard player, named Ty Bailie. He’s worked with Joss Stone, Adam Lambert, Dave Matthews, Katy Perry… I mean, these guys are absolutely top-notch musicians and players — they’re not your local bar-room guys, that you can pick up for a hundred bucks a day. <laugh> These guys are at the top of their league. My guitar player is a guy named David Myhre. He’s played with Kid Rock, Kenny Chesney, and Tanya Tucker — and he can play just about anything that’s got strings on it. Everybody sings, everybody plays. It’s a remarkably great band.

So, the energy and power that is breathed into these songs that everybody knows — like Hotel California, Life in the Fast Lane, Tequila Sunrise, Peaceful Easy Feeling, One of These Nights, Take It Easy — all those great songs that people love and want to hear, have a really professional, great presentation. By the end of the night — by the time we go to The Long Run, Heartache Tonight, Take It Easy, …Fast Lane, and Hotel…, everybody is on the floor… standing up with their iPhones, and dancing, and having a great old time. <laugh>

It’s a really fun, exciting show with that band. It’s just… boy, you can’t imagine how great they are. My front-of-house guy, I won’t go into his pedigrees, but he’s worked with just about every big name act — from Lady Gaga, on — in mixing house, so it sounds great. Band’s great. The songs are as memorable as can be, and with a new energy in ’em, so everybody has a wonderful time.

On that note, in talking about your live shows, something I had noticed — because I wasn’t quite sure of what to expect… I interviewed Steve Hackett, who of course was lead guitarist of Genesis, which had two very distinct lead vocalists in Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel. In the Eagles, everybody sang [lead] to various extents, including yourself. But a lot of the hits, of course, were sung by Glenn Frey or Don Henley — who both have very distinct, recognizable voices.

But you, I saw, *do* sing the lead on most of the Eagles songs that you [perform] — of course, in addition to your guitar playing. So I was thinking of what you had said about tone, and emulation, and things of that sort. Can you talk about approaching those songs, as your own self, as a vocalist? Knowing that people recognize Glenn and Don so easily when [songs of their lead vocal are] played… yet, what struck me when I’m watching these videos [of your shows] is that it *sounds* like the Eagles when you sing, and yet it’s still your own style. Can you talk a little bit about how you approach that?

Well, I think the songs themselves have what Glenn used to refer to as “song power.” Everybody knows those songs, and when they hear ’em — either on Muzak in an elevator, or a local bar band playing them — they react the same way! I don’t try to emulate Glenn; I don’t try to sound like Don Henley… those guys have magical voices. I sing it the way I would sing it comfortably; and people seem to enjoy it, and love it, and have a great time. Like I said, by the end of the night, everybody’s up dancing and rocking.

Tommy Shaw [of STYX] used to say, “the audience votes with their feet.” I went, “What do you mean? They raise their foot, like they’re raising their hand?” He said, “No, no, no. If they’re up on their feet, you won! You got ’em!” So I said, “okay!” So the last five songs [of my shows], everybody is up on their feet. You know, when we’re doing stuff like Seven Bridges Road or Tequila Sunrise or Peaceful…, people don’t stand up for that and jump around on it — they’re just not those kind of songs. But when we get to the second half of the show, and we start rocking, everybody gets up. I invite people to come down to the front of the stage, and let’s have a party! That’s what it’s all about: having a great time. That’s my job: to make people feel great, and have a good time, and walk out going, “man, that was a fun show. I enjoyed that.”

Obviously it’s worked, because you’ve been doing it for many years. <laugh> And we look forward to Ohio hosting you, in your continuation of that pattern.

See you there!

For tickets, and a full tour itinerary, visit Don’s official website: