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Interview: Don Felder - Airborne Again

Interview: Don Felder - Airborne Again

Photo: Michael Helms

How many guitars do you typically put on a track?

It really varies. On a light acoustic track like “Over You,” there might only be a couple of lines in addition to my flattop. Greg Leisz played pedal steel on that, by the way, and he’s brilliant. I play pedal steel, but he came in and did his parts in about 20 minutes. It was like, “Okay, thank you very much. Bye.” I would have been there for a couple of hours wrestling that beast, you know?

On electric songs, sometimes I like to record a part simultaneously through two different amps and mic them individually—a Shure SM57 on one, for example, and a large diaphragm condenser on the other. When we did this, we put each mic on its own track and then when we mixed the song, we’d bring the Shure up on one side and the diaphragm up on the other. This technique gives you more separation than if you had two mics on the same amp. It’s a great way to double-track a part because you can vary its timbre or thickness, depending on which amp and mic you feature. In some songs on Road to Forever there might be eight guitars, but we’d have 16 guitar tracks because we recorded two tracks each time around.

Did you rely on a particular pair of amps for this double-tracking technique?

In addition to my AC30, I used a bunch of old Fender tweed amps that each have a unique tone. For some Les Paul sounds on this record I used the tweed amp I played on “One of These Nights” with the Eagles. That amp almost has a sax-like quality to it.

Often when I play a Strat, I’ll use a tweed Champ. Strats have a tendency to be a little too bright on the second position of the pickup selector switch, but if you play through a small tweed amp like that it takes all the really sharp edges off and makes this nice little honky sound.

I used a lot of different amps in different combinations to try to sonically segregate each instrument. I hate to hear a record when the guitar player sounds like he didn’t bother to change strings, much less change his amp or pedal. It’s like a one-note samba.

Speaking of pedals, do you have an elaborate pedalboard?

I use a few pedals, but not a lot. I think the longer the signal path is and the more numbers of connections you go through, the more degraded the signal becomes, so I try to use only two, or at the most, three pedals.

But this time we did an interesting experiment. I’d set up a small pedalboard with slap echo timed to the track’s tempo along with a chorus pedal or whatever effect I planned to use for that particular song, and then we’d compare that sound to going straight into the amp and using plug-ins on the back side to get the effects.

I was somewhat impressed with the digital clarity of the plug-ins, but there’s something that goes on when you send your guitar through an echo, and then you send that echo signal through a chorus, so you’re chorusing the repeats as the tail tapers off. With the plug-ins, I didn’t get that same sense of interaction between the chorus and the echo as I did using pedals going into my amp. So although we used plug-ins for a couple of effects, we didn’t rely on them that much.

In “Life’s Lullaby,” there’s a majestic nylon-string solo. Did you craft that solo in the thumbnail stage or did you just improvise it when recording the song for real?

My original demo had a lot of hinting to that solo. So when [pianist] Timothy Drury and I sat down to record that track, I already had a direction. But in the studio, Timothy came up with some great melodic ideas for that nylon-string solo, and we melded some of his ideas and my first couple of passes and came up with the final solo you hear in the song.

Did you play that solo fingerstyle or did you use a pick the way many modern jazz guitarists do when they play a nylon-string?

No, no—I played that fingerstyle. I don’t sit around playing classical guitar, but I was exposed to it through a bass player in one of my old bands. He studied with Andrés Segovia, and he slept with his guitar handcuffed to his wrist at night because he didn’t want anyone to steal it. I’d go over and watch him play because he was just unbelievable on classical guitar—he just blew me away. He played absolutely nonstop and he wound up becoming the head of the Boston Conservatory of Music for classical guitar.

I always wanted to play classical guitar really well, but I never invested the time to master it at that level. That said, I’ve spent many years sitting in Holiday Inn dining rooms playing nylon-string guitar while people were eating their dinner and drinking their wine, so I’ve had some experience with it.

The tone and phrasing in that solo reveal your connection with the nylon-string and its demanding technique. Knowing how to make a ’59 sunburst cry doesn’t guarantee you’ll know how to make a Ramirez ring.
I have the Holiday Inn to thank for that!

Don Felder’s Gear

Signature model Gibson Don Felder 59 Les Paul, 1958 Gretsch Chet Atkins, 1966 Gibson SG with custom-wound Seymour Duncan pickups, Fender Stratocaster with custom-wound Duncan pickups, Fender Telecaster with custom-wound Duncan pickups, Ernie Ball/Music Man Steve Lukather, Zemaitis 501-DS-BK with custom-wound Duncan pickups, Taylor 614

Mid-’50s Fender tweed Deluxe, Vox AC30, Roland Micro Cube, prototype 65amps Lil’ Elvis, 65amps Monterey, 1978 Marshall JMP MKII

Boss DD-3 Digital Delay, Boss CH-1 Super Chorus, Fulltone OCD, vintage Echoplex

Strings, Picks, and Accessories
Ernie Ball Regular Slinky, Ernie Ball Power Slinky (for slide and guitars tuned down a half-step), John Pearse light-gauge acoustic, gold Herco Flex 50 nylon picks (all electric guitars), custom Dunlop DF picks (electric and acoustic guitars), Fender medium picks (all acoustic guitars), Dunlop 210 Tempered Glass Medium slide, Dunlop 228 Brass Chromed slide

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