Interview: Don Felder - Airborne Again
Photo: Myriam Santos
When Don Felder joined the Eagles in 1974, he was working in Los Angeles as a slide-wielding session guitarist. During the next two years, Felder’s singing solos, memorable guitar harmonies, and ringing arpeggios brought a new sound to the band and helped make “One of These Nights,” “Life in the Fast Lane,” “Victim of Love,” and “New Kid in Town” enduring classics. Felder also wrote the music for “Hotel California”—the mega-hit that epitomized the band’s transition from country rockers to arena stars and defined an entire era of SoCal music.
Felder left the Eagles in 2001—it was an acrimonious split—and became a New York Times bestselling author with his 2008 memoir, Heaven and Hell: My Life in the Eagles. Now with Road to Forever (which, amazingly, is only his second solo album in nearly 30 years), Felder is back with his trademark guitar choirs and hooky riffs.
Recently, we asked Felder to take us behind the scenes of his new music, detail his favorite gear and recording techniques, and share what it was like to learn slide from Duane Allman when they were kids in Gainesville, Florida. Relaxed and charming, Felder was happy to reveal details from both his present and past musical adventures, and it quickly became apparent that his passion for all things guitar burns as brightly as ever.
Describe the genesis of Road to Forever.
It all started with what I call thumbnails—preliminary recordings I make in my Pro Tools home studio. Once I’d written a song, I’d develop an initial concept for an arrangement to see if it worked. I’d select a tempo, try different guitar parts, and sketch out the vocals.
When I’d finished eight or 10 of these thumbnails, I had my road band learn the songs. We then went into a bigger studio and tracked the songs live. I wanted to see how much life I could breathe into them with a band, as opposed to just overdubbing everything. It’s one thing to build a great record, it’s another thing to be able to play that record live and have it sound just as great. I was very pleased with the way the songs came out, but I didn’t use any of those tracks on the final release. It was more of an experiment—a way to see if I was on the right path in terms of writing.
After those sessions, I came back to my studio to continue to write lyrics and develop the music. I started looking at each track and refining the guitar arrangements in my studio. Eventually, I was contacted by Greg Ladanyi—a really famous record producer and great engineer. He produced albums for Jackson Browne, Don Henley, and Warren Zevon, among others. He and I spent five or six months playing golf, talking about music, listening to tracks, and putting together the whole strategy for making this record.
Greg had produced a female singer who he described as the “Greek Madonna” [Anna Vissi], but when he went over to one of her big stadium concerts in Cyprus, he unexpectedly passed away when he fell off the back of a large ramp that went up to her stage.
The ramp led over a moat surrounding a soccer field so the crowds couldn’t jump out of the stands and onto the field. The moat was filled with rocks and Greg fractured his skull on them when he fell. It was a real tragedy.
So how did you continue after his death?
Greg had introduced me to Robin DiMaggio [Paul Simon, Steve Vai, David Bowie]. Robin and I kept talking about the album and how we would go about picking up the pieces of this project and completing it in Greg’s absence. To get a feel for what it would be like to work together, we went into a couple of other studios and cut two or three tracks. I was delighted with what we developed together, so I decided to tackle the rest of these songs with Robin co-producing. We finished a total of 16 for this project—12 are on this CD. The four others will be bonus tracks or I’ll put them in films or commercials.
Once we’d finished the tracks, Ed Cherney [Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt] mixed the album for me. Ed is a good friend of mine who has mixed and recorded more hit records than just about anybody I know, and we spent a lot of time hanging out, playing golf, and listening to the tracks in the studio and tweaking things until we had the songs just where we wanted them. Once we’d finished mixing the tracks, we took them to Doug Sax—probably the best mastering engineer I’ve ever worked with—at The Mastering Lab.
Road to Forever is full of richly layered guitars. How do you approach arranging them?
It’s so easy with Pro Tools to just copy and paste, and I really don’t like to do that. Instead, I try to build an arrangement from the introduction to the end of the song. I want some unique elements that come in and go out—different sounds, textures, and musical ideas. For example, I want each chorus to be somewhat different from the others or develop through the course of the song.
During that thumbnail phase, I’d do a lot of experimenting. In a given song, I’d start with a basic track in which I’d play rhythm guitar and bass, and either program a drum part or have a drummer come over and play my Roland V-Drums. Essentially I’d create a basic rhythm section, but before I put a lot of elaborate guitars on it, I’d sing. That way I’d know where the vocals were not going to be. If you listen to most proper arrangements that feature guitars, violins, keyboards, or whatnot, the accompanying instruments complement the vocals by working around them. Believe me, my erase head has sent many, many ideas to digital heaven. [Laughs.]
What is it that makes a part work for you?
To me, it’s about function. Does this idea sound right? Does this idea work for the feeling and the concept of this song?
I was very excited that I had the option to try out a lot of new and different ideas in this project. When I wrote for the Eagles, I had a cast of characters to work with. It’s much like a sitcom—you know all the characters in it. You know this is the guy with all the wisecracks, this guy is going to be the troublemaker, and so on. You have to write each episode being mindful of these characters and their abilities. But I didn’t need to work in that context for this record, so I was free to try a lot of unique things.
Can you describe one of your guitar-arranging techniques?
A good part can support the melody, so you learn how to replicate or hint at part of that melody in a solo, or in the backing track, or in the harmony guitar parts. For example, on “Fall from the Grace of Love,” the first track on the album, I play slide on the introduction. If you listen, the line I play is very close to the vocal melody that starts on the first verse. So by stating that theme in the introduction, it sounds familiar when the vocals begin.
That illustrates my approach to writing and arranging guitar parts. For me, they have to be musical, not just hot licks. I want some sort of musical statement. I think it was Benjamin Franklin who said if you put an idea to music, people can learn it and remember it for the rest of their lives. It’s like the ABCs. [Sings the alphabet song.] You can remember that even when you’re only 2 or 3 years old because it’s set to a melody. So if you think that way, not only with setting lyrics to a melody, but guitar parts to a melody, you can create memorable musical statements. That’s what I try to do when I arrange guitars.
You play a lot of slide on this album, not only on “Fall from the Grace of Love,” as you mentioned, but “Money,” “Someday,” and the melodic solo in “Heal Me.” Do you play in open tunings, in standard tuning, or a mix of both?
Both. And which tuning I use really depends on the song. I know several different tunings, but for electric slide guitar, I typically play in standard tuning, either at regular pitch or tuned down a half-step to Eb, or open-E tuning [E–B–E–G#–B–E], again at standard pitch or down a half-step. When I tune down, I’ll use heavier strings, like a set of .011s. I probably have a half-dozen guitars that are set up just for slide, where the action is a little higher and the guitar has a slightly higher nut so the slide doesn’t rattle on the frets.
I like to play slide—in fact that was what brought me into the Eagles. They wanted somebody to play slide guitar on “Good Day in Hell,” so the producer hired me for the session. I went in and played it live with the rhythm section. The next day they called me back and asked me to join the band. Slide has always been more of my forte than just playing regular flatpick guitar. I enjoy playing slide and it’s not something you hear a whole lot on the radio these days.
What draws you to slide?
It has a reminiscent quality about it, you know? Also, with a slide you can move into a note from above or below in creative ways. You can bend a note a minor third—a major third at the most—but it’s tough to go beyond that, whereas with a slide, it’s a very fluid approach. It’s like watercolors, when you let the colors just flow together. You can smear the sound, as opposed to drawing a hard line with a fret.
Is it true you learned slide from Duane Allman?
I like to say I stole most everything I know about slide guitar from Duane. If you’re going to steal, steal from the best. [Laughs.]
We all grew up in Gainesville, Florida—Duane and Gregg, me, Tom Petty, Stephen Stills—and we all had little bands there together. Stills and I were in a band called The Continentals when we were 15, Duane and Gregg had a band called the Allman Joys, and Petty had a band called the Rucker Brothers—this was before Mudcrutch. We all played these teen dances and fraternity parties, and during the summer we’d go over to the Daytona Beach area where they had a bunch of dance clubs on the pier, as well as bars where you could lie about your age and they’d let you play.
So during the summer, we’d all work around Daytona Beach. In our senior year and shortly thereafter, Duane and Gregg, and me and [original Eagles lead guitarist] Bernie Leadon wound up being really close friends. We’d finish our gigs at 1:00 a.m. or so and then go to a greasy little deli or cafe and eat scrambled eggs, tell stories, and just goof around and hang out together.
Duane’s mother lived in Daytona and one night we went over to her house and he was sitting on the floor playing slide guitar. I said, “You’ve got to show me how to do that!” So he showed me a tuning and some basics. He had such an amazing blues feel, but also such dexterity. Most people play kind of Neanderthal slide, but he had unbelievable precision. Every time I heard him play in a club or in a battle of the bands against my band—which his group always won, by the way—I was always so impressed with what a great slide player he was. So like I said, I stole everything I could from him, although if you listen to me playing slide guitar and you listen to Duane, we don’t sound like the same guy.
Presumably that’s intentional?
It was deliberate. Any time I heard players I really liked, I tried to learn how they were doing it, not exactly what they’re doing. I’ve done that with all the guitarists I’ve studied from the time I first started playing. There was B.B. King, then Chet Atkins, then Hendrix. I didn’t want to emulate them. What I wanted to know was the fingering and vibrato. I’m self-taught and just learned by ear, so I got really good at being able to hear somebody do something once or twice and replicate it.
Did you also adopt Allman’s Coricidin bottle as a slide?
No, I use a metal slide—sometimes chrome, sometimes brass. I don’t know why, but I’m just more attracted to the tone of a metal slide versus a glass slide. On this album I used a chrome Dunlop slide on most everything.
Are there other slide players who inspire you?
A few years ago I was up in Calgary doing an interview at a radio station, and the lady who was interviewing me said, “When we’re done, I’ve got to let you hear my brother play slide guitar.” So after the interview she put on this CD and it was just monstrous—the most unbelievable clean technique I’ve ever heard anybody use on slide. His name is Kirk Lorange, and he lives in Australia. He sat in with me about four years ago and I was so impressed with his playing. He has videos on YouTube—you really have to check him out.
Let’s talk about some specific parts and solos on the new album. In “Girls in Black,” for example, it sounds like you’re playing a Les Paul. What was the guitar and amp?
The guitar was the original ’59 Les Paul I used in the Eagles on “Hotel California” and “One of These Nights.” I played it through a Lil’ Elvis, a 12-watt combo made by 65amps. I go to their shop to play with those guys and they work on my old tweed Deluxes. One day they had this prototype amp set up, and they said, “You’ve got to hear this.” So I plugged in and after a few minutes said, “This is a great sounding amp, I want it.” And they said, “Okay, we’ll make you one.” And I said, “No, I want this one.” [Laughs.] That’s what you’re hearing—a Lil’ Elvis prototype that came right off the workbench. The inputs and outputs are labeled in black felt marker.
Is that a flanger in your solo on “Wash Away”?
[Laughs uproariously.] That’s so funny! Actually, that’s a solo I wrote and put together in my home studio. When I was working on “Wash Away,” Tommy Shaw came over to help me write some lyrics, and he brought a guitar and a tiny Roland amp called a Micro Cube. While I was writing the solo for “Wash Away,” I took my vocal mic—a Blue Bottle large diaphragm mic—and just pushed it down in front of the Micro Cube. I played the solo on a ’95 Music Man Luke because it has a nice joy bar. This was a thumbnail, so I took a couple of passes, put some harmonies on it, and said, “Okay, when we get to the studio we’ll do this again for real.” But later when I played it back to the guys in the studio, they said, “That’s a great tone. How did you get it?” So we kept the solo.
It’s funny. Sometimes you get better results in the studio from a smaller amp, as opposed to trying to capture a big stack. Like when the Eagles recorded “Victim of Love,” I played a Strat through one little pedal into a tweed Champ with an 8" speaker—that was it. It sounds like a big Marshall stack because we put a mic right up on it.
How did you create those violin-like parts in “I Believe in You”?
I used an EBow and my old black Gretsch Tennessean through an old Vox AC30 that I just love. That Gretsch used to be orange, but I had it repainted black in the middle or late ’70s. I love the tone of that guitar, and onstage with the Eagles I used it on “Wasted Time” and “Desperado.” I find an EBow sounds more cello- or string-like when you play a hollowbody, instead of a solidbody. You get more resonance from the pickups.
It sounds like you put a lot of thought and effort into getting guitar sounds on this album.
I paid a lot of attention to this on Road to Forever because I wanted to be able to clearly hear each part. In the studio and onstage with the Eagles, there were some songs where we had three guitars playing simultaneously. When you have that many guitarists playing together, you need to clearly segregate each tonality or otherwise it just turns into this big wall of mud. So you learn to vary the guitars—whether it’s a Tele or a Strat or a Gretsch or a Les Paul—and use different size amps to give each voice its own character.
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
For a taste of Don Felder’s wide musical palette and deep musicianship, check out the following clips on YouTube:
Felder and Joe Walsh tear into their guitars at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame during the Eagles’ 1998 induction ceremony.
While demonstrating his epic arpeggiated parts, Felder talks about writing the music for “Hotel California” and also speaks candidly about his relationships with his bandmates.
Those rockin’ 70s! Watch Felder play the solo for “One of These Nights” on his ’59 Les Paul onstage with the Eagles. Splendid close-up view of fingers and fretboard.