Don Felder was watching his kids play in the sand when the sound of Hotel California came to him. Plucking the strings of his guitar, Felder shaped the song note by note as the sun glistened off the waves of the Pacific.
“I played it over and over and over about five or ten times, so I wouldn’t forget it,” he said, “I went back to my 1-year-old daughter’s bedroom, which, when she was awake, served as my demo studio, and recorded about five minutes of me just playing that progression. Then, I went out, played with my kids and forgot about it.”
Like a dream, Felder set it aside, not knowing that it would become the title track to a Grammy Award winning record, that it would rank in the top 50 of Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time and that later, it would rack up more than a billion streams on multiple music streaming services.
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“You don’t know when something like Hotel California is going to take off,” he said, “You just don’t know.”
This statement, though seemingly rhetorical, is a way of life for Felder. Without being constrained by expectations of knowing, he’s had the freedom to be unconventional over the years, to be open to the potential of the newest thing, and before he was the guitarist for the Eagles and long before he was the renowned solo artist he is today, Felder took a chance on a brand new style of music called rock and roll.
Sitting on the floor of his parents’ home in front of a little, black-and-white TV, a 9 or 10-year-old Felder saw Elvis Presley perform for the first time, and from that moment on, he would understand music in a totally different way.
“He was rocking and shaking and flipping his hair and swinging his hips around and the girls were all screaming. It was exciting,” Felder said, “It wasn’t like watching my dad watch Glenn Miller or Tommy Dorsey or Lawrence Welk. It was rock and roll.”
Even as a boy, Felder was attuned to the idea that the thing that made rock different from any other type of music was the energy committed to a performance.
“You would hear Little Richard screaming Tutti Frutti, and the hair on the back of your neck would just stand up,” he described, “and the next day you would turn on the local radio station, and you’d hear Pat Boone singing Tutti Frutti, and it didn’t make a single hair on your body stand up.”
Felder strove to recreate the religious experience he felt when watching his rock heroes by making his own music with his childhood friend and future rock legend, Stephen Stills, but after Stills left Felder’s band to join Buffalo Springfield in Los Angeles, a future founding member of the Eagles Bernie Leadon came in to fill that vacancy.
Leadon’s background in country music would help define the Eagles’ original country-rock sound, and Felder’s partnership with him allowed for a mutually-beneficial music education.
“We put together two bands,” Felder said, “during the week, we would go out and play bluegrass music. On the weekends, we had a rock band that we would go and play at fraternity parties with. So, Bernie kind of got indoctrinated into rock music, and he really increased my ability to learn and play and develop my skills in country music.”
Years later, after the Eagles had released their first two albums, the band was experiencing a stylistic shift from their country-infused roots to a more conventional style of rock and roll. Knowing his instrumental versatility and his background in classical rock, Leadon invited Felder to play slide guitar on Good Day in Hell. His performance on that track impressed the other founding members, Glenn Frey, Don Henley and Randy Meisner, so much that they asked him to join the band the next day.
Soon after Felder joined, Leadon left and Joe Walsh would join as his replacement, and though Felder was deeply saddened by his friend’s departure, he saw an opportunity for a new type of partnership.
He said, “I wanted to write some tracks that Joe and I could play on and do some of what we were doing together in Joe Walsh and Friends on Eagles records, so I sat down and wrote about 15 or 16 demo tracks.”
Of those tracks, two would become Eagles songs: Victim of Love and Hotel California.
Once the demos were completed, Felder would hand them off to Frey and Henley, and the two, he said, “would go off into lyric land.”
“Henley is a brilliant lyricist,” Felder continued, “He writes songs where each line is like a little postcard. ‘On a dark desert highway.’ You can see that. ‘Cool wind in my hair.’ You can feel that. ‘Warm smell of colitas.’ You can smell that. He’s like addressing your senses to put you in this scene, and he’s just brilliant at it.”
This acknowledgement of pure creativity and deft musicality signaled the culmination of all that the Eagles had been working towards since their formation in 1971, but the strain of a world tour and the pursuit for something that would match the success of Hotel, would lead, eventually, to the fall of the band itself.
Despite Felder’s own acrimonious departure in 2001, he had nothing but kind words to say about his former bandmates. In a way, the guitarist came to terms with those challenging times by writing his own music and attempting to recapture that sense of electricity that he experienced as a kid and later, with the Eagles.
He described his most recent album, American Rock ‘n’ Roll, as not just an homage to, who he called, “the American rock and roll grandfathers,” but to their style of creating music.
He said, “It’s all about that momentary experience and feeling that comes across. When you have that rush of power and energy coming out of you when you’re playing something for the first time. It’s perfectly imperfect.”
Felder continues to chase the chills–that hair-standing-on-the-back-of-your-neck feeling–and doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon.
“My excitement, my thrill in life is music,” he said, “I’m just happy that I get to do what I love to do, and I intend to do it as long as I possibly can.”
Felder played to a large crowd at the Pepsi Amphitheater on Friday night and has another tour scheduled to start sometime next year, so if you missed this performance and want to see him live, check out his website for dates, merch and more at donfelder.com.