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The Gibson Interview: Don Felder

Andrew Vaughan
|
08.12.2010

Don Felder’s 12-string intro on his Gibson double neck guitar, kicking off “Hotel California,” remains one of the most iconic moments in rock and roll history. Now Gibson Custom has introduced the Don Felder “Hotel California” EDS-1275 guitar, crafted in the image of the Gibson’s rare EDS-1275 Double 12 model and including the custom wiring and modifications that Felder added to his double neck. Felder kindly took time from his hectic schedule to talk to Gibson.com about the guitar, his love of Gibsons, his years with the Eagles, playing with Joe Walsh and co-writing one of the greatest tunes of all time, “Hotel California.”

How involved have you been in the production of the Don Felder “Hotel California” EDS-1275 guitar?

I actually went to the Custom Shop and saw how they go about doing the exact replication of the neck sizes, the pickups and colors. They use computer scanning to get the exact duplication or replication of the guitar. They take an unusual amount of photographs to detail every mark, corrosion, scratch, nick and cigarette burn on the body. With my double neck, what used to be white has now kind of yellowed over 35 years, so they were really meticulous about detail color matching, the scratches, the lacquer crack and the wear. I have a special bridge that was made for my 12-string and put in the saddles of the bridge. It intonates the 12-string, the difference in the high octave string and low octave string, so each string is intonated, which was really unusual. They duplicated that bridge. I said, “Man, you guys found every little detail of it and really just made an absolute identical twin of my original.” I was really impressed with the process and how exact they were. They shipped them to the Beverly Hills Showroom and I went in and was absolutely surprised when I opened the case. There’s a chip, it’s almost a split, in my double neck when we were wiring it for two different outputs, which is an unusual thing. One neck goes out of one output and the other neck goes out of another output. It’s a split that goes from the top where we were wiring it and drilling out a second hole to put the second jack. They duplicated the jack split as well and wired it the same way. They made sure the pickups were wrapped the exact same way as the output for each pickup.

So obviously you were pleased with the final product.

Oh, absolutely. I was actually in awe of how much detail and time they had taken to replicate every detail exactly. If you put my guitar next to the one that they made, I would have a difficult time telling you which one is my guitar.

Reading your biography, it looks as if from the early days you’ve been a Gibson guy. 

Early on in Gainesville, Florida, I was working in this music store, and I was saving up my money. They weren’t paying me money, they just let me have a card there and every time I taught a guitar lesson or sold a guitar and got a little bit of commission, they would add it on to my account as a credit for [the] store. When I finally got enough credit I could get an amp, or I could get a guitar, I could get a pedal or something. I wasn’t spending any money because I had ordered this cherry red 335. In was in a band and everybody in the band had cherry red guitars. So the bass player had a cherry red EB-0, which is a thin line, hollow body bass, the other guitar player had a 330 and I wanted to have the 335 so we all had matching Gibson guitars – really a great look. So I waited about a year and change for it to come in and finally I went to the store and there it was. I was unbelievably happy. We put it in our van and went to Miami and we did this audition in this big club down there called The World. During the afternoon there was nobody there except the owner listening to us. The van was parked outside and we were making trips back and forth and carrying our drums. One guy played organ so we had a couple of Leslies. One guy was in the band putting this stuff away and we were just setting these guitars up against the doorway of the van. We finally got everything loaded up and drove back up to Gainesville and when we started unloading this equipment and my brand new 335 was gone. I had just worked a year saving up money. One of the first things I did when I started making some money, I went and bought another cherry red Gibson 335.

So years later when I went to the Gibson factory in the mid-’90s – I went through the main factory, not the custom shop – there’s a guy there that specializes in wrapping 335 and 345 and 355 binding. I guess it’s a really special technique that he’s got with all these straps he has to use to wrap it while the glue dries and it has to be done in a certain way. He was the one that did the binding on the guitar that I ordered and had gotten stolen. I went by there and told him the story and I told him how much I appreciate and loved the guitar and appreciated his work. It was a little bit serendipitous that he was the same guy that made that guitar. I went and told him the story and said I was both ecstatic when I got it and heartbroken when it was stolen. The one that Gibson made me later out of their Custom Shop was just spectacular – a 355 cherry red with gold hardware and really big flamey maple on the top. It’s better than any 335 and 355 I’ve had, so in the long run it all worked out to be the best. I have always loved Gibson guitars and have always played Gibson guitars.

When you first went out to Los Angeles from Florida, I seem to remember you had befriended Bernie Leadon and he got you to go out there.

Yeah, well Bernie and I were in a band in high school. Bernie moved to Gainesville, Florida, from San Diego. His father was actually hired by the University of Florida to found their nuclear research division of the university. He was a nuclear physicist and was hired there. Bernie moved there and the first thing he did was go to the music store and ask, “Who’s the best guitar player around here?” And they said me. And so he picked me up at the bus station on my way back from doing a gig by myself. Bernie did not own an electric guitar at the time and I didn’t own an acoustic because I wanted to play electric. I wanted to plug in and rock. So anyway, when I finally moved to Boston, I had managed to buy, for $200, another sunburst Les Paul that had a broken headstock on it. Right up past the nut, the head had broken off. Both my father and my grandfather were carpenters. I had grown up spending my summers framing or painting or building a dining room or something onto our house. For as far back as I can remember, my granddad had his tool box with a miter box, a handsaw, and nails and screws, and we always had some project going because we never had the money to hire contractors. We built stuff ourselves. So I looked at that break and thought about how I could drill and use a small dowel and use some really heavy epoxy to fix it. I repaired that headstock myself. When I first came to L.A. that was the guitar I had. It was a really delicate repair job and it was not really road-worthy, so when we got out on the road one of the first things I did was buy a Les Paul and retired my one with the broken headstock.

You were working with Graham Nash and David Crosby when you were offered the Eagles gig, correct?

Yes and it’s funny that Graham and I have crossed paths numerous times throughout our lives. He was just here in L.A. about six months ago and we played golf together. I remember seeing him in The Hollies when I was about 14, at the University of Florida. Then, very shortly after that, Stephen Stills shows up in Gainesville and for a while we had a band together and then he left. Then, when I came to L.A., I wound up playing with David Blue who was opening for Crosby & Nash and I ended up playing with them and singing all of Stephen’s parts, which is kind of funny. Then later, when I got the job offer to join the Eagles as a band member, I had to go back and explain to Graham that I couldn’t do their tour. We were all ready to start rehearsal and I had to go talk to him about having this opportunity and tell him I had to let him down at the last minute and also see what he thought I should do. He was fantastic and really advised me that that was the best thing I could do career-wise, so I took his advice and went and did it. We had stayed in touch here and there and later his son was at a boarding school where my youngest son, Cody ended up going. Graham’s son Jackson became my son’s big brother when he showed up at school to be a freshman. They had these parent, student, teacher get-togethers and Graham was always there and we had a few meetings at his house and so I managed to stay in touch. We play golf together along the way when he’s in town and he is such a gracious, lovely man. There are a few people in your life that when you come across, that keep crossing your path, and you’re delighted every time they do. It’s always a joyous experience.

A great artist, too.

Absolutely and it’s sort of a lifestyle for him. He doesn’t just talk the talk, he actually walks the walk. He is just a very delightful and genuine soul, a great artist and a great photographer, by the way. Amazing singer and great songwriter. Just everything about him in all areas of life is very admirable.

Tell us about the Tom Petty Florida connection. You taught him guitar?

Yes I did. I was working in that music store in Gainesville and like I said, the only way I had to make money was after school I would go teach guitar in this music store. One day this kind of scrawny, scraggly blond-haired kid came in and wanted guitar lessons. I started teaching him guitar and we became friends and I went over to his house a couple of times. He had actually set up a microphone in one of the rooms in his house and he was playing bass in this little band. He wanted to learn guitar so he could play guitar instead of just bass in the band. So I went over to his house and was hanging around and he would play songs. Then I tried to help this band called the Rucker Brothers, which Tommy played bass in, and they had two guitar players named Rodney and Ricky Rucker. It was a little bit of a train wreck because the two guitar players didn’t know how one should take a step back while the other takes the floor and one would play rhythm and one would play lead. They were just both kind of trashing away so I organized and arranged some of their songs a little bit so they made a little more sense that way. I went to a few of their shows and just kind of hung around. It was a very small town and between Tommy and his band, the Rucker Brothers, and later Stephen Stills and I had a band. The Stephen left and Bernie Leadon arrived four or five months after his departure. Bernie kind of stepped into Stephen’s spot playing guitar and singing. The Allman Brothers were there during the school year and on weekends playing fraternity parties. During the summer the only place to work was over on Daytona Beach, so all the bands from Gainesville would go over and work off the strip on Daytona Beach or a dance club or off of the pier. So everybody knew everybody.

How good was Duane Allman?

Duane was the first guy I ever saw play electric slide guitar like that. He was the best in our region. Nobody else played like that down in the south, there. He was a great player and a great musician and a great guy. I remember going to his house some time and he taught me the tuning and a few licks. Everybody influenced everybody back then. I taught Petty and Duane taught me slide. Bernie came and brought country guitar and I taught Bernie electric. It was very cool. It was an unusual phenomenon for so many artists to come from somewhere that’s not a major metropolis and go on to be platinum-selling and multi-Grammy award winning Rock and Roll Hall of Fame artists.

You talked about the messy interplay of two guitarists in a band, how did you and Joe Walsh manage to dovetail so exquisitely?

Anytime you have two guitarists in a band, it’s like doing a dance. Typically, when you have two guitarists, one guy will play a support role until it’s time for him to step up. Then the other guy will step back and let the other guy shine. Joe and I had great respect for each other to step back and have the courtesy to allow the other player to play and that’s really something you learn over the years. It’s something that you do between two guitarists and also with the keyboard player, so everyone has an area where they shine and then step back and take a supporting role. Both guitarists have to dance together and have the grace to allow each other the space. Joe and I did it from the start; it was very easy to play with Joe.

It seems you put the song first when working out your guitar parts.

I think so. I grew up in a house where my father loved to listen to big band music. Listen to a horn player and they can only play so many notes, usually play very melodic notes and then stop for a breath. Their phrasing is not an ongoing spew of notes. It’s not an assault, it’s a phrase. I leaned so much from a jazz saxophone player who was in one of the jazz-fusion bands I was in. He had beautiful phrasing and he taught me about melodic phrasing.

When you apply that to a guitar, you learn to phrase lines that go behind a melody, and that fill in between vocals and reflect the melody of the song and not just a bunch of licks. It’s a simpler approach to melodic guitar than most people like to do. I like to think of myself as a musical player rather than a flash player.

It is easier when you are writing a song. When I have an idea for a song and I have a melody of some kind and maybe some chord progression, I’ll lay down the chord progressions and then the vocal and then the final lead guitars around it. The song is not the guitar part. A guitar can support and embellish a song and give it a really good hook but it does not make a song.

Was that the process with “Hotel California”?

I thought it was really unique and different to anything ever written. The Eagles had been heading in a conventional country-rock direction. I was added to the band for my electric guitar, slide-electric ability and to help turn them into more of a rock and roll band. I was writing stronger guitar tracks that used electric guitar like “Victim of Love” and “Hotel California.”  When I came up with the “Hotel California” progression, I knew it was unique but didn’t know if it was appropriate for the Eagles. It was kind of reggae, almost an abstract guitar part for what was on the radio back then.

When I was writing for the Hotel California album, I was working on a TEAC 4-track in a beach house in Malibu and I was putting down ideas on tape. Then I made cassette copies and gave them to [Don] Henley, [Glenn] Frey, Walsh and [Randy] Meisner. Henley called me to say he really like the Mexican bolero, Mexican reggae song. I knew exactly which track he meant. Don came up with a great lyric concept for the song.  

Did you have any idea the song would be such a huge worldwide hit?

When everything was done and we had finished recording, we had a playback at the Record Plant. This was for the record company execs and promoters and some premier DJs. I think the last track they heard was “Hotel California.” Henley turned to me and said it was going to be the first single. I kind of argued with him because I didn’t think it was appropriate for a single. At that time AM radio had a formula – the song had to be 3 minutes and 30 seconds with a 30 second intro which the DJs liked, and so on. And “Hotel California” wasn’t a formula song. You couldn’t dance to “Hotel California.” It had a two-minute guitar solo on the end, it wasn’t really rock and roll and the drums stopped in the middle. I was really happy to lose that argument and be proven wrong. But Don’s instincts on that track were just brilliant.

Photo Credit: Don Felder live photos - Neil Zlozower

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