Don Felder—Flying High and Free

After departing the Eagles and dealing with personal issues, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame guitarist Don Felder found solace by writing his 2008 memoir, Heaven and Hell: My Life in The Eagles (Wiley). The best-selling tell-all may have burned the last of his bridges to his former band, but it also provided a much-needed catharsis for Felder, who was then able to write and record his long-overdue second solo album, 2012’s Road to Forever. Since then, he has toured nearly nonstop and has performed with numerous musicians, including Sammy Hagar, Peter Frampton, and Styx’s Tommy Shaw.

Felder, who composed much of the music for what has become the most aired song in rock radio history, “Hotel California,” and earned the nickname “Finger” for his fret-board wizardry, has never received proper recognition as guitar hero…until now. The custom, double neck Gibson SG guitar that graces the cover of American Rock ‘N’ Roll only hints at its diverse collection of songs. Felder’s third solo album is not only a celebration of both the artist and American rock ‘n’ roll, but also features a who’s who of guests, including Slash, Joe Satriani, and Mick Fleetwood.

Friendly, outgoing, gracious, and excited about his current tour, which has two upcoming dates in our area—Thursday, September 26, in Newton, New Jersey and Saturday, September 28 in Patchogue, New York. He balks only when asked about late Eagles’ singer Glenn Frey, explaining he has said all he is going to say.

Road to Forever was Don Felder getting his groove back. American Rock ‘N’ Roll seems to be a celebration.

I played everything on Road to Forever. I demoed the bass parts and then had real bassists come in; I programmed the drum parts and then had drummers come in; and I played all the guitar parts except for one, which [Toto’s] Steve Lukather played. He was the only guest guitarist. It took a long time, coordination, and focus for me to arrange everything from electric guitar to slide guitar to steel guitar to mandolin to nylon-stringed guitar. It was me doing everything, which was great, because I thought it came out well.

You certainly took a different approach on the new album.

What I really missed during the creation of my last record was the fire and spontaneity of being in the room with someone like Slash or Joe Satriani; Sitting there playing guitar with Peter Frampton; That thrill and excitement of not walking into [a studio] and creating something perfectly; just letting it come out. It’s what [former Eagles’ bandmate Joe] Walsh and I often did with [his] Walsh and Friends [project]; that spontaneity.

The album features a who’s who of guest performers.

On the last album, I used the same bassist and drummer on most of the tracks. This time, I wanted to use different drummers, so each track sounded different. It was the same with the bassists, whether it was Nathan East or Abe Laboriel, I used the musician who was appropriate for the given track.

Slash’s sound is unmistakable on the title track.

That came about because I wrote one of the song’s verses as a tip of the hat to both Slash and Axl Rose. I thought it would be incredible if I could get Slash to come in play a couple of those notorious Slash licks. When he came into the studio, he said, “Where do you want me to play?” I said, “Start at the top.” We just went in and recorded the song three or four times and used his best licks and moved them around, making room for me to play along with him. It was just a fun experience, instead of me sitting there simulating one guitar and then me answering with a different sounding guitar.

Is that the same approach you took while working with Joe Satriani?

When we did “Rock You” with Sammy Hagar, Joe was sitting in the room. He was probably the most incredible, technical rock ‘n’ roll guitar player—Joe and Steve Vai are in another stratosphere when it comes to technique. So here I am plugging in my guitar and Joe is plugging in his and my heart is pounding. Playing with someone like him really pushes you out of your safety or comfort zone, where if you don’t like this or that you can just redo it. You just have to step up your game. What we managed to pull off, between harmonies and trading off solos, I though was brilliant.

How did Rush’s Alex Lifeson come to play on “Charmed”?

Another great player. He and I had played together at several charity events. Since Rush have stopped touring and recording, Alex has been sitting around twiddling his thumbs, so I said, ‘I have this record and I’d love for you to play on it.’ And he responded [anxiously], ‘When, where, what do I do?’ He was excited to have something to work on. He was at his studio in Canada, so I sent him [music] and he said, ‘Where do you want me to play?’ And I said, ‘I am not going to tell you what to play. You just be Alex and play anywhere you want on the song.’ Knowing that he has that sense of arranging—he played acoustic guitar on the bridges and the choruses and we put together that solo on the end. He played this great lick at the end of the song and then I had to sit down and figure out the harmonies to go on top of what he had played.

Is sending music back and forth different than the way you are used to collaborating?

Sometimes I was in the same room as the other musicians and sometimes I wasn’t. [Fleetwood Mac drummer] Mick Fleetwood was at his studio in Hawaii. We sent him the title track and he overdubbed it. We sent the track back and forth a few times and he said, ‘What would you like me to do?’ And I responded, ‘I want you to be Mick Fleetwood.’

Peter Frampton just performed his last New York City show at Madison Square Garden. Not only does he appear on your record, but haven’t you toured with him?

Frampton and I have known each other for a long time. He is one of the nicest, sweetest, kindest, just highest integrity people in the music business; not only his playing, but also his personality. He is a true English gentleman. He is very dignified and has the highest morals of just about anyone I have ever met in the music industry. And he is, of course, a top-notch player.

When we were out together, we just had so much fun with me coming out and playing “Hotel California” and both of us harmonizing at the end. We also played “Pride and Joy” together. It was a blast. Just to spend that much time with him—we did 14 or 15 shows together—was a delight.

You ended up inducting him into The Musicians Hall of Fame.

Yes. It was in [2014] and I was honored that he asked me to do it. I flew back to Nashville and put a presentation together that spanned his history, career, and works. A year later, when I was inducted, there was only one person to induct me. He came to Nashville and did the honor.

When I asked him to play on this record, he said, ‘Absolutely,’ jumped on a plane and came to my studio in Nashville. He already knew what I wanted him to play. He has this tone and sound that he gets when he plays through a Leslie amp that should be the soundtrack for heaven. It is the most beautiful, ethereal, slow-turning feeling that he gets. That is what I wanted on “The Way Things Have to Be.”

I had written the song on piano, but while putting it together with a guitar, I kept hearing that Leslie tone of his. When he arrived, we told jokes and hung out for about 45 minutes, he had his stuff already set up and then we did three or four takes. Then he sang on the chorus with me.

It’s heartbreaking that he is dealing with this rare, career-ending muscular disease: Inclusion Body Myositis.

I have an even greater respect for him knowing that under those circumstances—what he was going through at the time—he still did that for me.

It sucks that the older we get, the more our heroes are suffering or even passing on.

You might be getting older, but I’m not!

Since the release of 2012’s Road to Forever, you have not stopped to take a breath! It seems like you are constantly touring.

I don’t have to go on stage ever again, but I love playing. There is nothing I would rather do than walk into a dark studio, turn everything on, and have no idea of what I am going to do. Then, by the end of the day, I walk out with a song. It is exciting; it’s creative; and it is inspiring. And to walk out on stage in front of thousands of people and play songs that they know every lyric to and every guitar solo to is a wonderful thing to be able to do. I will continue to do that until I have to stop. And I hope that is decades away.

I am inspired, I am enthused, I try to take care of myself and I am in good health. And I love what I am doing.

Did American Rock ‘N’ Roll’s diverse songs or concept come first?

The album’s title came from the song “American Rock “N’ Roll,” which I had started writing during the eighties. I had demoed the song years ago, but it had older musical references like Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper—all of those guys back in the fifties.

The biggest impact on me, musically, was Woodstock and seeing Jimi Hendrix, Santana, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Janis Joplin–all those artists that were there for those three days. There has not been anything like that since.

Was that your “Beatles on Ed Sullivan” moment, where you realized that you had to be a rock musician?

No. I was nine years old when I saw Elvis on The Ed Sullivan show. He had previously been banned because his dance moves were too suggestive. When I saw that and all the girls in the audience screaming—rock ‘n’ roll was just exploding—that was the moment I wanted to become a musician.

But you chose to lyrically begin “American Rock ‘N’ Roll” at Woodstock.

And continue every decade thereafter. That is the concept for that song. Once I had that laid out, all the other songs began to relate to the title, except, perhaps for “Little Latin Lover,” which was inspired by a trip I took to Buenos Aires. I went with a friend who was dating a tango instructor. We went to a tango dance club, which I had never been to before. It was a big oval and all around [there] were tables where everyone sits and watches these dancers move by in a counterclockwise circle. The women’s dresses are flowing by and it is a very erotic, glorious, beautiful, and intimate dance. And I said to myself, ‘There is a song here.’ I wanted a song that I could play a nylon-string guitar on.

Do you have an appreciation for the members of Toto (keyboardists David Paich and Steve Porcaro) because they were, like you, sidemen and session musicians?

I have the ultimate respect for all those guys in Toto, whether it is Steve Lukather or Paich, who wrote “Hearts on Fire” with me. The song was originally called, “What Are You Going to Do When the World’s on Fire?” which was about global warming when it passes the point where we can still live on this planet. It was a great idea, but it was not suitable for a party song. So, I changed it to a love song. I would have brought Lukather in to play on it, but he played on the last album and I wanted to play with a variety of musicians.

I never thought you were properly recognized as a guitar hero. Does the variety of talent who appear on American Rock ‘N’ Roll validate who you are?

I was honored that everyone I reached out to [to play on this record] responded so quickly and accepted my invitation. No one said, ‘Well, I’d like to, but I don’t have the time.’ They are all friends.

Catch Don Felder in Newton, NJ on Thursday, September 26th and in Patchogue, NY on Saturday, September 28th