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Interview with Don Felder Former Guitarist of The Eagles

Don Felder
Don Felder
Alex Kluft

1. Who are some of your early guitar influences?
Don Felder: I think the first person to really inspire me to play guitar was Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan show. I was 10 years old and just saw him shaking his hips and playing guitar with all those girls screaming. I said “I think I want to do that.” He was probably the first inspiration I had. Shortly after I discovered B.B. King on WLAC in Nashville, TN . In Gainesville, FL you could tune in and hear Little Richard playing “Tutti Frutti,” instead of Pat Boone or you could hear B.B. King playing and singing The Blues. When I was 14, I met B.B. when he was playing in a bar outside of Gainesville. I snuck out there and peaked through the window to see him play and went backstage, but there wasn’t really a stage, it was more like a stall with stacks of hay and cases of beer. I went back and met him and he was just the kindest, nicest guy I’ve come across. Chet Atkins was also an early influence. I was just astounded when I saw him live when I was 15 at the Daytona Beach civic auditorium, and he played this song that was actually two songs simultaneously. He played “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Dixie,” songs from both the north and south, and nearly burned my brain out trying to figure out how he did that. Eventually after a year of trying every key and combination, I figured it out how he did it. Later in the 60’s it was Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and all the big guitar players that started showing up on the radio.

2. Since Elvis was a big influence, was Scotty Moore one as well?
DF: Absolutely, you bet. He was the main guitarist with Elvis and played on 90% of his records I think. At the time I didn’t have a record player, but my father had a tape recorder. He would borrow peoples records and record it on a real to real tape recorder. I could play the recordings back at half time, but it was an octave down. I learned each note very slowly. I was pretty much self taught in the beginning of my career. Thank goodness, I had the ability to develop ear training. I could hear something on the radio and hear it one or two times, I could play it.

3. Did you notice Elvis was censored on the Ed Sullivan show the third time he was on? Because they thought his hips moving was too graphic, right? Do you remember the comeback special he did where he was wearing all black?
AK: The 68’ comeback
DF: Actually a good friend of mine produced it. He has great stories about it. Elvis was really reluctant to come out and perform, because he hadn’t performed in front of people for so long. Once he got out and got into it, he realized he was being idolized by everybody in the U.S. so he got back into it.

4. What was your reaction to seeing The Beatles on Ed Sullivan?
DF: To me they took basic American Rock N’ Roll and put a British slant on it. I thought it was really great that they had 4 guys that all wrote and sang, and the harmonies were different than anything we had really heard in Rock N’ Roll except for groups like Sam & Dave that were soul. They were really intricate harmonies that were unique. I was immediately taken to George Harrison’s guitar playing. He was not a shredder in the sense like Jimmy Page, but the parts that he wrote were very musical and very unique. I really appreciated what George did musically in that band. He came up with great parts the way a composer would come up with a horn line.

5. What was the first record you bought?
DF: “The Jungle” by B.B. King. After I met him a mowed lawns and washed cars to save up the money. You could order things through WLAC. One of their main sponsors was Randy’s record mart. You could write down on a card what you wanted and send them the $2 for a single and $5 or $6 for a full album You would wait three weeks and eventually it would show up in your mailbox. If it wouldn’t fit in a mail box, the mailman would bring it to your front door.

6. At one point you were in a band with Stephen Stills, taking slide lessons from Duane Allman, and teaching Tom Petty guitar, Did you have any idea they would go one to become as big as they are today.
DF: The Allman Brothers were in bands called the spotlights and Allman Joys before they put together the Allman Brothers band. We used to be in battle of the bands together in Gainesville. The last time we played in a battle of the bands, they had the Allman Brothers configuration with two drummers, Butch Trucks and Jaimoe, and two guitar players. They just smoked the place. They’re was no way we could come anywhere close to them. They won nearly every battle we were in. Duane ended up giving me my slide fundamentals on the floor of his mother’s house. I taught Petty acoustic guitar, while he was playing bass. We were just a bunch of kids in this little town playing fraternity parties, bars. In the summer we would go to Daytona beach dance clubs and the pier to keep ourselves busy. We were just kids and no one had any idea they’d go on to do anything or that anything existed other than seeing groups on the Ed Sullivan show. That was about it, there weren’t huge concerts going on yet.

7. What was it like learning slide guitar from Duane Allman?
I was a guitar teacher at a music store in Gainesville. Any kid that would come in to get a guitar for their birthday or Christmas, I would start teaching. Berklee college of music. One of the guys that was a big musician in town that was a great guitarist that went to Berklee college of music and came back after he graduated. He had given up guitar and was playing piano. I said “Why did you stop playing guitar?” He said “You can see harmonization and chord structure much easier on the piano.” He opened a music school. For every hour I would teach these young beginners that came in to play guitar, he would teach me theory. Everybody shared musical information and knowledge, because we didn’t have an official music school or university that taught guitar and Rock N’ Roll there. We played a show over in Daytona and everyone knew each other. When we got off playing our shows, we’d go to this diner since it was the only place open at 2 or 3 in the morning. We would eat breakfast and end up at Duane’s mother’s house. He was sitting there playing slide guitar and I said you gotta show me how to do that. He showed me the tuning and the basic slide positions and a slide that I sold him. We were just sharing whatever information we had with eachother since we were all self taught. No one had the money or opportunity to go to a formal music school We just helped eachother out, that’s the way it all came together.

8. How did you and Bernie Leadon meet?
DF: Bernie actually replaced Stephen Stills in a band we were in when were about 14 or 15 in Gainesville before he moved to Los Angeles. Bernie’s father was a nuclear physicist and was hired by the university of Florida to start their nuclear research center. I had gotten on a bus, today nobody would allow their kid to do this. I took Greyhound up to Lake City, FL to play a woman’s luncheon. I would sit in the corner and play songs. I got on the bus and came back to Gainesville. I stepped off the greyhound bus. There was a guy there that had a 63 or 64 Ford Falcon. He said he had called the music store and asked who the best guitarist in town. They said “Don Felder, he teaches guitar here,” and he said he wanted to speak with me. They gave him my home phone number. He called my mother and she told him I was coming in on the bus. He showed up to give me a ride home. He brought his Martin flat top, and I didn’t even own an acoustic guitar. He played this amazing blue grass guitar then pulled out a 5-string banjo and I took out my electric. We decided to go to the music store. I would buy a flattop acoustic guitar and he would teach me country music and he would buy an electric and I would teach. He joined the band that Stephen had just left. He was good singer, really nice guy. We were high school buddies literally until he graduated from high school then he moved to California. I lost two friends and band members to the state of California (Laughs) To me it seemed like the other side of the world. I ended up putting a band together and moving to New York city and making an album up there.

9. At what point did you realize how big the Eagles became?
DF: I don’t think any of us really anticipated the magnitude the band would go on to enjoy. I think the first time I really got an insight to how much success we had was after “Hotel California” when we played Wembley Stadium in London. It was The Eagles and Elton John. I remember standing on stage in front of this stadium filled with about 110,000 people. It was the largest crowd I had played for. The floor was full of people. Normally the field is for soccer. The wings were two or three decks high. It was very magnanimous to be on a stage that high. Also we got to hang with Elton John. I said “Hey we made it.” Little did we know we’d go on to do bigger and better stuff later. I think after “Hotel California.” We realized the success we had. The realization for me was in 1999, we were getting ready to put together a show for new years for the millennium. The RIAA put together his huge press conference and presented us with an award from them for the largest selling album of the 20th century. I knew we were selling a lot of records, but I didn’t really keep track on how many we had sold or who was in the lead of anything. All the artists of the 20th century like Elvis Presley, The Beatles, and Frank Sinatra; we had the largest selling album. That’s when It really struck me right between the eyes, the level of success we had been able to attain.

10. Did you know when you guys had made a hit considering there were so many major hits which you can hear on the greatest hits album.
DF: Yes and no. The songs that we though were hits on the records were ones we thought had the best shot at being on the radio. There were decisions where we might disagree that wasn’t the right song. When we finished “Hotel California” we had this playback party for all the record company people. They came down in Los Angeles. After “Hotel California” played, Don Henley said that’s going to be our next hit single. I disagreed, because in the 70’s the radio format was a song had to be 3 minutes and 30 seconds and the introduction had to be less than 30 seconds before the singer started, so the Dj could talk before the singing started so they wouldn’t have to talk for too long. The song was 6.5 minutes long and the intro was a minute long. You can’t really dance to it and the drums stop in the middle with a two minute guitar solo at the end. I thought this is the wrong format for a single, maybe a good FM cut but not for AM radio. Don said “No, that’s going to be our single.” I have never been so happy to be wrong in my whole life.

You can catch Don Felder on tour with Foreigner and STYX this Summer and at the Greek Theatre this Saturday.

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