Credit for the guitar majesty of “Hotel California” is often given to Joe Walsh, who toughened up the Eagles’ laid-back California sound when he joined the band just prior to the Hotel California album’s recording.
Actually, the primary guitar heard throughout the solo belongs to Don Felder, who wrote the music for the track and actually conceived and played the solo’s intricate harmonies on his initial, instrumental demo.
“Every once in a while it seems like the cosmos part and something great plops into your lap,” Felder says.
“That’s how it was with ‘Hotel California.’ I had just leased this beach house in Malibu and was sitting in the living room with all the doors wide open on a spectacular July day, probably in ’75. I was soaking wet in a bathing suit, sitting on the couch, thinking the world is a wonderful place to be and tinkling around with this acoustic 12-string when those ‘Hotel California’ chords just oozed out. I had a TEAC four-track set up in a back bedroom, and I ran back there to put this idea down before I forgot it.
“I set this old rhythm ace to play a cha-cha beat, set the right tempo and played the 12-string on top of it. A few days later, I went back and listened to it and it sounded pretty unique, so I came up with a bass line. A few days after that, I added some electric guitars. Everything was mixed down to mono, ping-ponging back and forth on this little four-track. Finally, I wound up with a cassette that had virtually the entire arrangement that appeared on the record, verbatim, with the exception of a few Joe Walsh licks on the end. All the harmony guitar stuff was there, as was my solo.
“Then I gave it to Don Henley on a tape with eight or 10 ideas, and he came back and said, ‘I really love the one that sounds like a Matador…like you’re in Mexico.’ We worked it all up and went into the studio and recorded it as I wrote it—in E minor, just regular, open chords in standard tuning—and made this killer track. All the electric guitars were big and fat and the 12-string was nice and full.
"Then Henley came back and said, ‘It’s in the wrong key.’ So I said, ‘What do you need? D? F sharp?’…hoping that we could varispeed the tape. But he said no, that wouldn’t work, and we sat down and started trying to figure out the key—and it turned out to be B minor! So out comes the capo, way up on the seventh fret. We re-recorded the song in B minor and all of a sudden the guitar sounds really small and the whole track just shrinks! It was horrible, so we went back and tried it again. Luckily, we came up with a better version in B minor.
“I kept the capo on and recorded the acoustic guitar through a Leslie. They took a D.I. out of the console and a stereo Leslie, and this got this swirly effect. Then I went back and did most of the guitars, except for the stuff where Joe and I set up on two stools and ran the harmony parts down. I play the first solo, then it’s Joe. Then we trade lines and then we go into the lead harmonies.
“Now that I’ve heard it for 20 years, the 12-string part sounds right to me, but it’s still not as nice as the E minor version we did. And even when we’d finished the song and made it the title track, I wasn’t convinced that it should be our single. I thought it was way too long—twice the normal radio length—and sort of weird because it started out quiet and had this quiet breakdown section in the middle. I was very skeptical, but I yielded to the wisdom of Henley.”