Best of 2021: With their evergreen Greatest Hits clocking up over 40 million sales and making it one of the highest selling albums of all time, there can be few people that don’t know at least some of The Eagles’ songs. And with Hotel California regularly appearing in ‘best ever guitar solos’ lists, they will definitely be on most guitarists’ radar, too.
Since their beginnings back in 1971 The Eagles have boasted a roster of fine six-stringers. Up until Don Felder joined the band in 1974 their main soloist was the multi-instrumentalist Bernie Leadon.
Leadon came from The Flying Burrito Brothers and was a master of many stringed instruments. Not only a fine country-rock guitarist he was equally adept at playing five-string banjo, pedal steel, B-bender Telecaster, mandolin and Dobro, all of which he brought to the band’s repertoire.
When The Eagles decided to go for a heavier sound, Bernie recommended his friend Don Felder, who joined for the album On The Border. Leadon quit soon after, partly due to this new rock direction. He was quickly replaced by The James Gang’s guitarist, Joe Walsh, providing The Eagles with one of the greatest twin guitar partnerships of all time.
But let’s not forget their founder, Glenn Frey. Although most commonly seen accompanying his vocal performances on six or 12-string acoustic, he was no mean electric guitarist, and played memorable solos both on record and during the band’s legendary live shows.
We reckoned everyone would know Hotel California and, while it encompasses all that’s great about this band – super song construction and arranging, plus exemplary playing – we have omitted it from this short list, instead preferring to highlight a few of the slightly less often heard tracks that showcase the disparate styles this brilliant band has brought us.
1. Witchy Woman (Eagles, 1972)
Although the Eagles’ eponymous debut album sounds like classic American country rock, in fact it was recorded at Olympic Studios in London under the eye of British producer, Glyn Johns.
They’d wanted Johns due to his rock heritage with acts like The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, but he preferred to build the album’s sound around Bernie Leadon’s more country flavoured approach. This led to arguments between him and the band’s main protagonists, Glenn Frey and Don Henley.
However, Leadon already had the germ of this early Eagles song while with The Flying Burrito Brothers. When he joined The Eagles he and drummer/vocalist Don Henley finished it together. It was Henley’s first Eagles writing credit.
Henley, who was also a superb vocalist, came up with the lyrics while delirious with influenza. He has stated that the ‘witchy woman’ in question was based largely around Zelda Fitzgerald (wife of author F Scott Fitzgerald), whose autobiography he was reading at the time, as well as various other girls he’d known.
Built around Leadon’s mesmeric riff in 4ths that Henley described as, “a Hollywood movie version of Native American music; the kind of stuff they play when the ‘Indians’ ride up on the ridge while the wagon train passes below”, the track pulses with a pedal bass note from Randy Meisner.
Surprisingly though, it was the group’s main singer and usually acoustic strummer, Glenn Frey who stepped up for the solo. Probably played on his 50s Gibson Les Paul Junior, nicknamed ‘Old Black’ and retrofitted with a Gibson P90 at the neck, it was a gift from old friend Jackson Browne.
Frey’s solo is rich, tasteful, and slightly modal in sound. At that time the Eagles were using modded Fender Deluxe Reverb amps and Glenn’s tasty solo sounds like that very model cranked and miked.
Of course, as with almost all Eagles songs, Witchy Woman is packed with superb vocal harmonies and insightful arranging skills, both facets upon which they would build as their career ascended.
2. Peaceful, Easy Feeling (Eagles, 1972)
Another cut from the band’s first album, Peaceful, Easy Feeling was written by friend of the band, Jack Tempchin. Although it sounds like a simple, almost throwaway number, Easy Feeling hides some neat ideas that many guitarists could take note of for their own songs or arrangements.
Driven by Glenn Frey’s acoustic guitars the song is in the key of E, and in certain sections Frey doubles it with a capo at the 2nd fret, where the D chord shape becomes an E chord. What sound to all intents and purposes like pedal steel licks are, in fact, Bernie Leadon playing his B-bender Telecaster.
The B-bender, popularised by The Byrds’ Clarence White and invented by him and fellow Byrd, Gene Parsons, has also been used by Jimmy Page, Albert Lee and Marty Stuart. It relies on a mechanical lever system that raises the second string by (usually) a whole step.
Of course Leadon had worked with ex-Byrd Chris Hillman in The Flying Burrito Brothers so would have been familiar with it. He was also an avid student of all stringed instruments and it was surely a nut he’d want to crack.
And crack it he did! When it comes to the solo, the first part is simply the melody played on the low strings of Leadon’s guitar, and sounds not unlike Glen Campbell’s baritone break on his hit Wichita Lineman.
However, as the chords change up to A for the verse’s second half Leadon fires off a salvo of licks, mixing clean-toned B-bender ideas and traditional bends to form a delightful and memorable moment in country-rock. The song brims with incredible harmony vocals which, along with Leadon’s inventive contributions, elevates a simple song into a mini work of art.
3. One Of These Nights (One Of These Nights, 1975)
The title track from the band’s fourth studio album is perhaps the first attempt at the arrangement ideas that would culminate in the recording of the epic Hotel California. Full of guitars from the opening, it featured both Bernie Leadon and recent conscript Don Felder. It was also produced by Bill Szymczyk rather than Glyn Johns, with whom the band had parted on the previous album, On The Border (1974).
Don Henley said of the song: "We wanted to get away from the ‘ballad syndrome’ with One Of These Nights. With Don Felder in the band now, we can really rock.” Frey added that they "wanted One Of These Nights to have a lot of teeth, a lot of bite - a nasty track with pretty vocals."
The song slams right in with Felder’s multi-tracked distorted electric, creating chords from the stacked harmonies, much like Nik Kershaw did on his song Wouldn’t It Be Good. Randy Meisner’s melodic bassline maintains the same lick over the changing chords of Em7, Cmaj7, Am7, Em7, and Bm, to create a unique and hypnotic sound.
Meanwhile another electric snaps out a back-picked ‘snick’ on the ‘4&’ of each bar. This continues as the song kicks into the verse, along with a purposeful strummed rhythm that highlights every beat; and yet another electric (probably Felder) on beat 2, which slides up to the E note on the fifth string, 7th fret.
These different guitar ‘voices’ continue on and off throughout the track; it’s the perfect example of ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’.
Felder’s first really big solo on an Eagles track is an orgasmic explosion, way up at the 20th fret on the top string. It’s a filthy tone, probably the cranked-up Fender Deluxe again, and Felder milks every note with screaming bends and a manic vibrato.
The track followed another pull from the album, the big ballad Take It To The Limit to the Billboard #1 spot, and helped the album to break the band around the world. It also sealed Henley’s position as perhaps country-rock’s finest vocalist.
4. New Kid In Town (Hotel California, 1976)
This sophisticated piece saw The Eagles at their zenith. The song was started by long-time Eagles collaborator JD Souther, and finished by Souther, Henley and Frey. It’s a classic ballad that discusses the idea of the ‘new big thing’, be it the good-looking boy that might take your girl, or perhaps an impressive new musician you fear may steal your gig.
Souther related it to ‘fastest gun’ syndrome, stating that, "at some point some kid would come riding into town that was much faster than you, and he'd say so, and then he'd prove it. We were just writing about our replacements.”
While the band had recruited Joe Walsh to the line-up, and Joe would go on the stamp his mark on the album in no uncertain terms, on New Kid the guitar roles were left to Frey, who played acoustic, and Felder who provided the electric fills and solo that helped make this such a classy song. However, Joe was not left out; he concocted the equally important Fender Rhodes electric piano and organ parts, and he and Felder would trade licks throughout the track.
Want to hear one of the best ever guitar fills linking a verse to a chorus? Then just listen to Felder’s perfect arpeggio lick that follows the line, “Even your old friends treat you like you’re something new” and again in the second verse. So simple, but so perfect.
In the guitar break Felder exploits the song’s E major key to make use of the open E and B strings for a solo that starts in very country fashion. But he soon finds his way to the top of the neck for some lyrical string bends, so typical of his style.
Another clever bit of writing: note how the middle 8 exits via the Am to D7 chord change on “tears on my shoulder” into the new key of G - and check out how cleverly the vocal harmonies follow the change.
Felder now dirties up his guitar, and again exploits the key, using the G to E minor change that heralds the “Johnny come lately” line, with a triumphal ‘Da-da-da-dum – chang!” bass string lick and open Em7 chord hit. The song switches deftly back to the original key of E for the outro, via a sneaky Am to B7 chord change.
There’s so much more going on in this track than at first you may realise, and even 45 years on it still sounds fresh, sophisticated and ultimately musical. Great writing, superb lead vocal, stunning harmonies, brilliant band interplay, plus great licks and a guitar solo that’s the icing on an already brilliant cake.
5. Rocky Mountain Way (Live from Melbourne, 2005)
While Joe Walsh had put his six-string aside for New Kid, when The Eagles played this track from Walsh’s old band Barnstorm they left it to Joe to steal the limelight. In this live version from Melbourne in 2005 Joe, dressed suitably in baggy clown pants, straps on his Rickenbacker 230GF, dons a finger slide and proceeds to enthral the crowd as only he can.
With the brilliant country session guitarist, Steuart Smith standing in Don Felder’s shoes since he and the band parted company in 2001, on this number even this giant musician took a back seat while Frey, playing ‘Old Black’, and Walsh get the song under way.
Walsh’s style is all about the feel, the laid-back timing, the tone and the vibrato that all contribute to one of the greatest guitar voices ever. Joe received his Rickenbacker as a gift from Frey, and it proves a wonderful vehicle for his brand of moody slide. Perhaps only Albert King could use fewer notes to evoke this much feel!
The sharp-eyed will have noticed a clear plastic tube sticking down from Joe’s microphone. This was for his ‘piece de resistance’, which comes in the song’s breakdown section. The lights dim, Joe swaps his Ricky for a black Gibson Les Paul and his secret weapon, the Heil Talk Box is revealed.
Walsh is in his element here, as he sticks the tube in his mouth and contorts his face in order to create vowel-like sounds via his guitar. All his best signature licks roll out, the audience loves it, and the rest of the band simply sit back and let him take the applause. This failsafe crowd-pleaser has regularly appeared in the band’s encore.
Since the sad death of Glenn Frey in 2016, the Eagles have regrouped with Frey’s son Deacon on guitar and vocals. Not only is he the image of his father as a young man, he even brings ‘Old Black’ out on stage with him. And so the legacy continues....