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Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Eagles "Hotel California" Song Analysis

Hotel California album cover from Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture production blog
Hotel California is actually the Beverly Hills Hotel
Jesse B. asked for an analysis of what has become an iconic song, The Eagles "Hotel California." It's the title song from the album of the same name that went on to sell over 16 million and was number 1 around the world. The song began it's life as a 12 string demo on guitarist Don Felder's home studio 4 track and was dubbed with a working title of "Mexican Reggae." The first full version was cut at the Record Plant in Los Angeles, but it turned out to be in the wrong key. The second version, also cut at the Record Plant, only had a smattering of lyrics, but was deemed too fast. The third and final version with both the music and the lyrics now more refined was cut at Criteria in Miami and was actually made up of the best pieces out of 5 takes. In fact, the master tape of the song had 30 edits!

As with all song analysis, we'll look at the form of the song, the arrangement, the sound and the production.

The Song
"Hotel California" has both an interesting chord pattern and song form. The main verse chord pattern of Bm, F#, A, E, G, D, Em, F# isn't used much in popular music, although it is a variation of a famous Flamenco guitar chord progression. The song form looks like this:

Intro, intro, verse, verse, chorus, verse, verse, chorus, verse, verse, 
solo, solo, solo, lead line, lead line, fade

The intro, solos and lead lines are played over the same verse chord pattern. Take notice that there's no bridge, and instead of another chorus at the end of the last two verses, the song goes into the solo and outro lead lines. As was the case with many songs from the rock era of the 70's, the song ends with a long fade.

The lyrics by Don Henley and Glenn Fry were actually inspired by Steely Dan, who's vague lyrics they called "junk sculpture." Fry remarked in a BBC radio interview that "one of the things that impressed us about Steely Dan was that they would say anything in their songs, and it didn't necessarily have to make sense." As a result, the lyrics consist of a series of cinematic one shots that can be interpreted in a variety of ways. That said, they are extremely well crafted, a trait that the band's songs are noted for.

The Arrangement
"Hotel California" has an exquisitely crafted arrangement that features both many layers and some major song dynamics. The song was originally cut with all band members playing together, then layered from there.

The beginning of the first intro has one 12 string acoustic guitar on the left side with a second 12 string acoustic on the right playing a slightly different line, along with the bass playing whole notes that outline the chord changes. Take notice to the high-hat roll that appears on the right channel at the end of the 4rth bar (half-way through the first intro). By the way, see if you notice a little bit of guitar noise that was left in the space at the end of the second bar.

The second intro begins with the addition of a a long acoustic guitar strum which occurs every other chord, along with a new guitar counter line on the far left side. Once again half-way through you hear light cymbal and high hat splashes emphasizing the downbeat of the chords.

The verse keeps the same chord pattern, but now the drums enter, the bass plays a reggae line, and a new electric guitar on the right side plays reggae style muted chord "chucks." On the next verse a harmony guitar line is introduced with each of the electric guitars panned to a different side of the soundfield.

The first chorus has a three part harmony based around the melody line, with electric guitar fills in the vocal spaces, which is identically repeated on the second chorus.

On the 3rd verse the harmony lead guitars continue and are joined by another 12 string playing a whole note strum on every chord. On the 4rth verse yet another guitar harmony line is introduced, this time in a higher register than the original, which still continues to play. The last two lead vocal lines are also joined by a higher harmony vocal. See how everything builds and gets bigger and bigger as the song goes along?

The 5th verse breaks down to the same instrumentation as the intro with the addition of the lead vocal over the chords. On the 6th and last verse, the entire band is back again playing the same parts that they played in the 4th verse.

On the solo and lead line sections, the same instrumentation continues as during the 3rd verse with the addition of Don Felder's lead guitar during the first solo, Joe Walsh's guitar during the second solo, and a trade off between both on the third. On the lead line solos at the end, the bass changes to playing a single note figure with the rhythms of the lead line solo, and the drums emphasize the last two notes.

As you can see, instruments are added as the song goes along to make it more exciting, are removed during the 5th verse, then brought back again for the 6th. It's a great example of tension and release.

Here's what the the arrangement elements look like:
  * The Foundation: bass and drums

  * The Rhythm: 12 string guitar line

  * The Pad: whole note acoustic guitar strum on the second intro and 3rd and 4rth verses, 2nd, 3rd and 4rth verse harmony lead guitar lines

  *The Lead: lead vocal, lead guitar, lead guitar lines at the end

  * The Fills: lead guitar, and counterpoint guitar lines

The Sound
In 1976 when "Hotel California" was cut, studios we not yet that sophisticated and there really wasn't a lot of outboard effects as there would be starting in the 80's. This song just goes to show that with a that's well put together, just a single long reverb can sound pretty good. You can really hear the reverb on Don Henley's voice mostly on the first and 5th verses when there's not a lot of instruments in the mix.

At the end of the second chorus, the reverb is muted so there's silence for a beat. It's gradually introduced back into the mix during the 5th verse. The drum kit is bone dry, which contrasts agains the rest of the instruments that have from a little to a lot of reverb, although the effect never sticks out of the mix.

Everything on this record is pretty clean sounding, and the guitar sounds (both acoustic and electric) are fantastic. Much of that has to do with great players and great gear, but you have to know how to capture it as well, and engineer/producer Bill Szymczyk does a fine job.

In terms of mixing, this is a dense mix at times yet everything has its place, most of which comes because of the different sound between the guitars, and how they're panned. If you take notice, all the guitar harmonies are panned left and right, as are the acoustic guitars that are the backbone of the song. The bed 12 strings do get buried at times but that's mostly because they're not needed any louder at that time.

Also notice how low in the track the vocals and the lead guitars are mixed. This was common in the 70s, mostly because that was the best way to keep the band sounding powerful in the mix. The other thing to listen to is how high in the mix the snare and high-hat are, yet the kick and bass still remain solid, although they don't have the bottom end that you'd expect if the mix were done today. You can hear the compressor work on Don Henley's voice during most of the song, like at about 1:45 on the last line before the chorus.

The Production
The production by Szymczyk here is exceptional, since the dedication to perfection is observed without the loss of feeling. Just the fact that the song was cut three times tells you that getting it right was primary in the the band and producer's minds, as was the fact that the final track was an amalgamation of many takes. The solos and lead parts were worked out over a two day period, which is an enormously long time for that period in music when most recordings happened much more quickly. Still all the excitement is kept and nothing ever feels labored, which is the mark of a great production.

Send me your requests for song analysis.


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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The History Of The Hammond Organ

I just love Hammond organs. I played a B3 for a long time during my gigging days, and it's sale paid for my move to Los Angeles (although it breaks my heart that I to this day that I sold it). As much as the technology to artificially recreate the sound of a Hammond and a Leslie has progressed, I must admit that the sound still isn't as good as an "oiler."

Here's a history of the Hammond and Leslie, which includes some great playing and rare footage (especially of Jimmy Smith).


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Don't forget to check out my Music 3.0 blog for tips and tricks on navigating social media and the new music business.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The 5 Best Cities In America For Live Music

Live Music image from Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture production blog
I'm not too sure how scientific this list is (it comes from, but most of it does make sense if you have any feel for music in the United States. Here are the (supposedly) 5 best cities in America for live music:

5. Los Angeles

4. New Orleans

3. Brooklyn

2. Austin

1. Portland

I must say that having Portland at #1 bothers me, but I haven't been there in such a long time that I can't say for sure just how much live music it has. Any Portland readers out there that can verify its music scene? Also, what kind of venues does it offer?


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Don't forget to check out my Music 3.0 blog for tips and tricks on navigating social media and the new music business.

Monday, July 30, 2012

A Post-Mix Checklist

Faders image from Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture production blog
Here's a post that I ran when I first started this blog in 2009, but it's just as pertinent now as it was then. It's a checklist to go through when you think you're finished with your mix. Much of this comes from The Mixing Engineer's Handbook or the upcoming Audio Mixing Bootcamp.
  • Does your mix have contrast? Does it build as the song goes along? Are different instruments, sounds or lines added in different sections?
  • Does your mix have a focal point? Is the mix built around the instrument or vocal that’s the most important?
  • Is your mix noisy? Have you deleted any count-offs, guitar amps noises, bad edits, and breaths that stand out?
  • Does your mix lack clarity or punch? Can you distinguish every instrument? Does the rhythm section sound great by itself?
  • Does your mix sound distant? Try using less reverb and effects.
  • Can your hear every lyric? Every word must be heard. That's what automation is for.
  • Can your hear every note being played? Automate to hear every note.
  • Are the sounds dull or uninteresting? Are you using generic synth patches or predictable guitar or keyboard sounds?
  • Does the song groove? Does it feel as good as your favorite song? Is the instrument that supplies the groove loud enough?
  • What’s the direction of the song? Should it be close and intimate or big and loud?
  • Are you compressing too much? Does the mix feel squashed? Is it fatiguing to listen to? Is all the life gone?
  • Are you EQing too much? Is the mix too bright or too big?
  • Are your fades too tight? Does the beginning or ending of the song sound clipped?
  • Did you do alternate mixes? Did you create at least in instrumental-only mix or TV mix? Some clients need them, others don't. Ask first.
  • Did you document the keeper mixes? Are all files properly named and marked? Are you sure which file is the master? Is it color-coded?
To read additional excerpts from The Mixing Engineer's Handbook and Audio Mixing Bootcamp, as well as excerpts from my other books, go to


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Don't forget to check out my Music 3.0 blog for tips and tricks on navigating social media and the new music business.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

When Your Internal Clock Is Off

Beat time cycles image on Bobby Owsinski's Big Picture production blog
Notice how the time gradually cycles over time
All musicians have a sense of time; some better than others. Why one drummer sounds so in the pocket while another playing exactly the same beat on the same kit yet sounds like moving furniture has been philosophized and analyzed, and I'm not sure than anyone has ever come up with an scientific explanation as to why. The same goes for other musicians who don't have to be as ambidextrous in their execution. Why is a studio musician's time better than other players? Why is machine generated music considered souless?

Maybe we now know, according to a very interesting article in the Harvard Gazette. A study at the Max Planck Institute For Dynamics and Self-Organization in Gottingen, Germany analyzed an expert Ghanaian drummer and discovered some interesting aspects of playing in time.

All humans have imperfect time (we don't we needed a study to tell us that), but it's the way that it's imperfect that makes a difference. When playing to a click, even a great player varies from being ahead or behind by 10 to 20 milliseconds. But what is really interesting is that these variations happen over long periods of time in the song, according to the study. A player may be ahead of the beat for 30 consecutive beats, then gradually fall behind for the next 30 (see the Beat Index on the left).

What's even more interesting is that the whole cycle repeats itself over long periods. In other words, the same cycle of being ahead for a number of beats then behind for a number repeats over and over.

But what's interesting about this is the fact that the beats are consecutive. What sounds bad to us is if we jump back and forth, being ahead for a couple then behind for a couple, which is why the "Humanize" function on a sequencer doesn't sound that human at all. It only randomizes the beats. Humans (at least the ones who are good players) do it in a slow cycle from ahead to behind.

I'm not sure if this study tried more than one drummer or if there were more musicians on different instruments involved, but it certainly all sounds plausible. What I'd love to read is a study on how musicians interact with each other, and what scientifically makes a good "pocket." Any takers?


You should follow me on Twitter for daily news and updates on production and the music business.

Don't forget to check out my Music 3.0 blog for tips and tricks on navigating social media and the new music business.


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