Bend Like an Eagle: Three Classic Rock Licks


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In 1977, the Eagles were arguably the biggest band in the world, and almost forty years later their music is still everywhere. So much so that for a while it became cool to hate them. Anyone remember Mojo Nixon’s 1990 single “Don Henley Must Die?” But the untimely passing of founding guitarist/singer/songwriter Glenn Frey early this year made many people listen again with fresh ears and remember why they loved those songs in the first place. The Eagles took the country-flavored Southern California sound of bands like Buffalo Springfield and Poco and perfected the style through smart, hooky songwriting and a meticulous approach in the recording studio.

Hotel California” is not just a great song, it’s a great record. It is brilliantly arranged and full of sharp, perfectly executed guitar playing. From the distinctive high-capoed twelve-string intro to the almost orchestral use of layered guitars, it’s a textbook in guitar arranging. The intertwining outro solo, played by Don Felder and Joe Walsh, was voted the greatest guitar solo of all time by readers of Guitarist magazine in 1998.

It took three days of rehearsal to work out those parts, and clearly the result was worth the effort. Part of the greatness of that outro is how it perfectly shows the Eagles’ approach to guitar solos, and lead guitar in general.
The Eagles Photo By Rachel Kramer.

How the Eagles composed Solos

The band always had multiple guitarists. Glenn Frey and Bernie Leadon in the original lineup, augmented by Don Felder in 1974. Leadon left in 1975 and was replaced by Joe Walsh. If you’ve ever played in a band, you know how challenging it can be to get two guitar parts to work together well. Add a third and things get really complicated! The Eagles’ approach was to arrange carefully. Each player had a role to play in the texture, and the parts were worked out to ensure that everything complemented the whole. “Hotel California” is full of harmonized lead guitar parts that add counterpoint to the vocals while sitting comfortably on top of the rhythm laid down by the bass and 12-string. When the guitars take the lead at the end of the song, notice how well the two players’ solos weave together. You need to pay attention to even hear the handoffs; the last note of each player’s solo harmonizes perfectly with the first note of the other’s.

This idea of harmonized lead parts didn’t start with “Hotel California,” classic rock is full of great examples (the harmony breaks in Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back In Town” is one of my favorites). But while the guitars in the Thin Lizzy song harmonize exactly, the Eagles used counterpoint. The intertwining of distinct melodies that create harmony as they come together. Check out this simple example, reminiscent of the lick that begins the solo in 1974’s “Already Gone”:

Exercise 1

Full Speed Demonstration

Notice the use of bending. String bends were always a big part of the Eagles’ lead guitar sound, reflecting both the country and rock influences on the band’s music. It’s important to understand something crucial about string bending: the force to move the string comes as much from the hand and arm as it does the fingers. In these examples, start the bend with three fingers on the string. This gives you a good solid grip and lets you put the whole weight of your hand into the bend. Strike the second string and then rotate the hand inward, pushing the string up. Extend the fingers slightly as you do this, but maintain some curl. The 3rd string should simply be pushed up along with the second, so make sure you’re coming from below the string a little bit to keep that third string from sliding under your fingernail (OUCH!).

Bending to Pitch

Now comes the most important part: aim. Bending a string raises its pitch, so you want to make sure you raise it just enough to match the pitch of the equivalent fretted note. This example uses whole-step bends, a distance of two frets. We’re bending from the 10th fret, but we want to hear the pitch of the 12th fret note. You may want to play the note on the 12th fret first to get the target note in your ear. In tablature, the target pitch is indicated by the number in parentheses, but your fingers are still on the fret of the preceding note.

Releasing the Bend

Hold the bent string for a full count of four to last through the whole measure. Then release the bend, keeping all three fingers on the string, and strike it again as you land. This “release” is an essential part of string bending and can be trickier to control than the bend up. Many people find that they end up sounding the next lower string as the bend comes down, but when you find the “sweet spot” on your fingertip, you’ll be able to maintain enough contact with the second string to keep it from ringing out. Finish the lick by bending and releasing the same note, but faster this time. Instead of holding the bent note out, bend and release in one fluid motion and then lift the ring and middle fingers to sound the 8th fret note with your index finger.

Eagles-Inspired Lick

The second lick begins just like the first, followed by a sustained series of bends and releases. This is tricky, because we want the sound to continue through all four bends. Practice slowly and remember to let the wrist and arm do most of the work as you keep the pressure on the string even throughout. The last note is played by releasing the bent string completely – don’t let it back down, just let go – and jumping to the index finger on fret 8.

Now take a look at example 2, inspired by an answering lick from the same solo:

Exercise 1

Full Speed Demonstration

We’re in 12th position for this one. Extend the ring finger up to the 15th fret of the second string and back it up with the middle finger. Your index finger will stay on the 12th fret to set up the next lick, so you’ll be using two fingers primarily for this bend. Once again, we’re not going to let the string back down after this first bend, just release the string and jump to the 14th fret of the third string. This is tricky already, but wait, it gets better. This next bend is a “pre-bend.” Bend the string without striking it, then hit the bent string and release it back to pitch. Then lift middle and ring to reach the 12th fret with your index finger; the ring finger then returns to the 14th fret. When you can execute this smoothly, the descending figure of bend-release-lift-replace will sound as one fluid sequence of notes.

The second half of the lick starts with a middle finger slide to the 14th fret of the G string, setting up index and ring for the next bend. Once again, we’re going to sustain the sound through two bends, but this time the releases are quick and have no time value of their own. The third bend will be struck, and this release will be in time. The difference is that you won’t really hear the descent on the quick releases, but on the slower one you can hear the descending pitch.

Exercise 1 and 2 Together

Getting back to the idea of intertwining lead lines: these two licks are actually played together by the two lead guitars. Notice how they start in harmony with bends into B and E notes, but then separate into a conversation as the second guitar answers the first.

Hotel California Inpsired Lick

Our last example is inspired by the “Hotel California” solo, and uses what we call oblique bends: a bent note against another stationary note:

Exercise 1

Full Speed Demonstration

We need to start with a note on the tab; the sustained bend against the second ringing note is tricky to notate. Start off with the ring finger on the 5th fret of the second string and bend up a whole step (pitch of fret 7). As you hold the bend, add the pinky to the 5th fret of the first string, but allow the bent string to keep sounding. You’ll strike the first string again before hitting the bent second string once more, releasing back to the 5th fret, and then bending back up without striking the string. This is followed by a pre-bend lick, but notice in the tab that the parentheses in measure 2 are around the 5. This is because the 5th fret is the note sounded by the bend, but your finger is still on the 5th fret. Both licks are then repeated before a jump up to 8th position to grab the 10th fret A on the second string and bend it up a whole step to B.

If you’re new to string bending, these will be challenging licks, and it would be very worthwhile to check out Will Ripley’s excellent JamPlay lesson on bends:

How to Bend Strings by Will Ripley

Taught by Will Ripley

Will now transitions in to more lead oriented playing, starting a must know technique: String bending!

Once you’re got the basic technique under your fingers, though, these examples demonstrate a nice variety of ways to approach string bending: straight bends, sustained bends, pre-bends, fast and slow releases, and oblique bends. All this in three licks! Not bad for a weekend’s work.

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Thanks for reading.

Thanks for reading! Have fun and be sure to leave any questions or comments you might have in the comments below!


Dave Isaacs
Nashville Session Musician

Dave Isaacs Nashville Session Musician In a community full of world-class musicians, Dave Isaacs is known around Music City USA as the “Guitar Guru of Music Row”. The New York native has called Nashville home since 2005, and has built a reputation as an ace guitarist and top teacher, mentor, and musical coach. Dave has helped countless aspiring and pro musicians, songwriters, and performers expand their musical knowledge, improve their performance skills, and achieve dynamic new levels of success.

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