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Hotel California


Song: Hotel California

Songwriters: Don Felder, Glenn Frey, Don Henley

Performed by: The Eagles

The success of the song Hotel California hinges on two factors: a very strong (and immediately identifiable) chord sequence in the verses, and the lyrics with their famously enigmatic depiction of the mysterious Hotel California. For my money, the chorus is nothing spectacular; it does the job nicely, but it's those other two factors that earned the song its classic status.

Let's start by looking at that chord sequence for the verses, and which is also used in the introduction and guitar solo sections. It's unmistakeable, one of the first things many new guitarists learn; so what's the secret?

Guess what? What holds Hotel California together harmonically is only one of the oldest tricks in the book, and one that JS Bach used countless times to great effect: the Circle of Fifths. The idea is simple: the roots of the chords follow a sequence of rising perfect fifths (i.e. an interval of seven semitones). So the roots of the first six chords are: B, F sharp, A, E and G. (If you want to try this in your own songwriting, the device also works very nicely in the opposite direction.) The last two chords break the circle of fifths, but bring us neatly back to the dominant chord, which, as always, has a strong gravitational pull back to the start of the sequence.

Now to refine our Circle of Fifths. The second and fourth chords of the progression (F sharp and E) are major rather than minor for very good reason. The six chords of our sequence provide us with a descending chromatic scale (descending in semitones from B). Exchanging these for minor chords would break this chromatic scale.

Another interesting detail in the first six chords of this sequence is that every consecutive pair of chords contains

  • one whole tone step (e.g. the B to A step of B major to F sharp major), and

  • one note in common (e.g. the note F sharp in the above example), as well as

  • the semitone step from the chromatic scale just discussed (the notes B to A sharp).

You'll find these features in many great chord sequences, such as John Coltrane's Giant Steps.

As for the lyrics of Hotel California, they have come in for no end of analysis, but I'll just chip in my five cents worth here.

Firstly, what's it all about anyway.

There are many theories, but that's just the point. By writing metaphorically, the song could be about any number things: fame, drug addiction, love, Hell. But I think the common theme is of something we get ourselves into willingly, only to find it is less easy to disentangle oneself.

You can check out any time you like

But you can never leave

The language throughout is richly descriptive. I find the line about the “warm smell of colitas” very evocative – and I have no idea whatsoever what a colita smells like.

This could be Heaven, and this could be Hell

This line reminds me of Jean-Paul Sartre's play Huis Clos (In Camera), where Hell is depicted as a perfectly nice place, but one from which it's impossible to leave, or escape the company of one's fellow inmates. Sort of a prototype for the Big Brother house.


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