10 Steps to the “Hotel California” Guitar Solo
“Hotel California” by the Eagles features one of the best-known extended dual guitar solos of all time, and understanding the music theory behind it will help you master it. The chord sequence isn’t a commonly used progression, and properly applying scales to it requires some extra insight.
The guitar solo section is played over the same chord progression heard in the song’s introduction and verses. The key is generally regarded as B minor, though the progression is interspersed with 5ths and modal interchange, which creates temporary focus on chords other than Bm. As a result, lead guitarists need to either modify the B minor scale or change scales altogether. As you soon see, sticking with one pentatonic scale is also an option.
In their most basic form, the chords are as follows:
Now, take this progression one chord at a time.
Use the B natural minor scale, which is the 6th mode of D major. Here, you see a sample B minor scale pattern. Notice that a B minor pentatonic scale (shown in black) fits right into it:Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna
Whenever you have a minor tonic chord and a dominant 7th a 5th away, they are often derived from the harmonic scale (the B minor and F# also occur in the ascending form of the melodic minor scale). Normally the F# in the key of B minor is minor, but by raising the 7th degree of the minor scale you get a major 3rd in the F# chord and the harmonic minor scale.
The following scale pattern is identical to the one in Step 1, except this: All the A notes, the 7th degree of B minor, have been raised to A#. What was a flattened 7th is now a major 7th and highlighted using a diamond shape:Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna
The next chord in the progression is A, which fits right into the initial key of B natural minor. It’s the bVII chord if you count Bm as I (it’s the V chord if you count from the relative major, D). Return to the regular B minor scale for this chord.
At this point you ought to pick up on a kind of sequence in the chord changes. You start on B and then move up a 5th. Then you move a whole step and repeat similar movement: A up a 5th to E. You see this sequence continue in a moment, but first, you need to play over the E major chord.
Normally, the key of B natural minor features an Em chord. But in B Dorian mode, which is drawn from the A major scale, E is a major IV chord (Bm-E is i-IV). By raising the 6th of B natural minor you change the Em chord to E major and produce the B Dorian scale.
The following pattern illustrates what this scale looks like. See that it’s similar to B natural minor but with the flattened 6ths raised to major 6ths. Notice that B minor pentatonic is still part of the scale:Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna
Now you’re back to B natural minor because G is diatonic to B minor and its relative major, D. So go back to the original B minor scale pattern in Step 1.
Are you seeing the 5ths sequence here? Bm-F#7 is a 5th, A-D is a 5th, and G-D is a 5th. You move down a whole step in between each pair. Because D fits right into B minor/D major, you stick with the same pattern from the previous chord.
Here, the 5th sequence is broken. The Em chord still fits into B minor/D major, so no scale changes are required.
Finally, the F#7 from step 2 appears again, but this time with its dominant function used in full force to lead the progression back to the base tonic, Bm. Use the B harmonic minor scale again (Step 2).
The base scale is B minor throughout but with some modifications made along the way to accommodate chords that are out of key. As a result, you end up using the B natural minor scale along with B harmonic minor and B Dorian.
The five-tone B minor pentatonic scale is common to both the natural minor and Dorian mode, but it doesn’t entirely fit with the harmonic minor because it includes a b7th compared with the harmonic minor’s major 7th. Still, you could play B minor pentatonic over the entire progression, including the F#7 chord, because it’s not always necessary to outlining the V7 chord in a minor key. Go this route and you can stick in one pentatonic scale in what is otherwise a fairly complex chord progression.
Outline with arpeggio patterns.
Whether you choose to stick in the B minor pentatonic the whole time or change between natural minor, Dorian, and harmonic minor, you can add more direction to your solos by hitting on the chord tones of each chord as it passes.
You can know which notes in the scale to emphasize over each chord by visualizing chord shapes in the scale pattern. In Step 4, you see the B minor pentatonic scale illustrated seven times, with each example highlighting a different arpeggio pattern that corresponds to one of the seven chords from the progression:Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna
Follow the voice leading.
A neat feature of this chord progression, and one that you can take advantage of in your solos, is its use of voice leading. The chord changes Bm-F#7-A-E-G-D feature the chromatic line B-A#-A-G#-G-F#, as shown in Step 9. B is the root of Bm, A# is the 3rd of F#7, A is the root of A, G# is the 3rd of E, G is the root of G, and F# is the 3rd of D.Credit: Illustration courtesy of Desi Serna
So instead of switching scales or outlining chords with arpeggios, you can think of one base scale, like B minor pentatonic, and then play around the chromatic voice-leading line. When you do, you’ll be making all the proper changes to the scale pattern anyway. So this is just another way to accomplish the same thing.
After the chromatic voice leading finishes, you can continue to follow the chord changes with the notes G-A#. G is the 3rd of the Em chord, and A# is the 3rd of F#7 (again).
In the original recording, lead guitarists Don Felder and Joe Walsh take an approach similar to the steps outlined here by sticking in familiar pentatonic boxes and then decorating with notes from the related scales and chords. You also hear them employ various articulations, such as slides, bends, hammer-ons, and pull-offs, plus embellish with chromatic passing tones.
In this video, Desi Serna uses pentatonic, major, minor, and harmonic minor guitar scales to demonstrate his interpretation of Hotel California guitar solos — a lesson suitable for intermediate- and advanced-level lead guitar players.