Remembering the early days of Tom Petty, his most notable guitar student
By Gary Graff
October 6, 2017
Don Felder’s reputation as a guitarist and an overall musician is well-established — both as a member of, and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee with, the Eagles (a co-writer on “Hotel California,” even) and on his own. But this week a different part of Felder’s life was put into the spotlight. Growing up in Gainesville, Florida, as one of the town’s best-known players, Felder gave guitar lessons to a young Tom Petty. Petty passed away Monday (Oct. 2) after suffering cardiac arrest the night before, with Felder issuing a statement that: “It is with a shattered heart that I write this post. Tommy’s passing feels like I’ve lost a little brother. Growing up together in Gainesville and seeing one of my students blossom as an incredibly gifted musician and songwriter has been one of my most fulfilling experiences in this life. It was obvious very early on in his career that his talent, magnetism and charisma were a very special gift that few souls in this world are given. He has given this world so many wonderful memories and touched millions with his magic. Gone far too soon. May he rest in peace knowing how much he is loved and appreciated by all of us that are left behind.” It seemed like an opportune time, then, to pick through our several interviews with Felder for his memories about helping to forge what became one of rock’s most prolific and consistent talents…
FGPO: For a relatively small town Gainesville produced an inordinate number of major musicians. What was in the water down there?
Felder: I really don’t know if it was something in the water or something we were smoking at the time, but between the Allman Brothers, Petty, [Stephen] Stills, Bernie [Leadon] and myself, an unusual number of people came out of that small little north central Florida town that went on to become platinum-selling recording artists and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees. The closest thing I can draw it to is the same sort of phenomenon that happened at Motown or around Memphis or in Nashville, where in certain areas there were so many people that kind of influenced each other or developed a similar style, and that same group of people went on to stay involved in music because of that love and excitement in music.
FGPO: So there was a unifying philosophy, if you will.
Felder: Right. The challenge of having a musical career can be really overpowering for most people. It takes a certain personal commitment to what you’re doing to really suffer through the years of hard work and anguish and no reward and no recognition and no pay to finally get to a point where you have success. But the real reward of doing it is the joy you get out of doing it, and that’s what all of us had.
FGPO: Was it competitive?
Felder: A little bit, I suppose. We were in kind of battles of the bands together with my band and (Petty’s) Mudcrutch and the Allman Brothers Band. The Allman Brothers won every battle of the bands, to tell you the truth. They were just smokin’ hot, unbelievable.
FGPO: You became something of a leader in that scene, right?
Felder: I had taught myself pretty much how to play guitar, how to read music. There was no “music school” in Gainesville in those years, and I spent so much time at the music store after school. I would sit there and play every guitar I could get, and I would polish guitars and finally they gave me a job there, teaching. So everyone they sold guitars to for Christmas, these kids would come in with sore fingers and crying: “I want to learn how to play guitar,” and I’d teach ’em. I would make 10 bucks an hour. I didn’t get paid cash; I had credit on the account there that I’d build up so when I finally had enough money I could get new cords or guitar strings or an amp or whatever I needed to continue with my career.
FGPO: So how did you come to be Tom Petty’s teacher?
Felder: Tom Petty came in one day, gosh, he must’ve been 12 or 13. He had been playing bass in a band called the Epics that I knew as the Rucker Brothers Band, and he wanted to play guitar. They had these two guitar players who both just flailed artlessly on the electric guitar and Tommy was playing bass and singing and fronting the band, and he really didn’t want to be the singing bass player, so I started teaching him to play and went over to his house a couple of times and hung out and heard him play and went over to two or three of the Rucker Brothers’ shows ’cause it was a bit of a train wreck. I kind of helped put them together in the sense that one of them would play rhythm and one of them would play lead while Tommy was playing bass and just help sort through their band to help these kids put their garage band together.
FGPO: What was Tom like back then?
Felder: Tom was just absolutely fearless on stage. I remember standing in the audience at one of his early shows when he was about 14 and there were these girls going: “Omigod, he’s so great! He’s so great!” and Tommy was flipping his long blonde hair and shaking it. And I was listening to him sing and going: “Are you listening to the same guy? He’s OK…” But he just had such charisma and such a power and energy on stage that he would [get] you on what he was doing. And in those days he was playing covers, he wasn’t even writing his own songs yet. But he had a fearless approach to his delivery of what he was doing on stage, and everybody bought it.
FGPO: People don’t often think about Tom as a guitar player. He was really someone who played to serve the song rather than simply to play, wasn’t he?
Felder: For sure. He went on to be a really great songwriter, in my opinion. I think a lot of that just really deep commitment to what he’s doing, whether it’s writing a song or making a record or on stage really comes through when you hear his music. There’s no sense of reticence in his lyrics or his vocal performance or his delivery on stage. It’s very powerful.
FGPO: What did you think about him bringing Mudcrutch back to life in recent years? You knew that band when it started back in Florida.
Felder: It was just a thrill for those guys to take a giant step back into time and get together with people that originally kind of drive that band to become Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and be able to do something that’s totally different without it having to be Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. Tommy Leadon was over my house when they were doing rehearsals, ’cause I’ve known Tommy since he was a kid, and he was very excited about it and I was really pleased for him, and all of ’em. I remember playing these shows over on the lawn at the University of Florida on Sunday and everybody would come and bring their blankets and a thing of beer and just have fun, and Mudcrutch would always be there and people really dug ’em.
FGPO: You had Tom pass this year, and Glenn Frey last year. There was a lot of acrimony left over from the Eagles days yet you were very sincere and gracious in your remarks after he died.
Felder: Y’know, I was married for 29 years. My wife and I, we were high school sweethearts. After a couple of months of the lawyers squabbling back and forth I just called her up and said: “Look, let’s just have a meeting and sit down and figure it out, ’cause we’re going to be at weddings and funerals and we have kids and grandkids and we have our lives that are still connected, so there’s no sense in going forward with any animosity.” So now she comes to my house for Thanksgiving dinner. We’re both sincerely much happier where we are now, and we’re happy for each other. I’ve tried to take that same approach with the guys that were remaining in the Eagles after I left and really never got much of a response. I didn’t want anything. I didn’t want to rejoin the band. I just wanted to shake hands and hug and dispel that tension and friction that seemed like it was always there and just move on. That never happened, and sadly I was never able to do that with Glenn before he passed. So there is some regret that the response to my outreaches were always sort of ignored.
FGPO: What perspective do you have on the Eagles now?
Felder: It was five people in a band where everyone was a great singer, a great writer and a great player. Any one of us could have fronted our own bands. We had such an enormous pool of talent at all levels of musicality and writing and singing and playing and arranging that we had a huge depth to draw on. It was really a delightful experience musically to be able to come up with ideas and put them together with that much talent on board. It’s like having an all-star team on a football field; you can run any play and chances are it’s gonna come out well just because of the sheer talent you’ve got. So I think we all look at what we produced together as something that not one of us individually would have been able to do. It was a collective effort from us all that was able to produce magic and that music we made. I just look back at it and really appreciate and enjoy all the things we did together, the music we made together, and admire the people in the band. Don Henley, I think, is one of the best singers in the business, great lyricist. Joe [Walsh] and I were great buddies on guitar when he was in the band. I like to focus on the positives.
FGPO: Are you working on new music now?
Felder: Yeah. I’ve got a studio in my house. I’m constantly writing demos. I’m always busy; even when I’m off I’m on, I’m doing something. I’m one of those types of people that, if I have three days off in Hawaii, I’ll sit on the beach and put on some sunscreen and write lyrics instead of really relaxing. Or if I’m flying to Europe to do something I’ll have a laptop with a songwriters program on it and I’ll sit with it and listen to tracks and write lyrics there. I’m compelled to continually do that, and whether anything turns out of it or not it’s the process of going through it that keeps me inspired.
FGPO: What’s changed the most since those early days in Gainesville?
Felder: There’s a lot of parts of my life I enjoy balancing at my age between personal and professional living. If I do one or the other too much I wound up feeling out of balance. If I’m not playing music enough I really feel like I’ve gotta be playing music. And if I’m spending too much time on the road I really feel like my personal life and my family life and everything suffers. So I’ve really tried to balance the two and keep myself happy in the middle of that pendulum swinging back and forth.