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Musically, "Hotel California" is propelled by Don Henley's incomparable voice, which sounds a bit like someone trying to play it cool while straining to be heard above a noisy room.
The song also combines acoustic and electric guitars to great effect. The ending guitar solo with Don Felder and Joe Walsh was named the eighth best of all time by Guitar World magazine. Even if you only heard the first chord of "Hotel California," you could probably recognize the song. The chord, played by bass and acoustic guitars, mimics the ringing of the "mission bell" on top of the hotel. This intro sounds like a vaguely flamenco or Spanish-style guitar part—perhaps an homage to California's Spanish heritage.
The lengthy introduction includes a ten second-long shaker sound that resembles a rattlesnake, placing us in the middle of the lonesome desert. Together, these sounds and noises create a concrete tone, setting, and mood. In some live versions of the song, the Eagles play up the Spanish element in the song by adding a flamenco-style trumpet solo at the beginning. The introduction seems to build up and then stop, and build up and stop...until finally, it comes to a complete halt and two quick drum beats pave the way for the vocals.
And Don Henley has a voice we could never get tired of. It's not so much the range of his voice as its dark, simmering quality, which conceals his emotion. Just like the speaker, he never gives away his true feelings—fear, anticipation, or curiosity? He keeps his tone cool and level and just barrels through the narrative. In the two choruses, he's backed by other members of the band to give the impression that a crowd of "voices" is echoing through the halls of the hotel. The steadiness of Henley's voice forms a contrast with the guitars that slowly begin to rise up behind him.
By the fifth and sixth sections of the song, the electric guitars have begun to whine, as if to signal the speaker's loss of control. They're like the voice of the "beast" that can't be silenced. When all the lyrics have been sung, those guitars take center stage and launch into one of the most famous solos—or, really, duets—in rock and roll.
The song fades out as the guitars play descending arpeggios. This is the true voice of the Hotel California, and it's appropriate that we don't hear from the singer again: His fate has long been sealed.
The speaker's a free spirit and likes to do things his own way. And at the beginning of the song, he does do things his own way. He's on the road, letting the wind ruffle his hair as he rolls down a desert highway in California.
We don't know where he's going or what he's searching for. He might be a restless soul who takes to traveling as a mode of self-discovery. American literature knows plenty of these types; think Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarity in Jack Keruoac's On the Road. But the "shimmering lights" of the hotel—or the city of Los Angeles, depending on your interpretation—are like kryptonite to him.
Unlike many of the great heroes of the American road, our speaker isn't so much adventurous as kind of wishy-washy, and he doesn't catch on to things as quickly as he should. He can't decide whether the hotel is going to be the best or the worst thing that could possibly happen to him, whether it will be "Heaven" or Hell." And when he hears nameless voices chanting about how great the hotel is, he doesn't really stop and think, "Huh. That's odd."
Once he enters the hotel, he doesn't have the power to do much except drink. He mostly reacts to the strange things around him. He would make a great candidate for the hapless guy who gets killed first in a B-horror movie. You know, the one who has so many chances to save himself and then finally gets it while sitting on the john.
Finally, the speaker has a jaded and worldly perspective. He pretty quickly pins down the woman in the song as a careless and superficial rich girl, whose personality has been "twisted" or "bent" by money. He has probably met her type before—heck, he might even be her type without realizing it. He could be one of those people who criticizes others for the flaws that he is himself guilty of.
The speaker's worldliness also comes out in his relation to sex and drugs. He's apparently the first person in a long time to order wine at the hotel, and he knows exactly what those mirrors on the ceiling are for.
"Hotel California" has seven different sections, two of which are the chorus. The song has plenty of rhyming verses, but there's no obvious pattern or rhyme scheme.
In the first stanza, for example, the first two verses rhyme ("hair" and "air"), and then the third and fifth verses rhyme, and the fourth verse doesn't rhyme with anything. The quality of the rhymes ranges from the absurdly simple ("Such a lovely place, / Such a lovely face") to the unexpectedly clever ("The pink champagne on ice / And she said 'We are all just prisoners here, of our own device'").
On the other hand, you can't break up verses very easily into "lines," and when you listen to the song, they sound most like couplets, or pairs of two lines. So, the basic unit of meaning in the song is the couplet:
Her mind is Tiffany-twisted, she got the Mercedes bends
She got a lot of pretty, pretty boys she calls friends
Looking closer, you can see that each verse in the couplet has two parts: a result of the way the music was written to accommodate pauses in the rhythm.
Finally, "Hotel California" could be considered a ballad, because it tells a story in song-form. The story begins with a man driving down the highway and feeling tired, and it ends when he can't escape from the hotel where he stopped to rest. Don Henley's songwriting is impeccable in this song, as he manages to create not only a very distinctive setting (this crazy hotel in the middle of the California desert), but he manages to create suspense and completely change the general mood of the song.