We’ve all heard the jokes about employees in guitar stores having to hear the riff from “Stairway to Heaven.” Sometimes, people go so far as to say that the riff is banned from guitar shops. And if you bring up guitar shopping with any group of experienced guitarists, you’ll probably hear a few Stairway to Heaven jokes, too. But why is Stairway to Heaven forbidden?
Why is Stairway to Heaven Banned in Guitar Stores?
It seems as though the story of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven being banned has been around forever. But it of course has to start somewhere. The original joke began in the 1992 movie Wayne’s World. Wayne’s World was a movie that evolved from a very popular skit on Saturday Night Live. The movie features best friends Wayne and Garth (both fans of rock and metal) starting a cable access TV show and then trying to promote it.
In the movie, there’s a scene where the two characters go into a guitar store. One picks out a guitar and starts to play the opening to Stairway to Heaven. But the manager runs up and puts his hand over the strings to stop the sound. He even points up at a bold blue and white sign reading “NO Stairway to Heaven.” The character then looks at the camera and says “No Stairway! Denied!”
Interestingly enough, the movie didn’t have the character play the exact riff, as that could have led to copyright infringement issues. But they made sure what he played was still recognizable as the famous (or infamous) riff.
That joke was, of course, based on reality — people have been trying out guitars with that riff for decades. But it popularized the idea to the extent that even non-guitarists often know that the riff is forbidden in guitar stores.
You might wonder why the joke has lasted so long. A lot of that is due to the popularity of memes. Guitar memes are common in online forums for guitarists, and each time a Stairway to Heaven meme is posted, more players get in on the joke. Now, even players who were born well after the release of both the song and the movie understand that the opening riff is seriously overplayed.
Even before the movie Wayne’s World popularized the joke, guitarists were overplaying the riff in guitar stores. Led Zeppelin released Stairway to Heaven in 1971, and the song quickly became incredibly popular. Plenty of people still regard Jimmy Page’s solo in the song as the most beautiful guitar solo of all time.
The song was also ahead of its time, and it helped shift the direction of rock music. It remained popular even 30 years after its release in 2000, it was still played on radio stations over 3,000 times!
Simply put, lots of guitarists want to learn popular songs. They also want to learn the songs played by their idols. And since Jimmy Page is easily one of the world’s best guitarists, he’s idolized by players of all ages. With his fame and Stairway to Heaven’s never-ending popularity, it’s easy to see how this riff became forbidden!
Why Is Stairway to Heaven Forbidden?
Why can’t you play Stairway to Heaven in guitar stores? To start, you probably know that there’s a certain etiquette to trying out instruments. You should never carelessly prop up a guitar on a stool or amp — you shouldn’t even treat your own guitar that way! Even if it’s very unlikely that it will fall, you shouldn’t risk it. Falls can result in severe damage to guitars, and if the shop has a “you break it, you buy it” policy as many stores do, you’ll end up paying full price for a broken guitar.
You also should ask an employee before just plugging into any amp. Many stores have a limited number of amps for you to try out. If there’s a specific one you would like to try, an employee will often let you if you ask. And of course, make sure you aren’t overly loud. Turn up the amp just enough to let you hear it clearly. Employees and other shoppers will appreciate it if you don’t subject them to ear-shattering levels of noise. And one other etiquette tip — don’t play Stairway to Heaven!
That isn’t to say that Stairway to Heaven is a bad song. It’s regarded as one of the best rock songs of all time. But it’s also a song that most beginners learn early on. And as you might imagine, it’s often played poorly. If the person trying out the guitar doesn’t check the tuning before starting, it’s likely to sound even worse.
Beginner guitarists may not always know how to properly operate a guitar amp. A common mistake is turning the amp on and then plugging in the guitar. This obviously results in a loud and obnoxious “pop.” Another common mistake is cranking the amp way too loud. So imagine someone not only doing a poor job of playing guitar but also blasting their playing for all the world to hear.
But if you’re a skilled guitarist, there’s another piece of etiquette to keep in mind — don’t go to a guitar store with the intention of gathering an audience. No one likes a show-off, especially if they’re there to try out and buy guitars. If you want an audience, go to an open mic or start a YouTube channel!
What is a Forbidden Riff?
Some riffs (and even whole songs!) get banned, either officially or unofficially, from music stores or even open mic stages. One example of a song that is sometimes banned is “Wagon Wheel” by Old Crow Medicine Show. The song is easy to play and is also a popular singalong song, so it’s easy to see why employees quickly get tired of it.
So what is the forbidden riff? It’s a riff that’s so overplayed that it’s generally frowned upon to play it, at least in a music store. If a riff like this isn’t outright banned, you might find that other musicians in the store laugh at you for playing it. Sometimes, bold guitarists will go into stores and play it just to be funny. Some people will laugh, and some people may cringe.
The forbidden riff guitar players seem to use most is the intro to Stairway to Heaven. But here are a few more common ones:
- The White Stripes, “Seven Nation Army”
- Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Sweet Home Alabama”
- Black Sabbath, “Smoke on the Water”
- Oasis, “Wonderwall”
- Guns N’ Roses, “Sweet Child O’ Mine”
- The Beatles, “Blackbird”
These are some of the best-known forbidden riffs, but any song that quickly becomes very popular (or experiences a resurgence in popularity) is likely to find itself on the list. In 2019, the already-popular Stairway to Heaven riff was in the news again over possible copyright infringement.
A band called Spirit claimed that Led Zeppelin stole the iconic riff from a Spirit song called “Taurus.” In 2016, jurors found that the riffs were too different to constitute copyright infringement.
But in 2019, there was a new hearing over the case. For reasons unknown, jurors in the first case were not able to hear both songs side by side. They were only able to see scores and sheet music.
Understandably, this case has gotten guitarists of all ages and backgrounds talking. And for those who have never learned the song’s opening riff, hearing about the debate may prompt them to learn it — and then show it off!
Is Stairway to Heaven Actually Forbidden in Music Stores?
Not really. A lot of the time, the “ban” on playing the riff in guitar stores is just semi-serious. After all, the goal of running a guitar store is to make a profit. So if someone is playing the Stairway to Heaven riff on a guitar they’re thinking of buying, almost no business owner employee or owner is going to kick them out. And as long as you aren’t overly loud or obnoxious about it, you probably won’t be bothering anybody.
And of course, for some beginners, that might be the only riff they know. Many guitarists want to encourage new players. It can be discouraging for a beginner to be laughed at, especially if they’re proud of a riff they just learned. Some experienced musicians may jokingly rib you for playing it if you’re a beginner, but they aren’t likely to seriously mock you.
The “ban” on the song is often nothing more than a joke. Stairway to Heaven is a beautiful song, and the intro is captivating. But if you hear it all day, day in and day out, it gets old. Music store employees certainly appreciate customers with more diverse repertoires!
Is Stairway to Heaven About Drugs?
Unlike many straightforward, in-your-face rock songs, Stairway to Heaven is somewhat abstract and esoteric. In the first lines, (“There’s a lady who’s sure/All that glitters is gold/And she’s buying a stairway to heaven”) it’s easy to see why some people believe the song is about drugs. After all, many of the most famous rock songs are.
But Robert Plant, who wrote the lyrics, said he drew inspiration from a book called Magic Arts in Celtic Britain. Much of the song is hopeful and spiritual in nature. The song references being led to reason by the call of a piper. But toward the end, the message of Stairway to Heaven becomes clearer: “Yes, there are two paths you can go by/But in the long run/There’s still time to change the road you’re on.”
It’s an encouraging message that tells people that there’s hope. Often, many of us feel like it’s too late to change. Some people have asserted that the lady at the beginning of the song represents someone who is overly materialistic and that the song advocates for moving from a focus on material wealth to a focus on spirituality and love.
Essentially, Stairway to Heaven seems to be about hope for humanity and the power of redemption. But like most skillfully-made art, it leaves plenty of room for interpretation, too. Either way, it’s a lot more thought-provoking than most popular songs.
Is Stairway to Heaven a Hard Song for Beginners?
Lots of people start learning guitar so they can play songs they love. And with Stairway to Heaven’s enduring popularity, it’s no wonder that lots of new guitarists are eager to learn to play it.
But is it a good song to start with? If you’re a somewhat advanced beginner, it can be. The song has a few different sections, and as they progress, they get a little harder to figure out. That’s why most beginners just learn the intro and the first verse.
But if you gradually work your way through the song, you’ll be introduced to a wide range of techniques. You’ll get to practice arpeggios, solos, strumming, and playing with barre chords. These techniques can be very tough to figure out by yourself, so it may be a good idea to seek out a tutorial video or other resource that really shows you how to play each part.
That isn’t to say that the whole song will be easy. For beginners looking to practice something other than chords and strumming, though, it’s a good way to start diversifying your skills. Just make sure to be patient with yourself.
Chances are that you won’t actually get thrown out of a guitar store for playing Stairway to Heaven. And if it’s the only song you know, it may be your best option for trying out guitars until you’ve learned some more solos. Just don’t play it too many times!