What are the Most Forbidden Riffs and Why?

Forbidden Riffs are the ones that music store employees no longer want to hear because aspiring guitarists - aka, beginners - have played them thousands and thousands of times before.

The funny part is that these overplayed songs are generally classic rock, hair metal and grunge rock mega hits that those same employees knew and loved before they became forbidden.

Almost no one is ripping out the acoustic guitar intro of Pop Boy-band Smash, I Want It That Way from The Backstreet Boys. Forbidden Riffs, to a one, almost all derive from Rock Songs.

The Top Forbidden Riffs on Guitar

Playing the Forbidden song notes will get you stared down immediately by Jerry over at the register who is hawking picks and strings.

Stairway to Heaven (Led Zeppelin)

Don’t play Stairway to Heaven in a guitar store or music shop. Stairway to Heaven is THE Forbidden Riff of all forbidden riffs. Even the most casual fan knows this, and that’s all because of the 1992 film Wayne’s World, starring Mike Myers and Dana Carvey. Even possessing $5,000 will not make it ok.

The song originated in 1970 when Jimmy Page and Robert Plant were spending time at Bron-Yr-Aur, a remote cottage in Wales, following Led Zeppelin's fifth American concert tour. According to Page, he wrote the music "over a long period, the first part coming at Bron-Yr-Aur one night".

Off the album, Led Zeppelin IV, Stairway is among the most popular rock songs (and riffs) of all-time.

Stairway to Heaven Lawsuit

The band Spirit took Zeppelin to court over the rights to the song, asserting that Page had more-than-liberally borrowed from their song Taurus. Unfortunately for Spirit, the progenitors of Cock Rock prevailed in the courtroom eventually.

Guitarist Jimmy Page testified he had been unaware of Spirit's song until people started posting online comparisons in the early 2010s. "I knew I had never heard that before," he said. "It was totally alien to me."

Which leads us to an interesting point. Learning the riff to Spirit’s Taurus isn’t forbidden. Plus, you may even just impress some guitar shop guys by skirting the Stairway line.

Where isn’t Stairway Forbidden to be Played?

It was 100% not forbidden at 8th grade dances across America in the 80s and early 90s. Maybe the school administrators and chaperones just wanted to give everyone a little extra time to slow dance?

It is, after all, a 7 minutes and 55 second song.

Enter Sandman (Metallica)

The most recognizable song off of Metallica’s Black Album, Enter Sandman was released in 1991 and has been played everywhere that someone needs instant energy: Football Stadiums, Baseball Walk-up Songs, Ford’s F-150 Raptor Commercial - which was rare for Metallica to ok.

One place we don’t need to hear the punishing riff is from that crappy Schecter that the Guitar Center Sales Manager is trying to sell you on. One, get a real electric guitar. Two, no.

No as in, skip Enter Sandman. Skip it entirely. Even if you just heard it on the radio and you’re humming the melody line to the vocals in your head as you walk through the music store door, skip it.

And while we’re at it, skip Nothing Else Matters, too. In what may be the cruelest of inside jokes, the acoustic guitar riff of Nothing Else Matters can be played on four open strings (low E, A, D and High E). Many beginners try this because their guitar-playin’ buddy showed that to them at a party one time over some PBRs.

You’re better than all of that.

Sweet Child O’ Mine (Guns N’ Roses)

We’re not even sure the guitar players in G’N’R want to play the riff to Sweet Child O’ Mine, the third track on the 'R' side of 1987's Appetite for Destruction. Bassist Duff McKagan actually has the more interesting riffs in the song. But that all ended once Sheryl Crow covered it.

Actually, that may be part of why you’re not allowed to play the riff to Sweet Child, because Sheryl. She formally turned the song into the country song that it is, added two scoops of pop rock like the Raisin Bran sun, and voila, hair metal tune we can no longer listen to.

Not that Sweet Child was ever a bitchin’ tune, but the, “Where did we go now” lines were always a delight. And yes, the riff is decent, but no more shall it be played in store. Save it for that Schecter that you think may just work out.

Thanks, Guitar Center.

Van Halen 1984 Album Cover
Van Halen's 1984 Album Cover, the album that Hot For Teacher was on

Hot For Teacher (Van Halen)

It’s among the less popular Forbidden Riffs because it’s a more advanced riff than what beginner guitarists can handle. So why is it on here?

Because intermediate players try and tackle the intro and they too should stay in their lane. They don’t possess the electric guitar tapping chops to approach his holiness’s prowess, and should just leave the track of Van Halen's 1984 alone.

Plus, you don’t have his gear or his amp. You can’t replicate the brown sound. Better players than you have tried and failed. Most Touring Professionals can’t achieve it.

So next time you’re feeling like you’d like to tackle Hot For Teacher in a guitar shop, do yourself a favor and pick up an acoustic guitar instead and work on some interesting finger picking.

Sweet Home Alabama (Lynyrd Skynyrd)

Guitar songs whose intro makes you want to onomatopoeia will surely be considered a Forbidden Riff song. And that, Missy, is Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama.

Are you allowed to play the riff? Yes, but only if you live in or are visiting sweet homes in the state of Alabama. Actually, you can play it in Alabama, or in sweet homes across the United States, just not guitar shops.

Imagine the eye rolls if you started picking out these notes while sitting on a stool at Downtown Sounds in Northampton, Massachusetts? We can’t imagine them either. But they’d be there, and you’d probably be asked to leave.

Nickelback Songs

Yup. Straight up. You’re simply never allowed to play Nickelback songs in a guitar shop. Doesn’t matter if it’s Guitar Center or the old Daddy’s Junky Music. We don’t care if you’ve been invited into the Sweetwater HQ in Fort Wayne, Indiana or you’re hanging out in Allston Village at Mr. Music, no Nickleback!

And for that matter, never, ever play any Butt Rock songs. They are all forbidden.

Forbidden Riff FAQs

Will I be asked to leave if I play Forbidden Guitar Riffs?

No, you will not be asked to leave the music store if you start playing Forbidden Guitar Riffs. Actually, maybe small, private indie guitar shops might, but times are tough and people need to pay the bills, so you should be just fine.

What should I play in a Guitar Shop?

For starters, don’t be a show off. And, stay away from popular songs and opening riffs. The best guitar licks to play are from the B-sides of your favorite albums.

Don’t get fancy with a guitar solo unless you can nail it 11 times out of 10 at home. There was only one Eddie Van Halen and you’re not him.

What’s an Easy Way to Avoid Playing Forbidden Riffs?

Play B-Sides

B-Sides are the best riffs to play in a music store. Need some help? Try Live’s Throwing Copper. Songs like Stage and White, Discussion give you ample material to work with and are great songs on their own.

Want something with a ton of notes? Try Def Leppard’s Hysteria. Run Riot is most excellent.

Work on Original Material

If you’re anything like us, you’ve tried your hand at writing your own songs. If anything, this might be a great way to test the originality of the best riff you ever wrote. If someone asks if you’re playing a certain song, you might want to rework it some.

Play the riffs to the songs in your favorite movie.

Soundtrack albums tend to feature off-market songs from some of your favorite artists. For every song such as Big Empty on The Crow Soundtrack which reappears on Stone Temple Pilots is a State of Love and Trust by Pearl Jam which never makes a standard LP. For those that don't know, State of Love and Trust can be found on the Singles Soundtrack.

What Bass Riffs are Forbidden?

There are no defined songs for avoiding when it comes to the bass guitar. A good bassist though will tend to avoid playing solely in the style of someone else.

Take Flea of the Chili Peppers. Don’t be Flea in a store. Like EVH, there is only one Flea, and he also plays trumpet, so that’s not you.

What other Forbidden Songs Exist?

Whether it’s the face of a genre (Teen Spirit) or a song you just shouldn’t touch (Johnny B. Goode), plenty of off-limits material awaits permanent silence in-store. Here’s a few below.

And for fun, we’ve included AC/DC thrice. They’ve written that many bitchin’ tunes.

  • Back in Black (AC/DC)
  • Iron Man (Black Sabbath)
  • Johnny B. Goode (Chuck Berry)
  • Seven Nation Army (The White Stripes)
  • You Shook Me All Night Long (AC/DC)
  • Smells Like Teen Spirit (Nirvana)
  • Smoke on the Water (Deep Purple)
  • Thunderstruck (AC/DC)
  • Wonderwall (Oasis)

Also, just stay away from Van Halen. Unless you can totally shred, then do what you will.

Wrapping Up

If you learn nothing else from this deep dive into the Forbidden Songs to Play in Guitar Shops and Music Centers, learn this: NO STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN.

After that, it’s best to remember our tips on how to stay out of sight and out of mind with the store’s staff. Things like playing B-Sides and Originals are key to seamlessly testing out a new electric guitar or amp.

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References & Sources

  1. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0105793/
  2. https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-54423922
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stairway_to_Heaven
  4. https://loudwire.com/metallica-license-enter-sandman-ford-f-150-raptor-commercial/