Why is Stairway to Heaven the Forbidden Riff?

This is the story of how Stairway to Heaven, the legendary hit song by Led Zeppelin off of their fourth album, Led Zeppelin IV, became the Forbidden Riff of Guitar Stores around the World.

No Stairway? Denied!

Stairway to Heaven is the Forbidden riff because every guitar player and their brother would play the intro whenever they visited a Guitar Shop or Music Store, starting with the song’s release on November 8th, 1971.

If you’re a guitar player you know what we’re talking about. You hear, or heard, back then, that most holy of guitar riffs and you instantly wanted to reach for the nearest acoustic guitar and learn it for yourself. And of course you would, it’s one of Rock & Roll’s great rock songs. Ever.

Why Can’t You Play Stairway to Heaven

Frequency, that’s why. Too many Led Zeppelin fanboys sat down with the Gibsons & Martins in their local music store trying to play the intro. An organic rebellion against the song grew amongst the collective store owners around the United States and the world, with some stores even putting signs on display to forbid the song from being played.

The signs are what brings us to the scene in the great 90s movie Wayne’s World.

Wayne’s World & the Stairway to Heaven Sign

Once again ... No Stairway!? Denied!

Wayne Campbell, the protagonist of early 90s SNL spinoff flick, Wayne’s World, gets a $5,000 advance and proceeds to head to the local guitar store to acquire a Pre-CBS corporate buyout ‘64 Fender Stratocaster in Classic White.

He then pulls a guitar pick out of his show’s trademark hat and uses the, “May I Help You?” riff to summon the guitar store clerk. The, “May I Help You?” riff, for those that don’t know, is a shreddy riff that is congruent with the sound of the last vestiges of 80s Hair Metal.

A familiar clerk appears - it’s obvious because Wayne asks to see the Strat and he bemoans, “Again?”, as if Wayne comes in all of the time (which is another forbidden thing in a music store) - and gets the guitar out of the case.

Immediately Wayne goes to the signature Jimmy Page intro and not four notes in does the store clerk stop him, pointing to the sign in the back that says, “NO Stairway to Heaven.”

And that, my friends, is how the torch of denying the song Stairway got passed on to another generation. Thank you, Mike Myers.

Stairway to Heaven Lawsuit

The band Spirit brought Led Zeppelin to court for the rights to the song, claiming that Page had freely plagiarized from their previous song "Taurus," which was the basis of the lawsuit. In a turn of events that was unfortunate for Spirit, the Gods of Cock Rock finally won their case in court.

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."

Copyright infringement it was not, per the courts.

Rick Beato’s Stairway to Heaven Project

Stairway isn’t just for aspiring guitarists either. Legendary producer, Rick Beato started a project based around the question, what if the Stairway guitar solo was played by other guitar greats? What would it sound like?

Here it is in the video below.

Now, let’s be honest, not a single guitar store employee is going to kick Eric Johnson out of the shop for playing Stairway to Heaven. He’s a true master of the electric guitar, not some weekend show off.

Would the Stairway to Heaven Riff be Forbidden Today?

If Stairway came out today, there is no doubt in our mind that it would not become a forbidden riff, let alone the forbidden roof. Let’s examine why.

Guitar-driven rock is not on top of the world like it was between the years of 1970-1995. Most great rock bands today hardly have one good guitar player, let alone two. Popular songs just don’t get overplayed at music shops today the way they once did in the 70s and 80s.

Another reason why is that music itself diversified too much. Music newbies are just as much into creating beats on their smartphone and dank memes as they are into fingertapping on an electric guitar.

The internet also helped change how music was consumed. Instant access to websites such as Ultimate Guitar and Genius give millions of people the opportunity to know every chord and every lyric to every single song, instantly. In the old days, all you had to practice with were (working backwards) CDs, Tapes, Vinyl, and god forbid, the radio.

So no, the opening riff to Stairway would not be forbidden today. At the very least, it wouldn’t bet the most forbidden song to play in a shop. At that, it might not even be on a list of the most overplayed songs, as once again, music consumption and preference have dramatically changed.

Sure, the Greta Van Fleet singer’s vocals sound like Robert Plant and the band plays rock music, but no new guitar players are strolling into Guitar Center and playing the opening notes of Safari Song en masse. If they are, it’s probably some inside joke.

Is Stairway the Only Song Forbidden in Guitar Stores?

No, there is a whole list of forbidden songs. It’s true, most of them are classic rock songs, but some did originate in grunge, alternative and in the, well, whatever you call the music from the 00s and beyond.

Here’s a list of other Forbidden Songs

  • Iron Man (Black Sabbath)
  • Seven Nation Army (The White Striples)
  • Smells Like Teen Spirit (Nirvana)
  • Smoke on the Water (Deep Purple)
  • Sweet Child O’ Mine (Guns N’ Roses)
  • Wonderwall (Oasis)

What’s Next

In some ways, it would be great if there were rock bands that were good enough to produce guitar songs with iconic riffs that were good enough to be considered for banishment. Radio Stations no longer have the juice. Old school rock radio like WAAF out of Boston had it, but even that stalwart of kickassery is gone.

Gone too are the dimed amps, the satanic messages of the playing the record backward, the Rolling Stone covers, and anything else having to do with fame and notoriety.

But yet still Stairway remains banned in a guitar shop.

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References & Sources

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stairway_to_Heaven
  2. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0105793/trivia/?ref_=tt_trv_trv
  3. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-music-ledzeppelin/led-zeppelin-wins-stairway-to-heaven-copyright-case-idUSKBN20W2DI
  4. https://www.seymourduncan.com/blog/the-players-room/the-art-of-the-may-i-help-you-riff