Why is one of the best songs in hard rock, written by arguably the best guitarist to ever tune a 6-string, essentially “forbidden” in so many guitar stores worldwide? And where did this unspoken off-limits legend come from?
Most guitarists have asked, debated, and pondered this question of the forbidden riff at one point or another. In fact, thanks to Mike Myers’s portrayal of Wayne in the movie Wayne’s World, the ban has become something of an inside running joke.
But what if the joke was real? No way! I’m here to tell you… Way.
I’m talking about the famous Led Zeppelin song, Stairway to Heaven. Obviously, playing that iconic introduction riff isn’t “banned,” but some movie-loving guitar shop employees will likely remember the Wayne’s World schtick and crack a joke about it the next time they hear it. You might even see a sign hanging that says “NO STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN!”
Let’s dig a little deeper into why playing Stairway is such a problem and why it has been “banned” in guitar stores the world over. The answer isn’t what you think.
• • •
The short answer? No.
But in order to know why a guitar store would implement such a policy when they’re pretty lax on just about everything else, we need to know a little more about the composition of this Led Zeppelin track and its place in rock music.
Led Zeppelin’s Stairway was written by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant in 1970 while stealing away in Wales to write. Stairway to Heaven was released on Led Zeppelin IV, arguably the band’s most successful album.
Critics loved the album—great song after great song with massive hit potential on both the A and B sides. Closing out the record’s A side, the song’s popularity only grew over time, prompting Atlantic Records desire to release it as a single. While that never happened, it prompted music enthusiasts to buy Led Zeppelin IV in droves.
While the song was never released in the US as a single, it was one of the decade’s most popular songs. It was the most requested song on FM radio and ran the risk of being one of the most overplayed songs of the decade. It was played nearly 400,000 times a year in the U.S.
Not rock radio. All of FM radio. Can you imagine something like that happening in the 21st century?
I can’t. It reminds me of 2003’s “Hey Ya!” craze.
Guitar shops aren’t the only places where Stairway to Heaven could potentially be “banned.” Precisely the type of people who you’d expect would be up in arms about something like this were convinced that Led Zeppelin buried a secret message into the record with a technique known as backmasking.
The song also has intrigue that helped it rise through the musical ranks. Ignore the blistering guitar for a moment, and play the record backward. Does that sound like the song is singing the praises of Satan?
Yeah, well, the band denied the song was doing anything of the sort, and the technique is difficult and expensive to do in the studio, so they were genuinely miffed at the entire controversy (1).
• • •
If you’ve never heard Stairway to Heaven, there’s a good chance you’re deaf. So we appreciate your reading our articles here at ReallySimpleGuitar!
But if your sense of hearing is intact, you’ve heard the opening riff to this track hundreds of times.
It’s like hearing the opening notes of Bohemian Rhapsody (also featured by Mike Myers in the movie Wayne’s World) or the first few notes of Sweet Child of Mine. Or any of these songs, really.
If you’re reading a guitar site’s article, I’m going to assume you’ve heard the song. But if you haven’t for some reason, it starts off with Jimmy Page finger picking the opening notes of the riff, with John Paul Jones playing recorders and Robert Plant’s vocals that make it sound like the hard rock version of Medieval Times.
Once the drums kick in, it becomes arguably one of the best rock music songs of all time. Jimmy Page’s solo is epic. At this point, Robert Plant is singing in his high register, and it changes gears entirely.
When the song begins to really rock, the composition transcends music genres and solidifies itself as one of the best classic rock songs ever recorded.
It resolves with a final refrain and a final bit of vocals from Plant that ties the forbidden riff back into the rest of the song and really pulls the whole thing together. Stairway to Heaven is a genuinely well-crafted song that is difficult to critique.
So why the perceived ban?
Being one of the best rock songs of all time isn’t what got Stairway to Heaven banned. It wasn’t forbidden in guitar stores because it was a joke in Wayne’s World. No. It’s precisely the opposite
• • •
Why is Stairway to Heaven “banned” in guitar stores the world over?
Stairway to Heaven is a forbidden song in most guitar stores because it is such a famous song, combined with the fact that most aspiring guitarists aren’t Jimmy Page.
Training new music store employees is an upfront sunk cost for music stores, and letting any Tom, Harry, or Dick take a whack at Stairway to Heaven will drive everyone who has to work an 8-hour shift in the guitar store completely insane.
Guitar stores would rather you stop playing entirely than play that forbidden riff one more goddamn time in their presence.
Playing Stairway isn’t particularly easy. Have you seen the sheet music to the opening riff? Let alone the guitar solo? Even when other guitar players decide to take on playing stairway instead of their own material on national television, the result is humorous at best.
Here, the Foo Fighters can pull this off because they are improvising, and Dave Ghrol is intentionally trying to be amusing. But finding the proper context to play Stairway is a difficult needle to thread.
Forgetting the song’s lyrics midway through adds to the joke and brings the whole thing together, but not everyone can pull that off.
You have to read the room, and an audience there to see the Foos be goofy reads much differently than a shoddy 9-5 or, more likely, 5 – 11. Have you ever worked retail? This is cool retail. But it’s still retail. And it’s also loud retail.
Something that our boy Craig Killborne, whose show the Foos were on, may be doing right this minute.
• • •
There is an ethical argument to be made for a ban on such an iconic guitar riff in guitar stores. It seems counterintuitive, but banning an epic song like Stairway to Heaven is actually an act of kindness.
I have a philosophy degree, which Mom said I was never going to use, so bear with me a minute. (The joke’s on her!)
As human beings, we all seek pleasure and attempt in futility, to avoid pain. Intuitively, this makes sense, and psychology backs that intuition up.
But Stairway to Heaven in a guitar shop puts that theory to the test.
Guitar shops sometimes ban this song because it’s simply too expensive to hire new employees because some kid with a new guitar decided it would be one of the first songs they learned after watching Wayne’s World on basic cable.
Speaking of basic cable, or anything but the original theatrical release in the United States, was Wayne really that bad at guitar? I know the extreme close-ups were pretty rough, but it sounded like a different forbidden riff altogether.
Which, due to licensing rights, it was. Myers isn’t even playing the forbidden riff on basic cable. They had to change it.
So a guitar player may be inspired to learn to play Stairway by some bastardized overdub. Spew!
Oh the humanity of it all.
Back to science and philosophy.
If you indulge in alcohol or some other substance occasionally at a party or concert, that’s not really a big deal. “Everything in moderation.” Right? We’ve all heard that.
But indulging in alcohol daily leads to addiction, pain, and insanity. Worse, as a rather erudite addict will tell you, there are “diminishing returns on hedonic pursuits.” That first drink and you’re over the moon, but you’ll spend the rest of your drinking career trying to recreate that first experience.
This hedonic overload is referred to as the problem of the inverted U (2). Even pleasurable experiences reach an inflection point where they become harmful. We’ve known this since Aristotle.
It’s no different with Led Zeppelin and Stairway to Heaven.
• • •
Let’s say you’re a fantastic guitarist, like John Mayer, and you can play the forbidden riff note for note flawlessly. Let’s say every customer at that particular guitar store was just as good and could rip through the entire song, including the guitar solo, difficult as the song Stairway is.
Granted, this scenario is very unlikely since guitarists learn this song early on, perhaps as their first song, because it’s so well known. That means this perfect cadre of guitar players will be sullied by Jimmy Page’s guitar creation played badly.
But let’s ignore that for a minute, and we’ll think playing guitar is like drawing with crayons, so our cadre of perfect players show up to this particular music store ready to play Stairway to Heaven.
Maybe they want to try out a few guitars, so these players come back after a week, riffing on Stairway to Heaven at least once as a controlled experiment.
Now, think of the guitar shop employee who has to be there eight hours a day, working 40 hours a week. How many times is that person going to be exposed to Stairway to Heaven? Dozens? Hundreds?
Even if you only play Stairway to Heaven once, but everyone is doing that same activity, that employee will hear Stairway to Heaven so often that it eventually reaches that inflection point and becomes toxic.
Why is Stairway to Heaven banned in guitar stores? It’s the tragedy of the commons.
At this pivotal moment, even if played perfectly by each player in the guitar store, you’ve collectively ruined Stairway to Heaven and maybe Led Zeppelin for this poor minimum wage (plus possible commission) worker.
Is that the player you want to be? Is that why you strapped on a guitar in the first place? To ruin someone’s musical experience of one of the best songs of all time?
Of course not. You’re not a monster. At least, I’m pretty sure. Do you call your mom on her birthday? Yes? Then you’re fine.
But now you’re armed with a psychological and philosophical understanding of why guitar shops worldwide have essentially closed the door on the song Stairway to Heaven.
They may not even know it. It’s in their bones and, more importantly, in the complaint box in their breakrooms.
But there is some genuine science behind the whole thing. I’d be surprised if this ban doesn’t find its way into Carol’s HR binder. Human Resources is always looking out. Good on you Carol.
• • •
Of course, Stairway to Heaven isn’t the only song you shouldn’t take into the guitar store with you. Stairway to Heaven is so universally well known that it’s the prominent stand-in for all of the other songs that should also be banned.
For instance, in my hometown of San Diego, if you’re shopping for a guitar, leave the Blink-182 riffs at home. Songs like “All the Small Things,” or a song like “Dammit,” maybe even a song such as “What’s my Age Again,” suffer the same verboten status amongst guitar store employees in our local music shop.
They’re songs that aren’t as well traveled as Stairway to Heaven, but each is a song big enough that they will pollute a guitar store if left unchecked. Each song is a guitar store worker’s worst nightmare in San Diego and the surrounding areas.
How do I know this? Oh, first-hand knowledge.
I was asked to stop playing the riff to Dammit by a rather rude Guitar Center employee despite my perfect execution and the fact that this employee went to high school with me. That’s the power of hearing a famous, familiar riff too many times.
You go a bit soft in the brain box.
Let’s look at some other tracks that will get you a tap on the shoulder at your store of choice.
Other songs that fall into this category:
- Satisfaction – Rolling Stones
- Smoke on the Water – Deep Purple
- Sweet Child of Mine – Guns N’ Roses
- Celebrity Skin – Hole
- Maybe Day Tripper – The Beatles… Maybe.
- Enter Sandman – Metallica
- Free Fallin’ – Tom Petty & The Heart Breakers
- Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana
- House of the Rising Sun – The Animals
- Zombie – The Cranberries
- Pretty Woman – Roy Orbison
Of course, there are a slew of other songs to add to that list, but if they banned Stairway to Heaven, there’s a reason. Essentially, use this rule of thumb. If the song you’re thinking about taking with you while browsing for a guitar has made the “Top 100” songs of all time and has an iconic guitar riff like Stairway to Heaven… leave it at home.
• • •
If Stairway to Heaven, as a song, is banned at your guitar shop, fret not, for there is hope. There are solutions. There are always solutions.
Obviously, you can buy online to sample the gear and send it back if it isn’t what you want. No harm, no foul. That allows you to take advantage of others and stand on the shoulders of giants when considering the best American-made guitars, for example.
It’s not as though the local Guitar Center is going to have that list in stock.
Second, if you need to go to a store in real life, you can pick a song to learn that is more obscure. One that is possibly known to employees, but one they aren’t going to hear as much as they would listen to Stairway to Heaven.
A song such as Johnny B Goode by one Chuck Berry, or a song like Sultans of Swing by Dire Straits always gets a pass. Sure, they’re iconic riffs but just slightly below the realm of obnoxious. That’s the type of song you want to learn well enough to take into a public venue and impress while not annoying.
Life is stressful, and mental health is at a breaking point. Everyone is just trying to get through their day job and home to their guitar so they can, maybe, write a song of their own.
Nobody wants to be at work, so why would you want to make their life harder? You don’t, dear reader, you don’t.
What songs should also never be allowed within a guitar shop for the mental health and safety of the employees? Let me know in the comments.
• • •
- Andy Greene, “The 10 Wildest Led Zeppelin Legends, Fact-Checked,” as published here https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-lists/the-10-wildest-led-zeppelin-legends-fact-checked-153103/
- Adam M. Grant, Barry Schwartz, “Too Much of a Good Thing The Challenge and Opportunity of the Inverted U,” as published here https://www.researchgate.net/publication/258180060_Too_Much_of_a_Good_Thing_The_Challenge_and_Opportunity_of_the_Inverted_U
Led Zepellin Stairway to Heaven single image: Atlantic Records, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; Led Zepellin 2007 image: p_a_h from United Kingdom, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Barack Obama speaks with Led Zepellin image: Pete Souza, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; Jimmy Page with Robert Plant image: Jim Summaria, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Led Zepellin acoustic 1973 image: Heinrich Klaffs, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Led Zepellin live in Chicago 1975 image: more19562003, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; Led Zepellin answering questions 2012 image: Paul A. Hudson, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.