The Forbidden Riff: Why Exactly Is Playing Stairway To Heaven BANNED In Guitar Stores?

The Forbidden Riff: Why Exactly Is Playing Stairway To Heaven BANNED In Guitar Stores?

You should not expect anyone to be attempting to play the riff to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway To Heaven’ in guitar shops. Not because it is too difficult to play or has some mythical power that suggests the guitar may seem aflame.

It is largely prohibited because it is simply good manners not to play it as the riff has become too popular. There was a certain time when it was the riff of choice to try out a guitar in a store so any other riff is fair game, just not ‘Stairway To Heaven’.

In this article, we will look at several of the reasons why ‘Stairway To Heaven’ is considered to be a forbidden riff.

This includes what might happen if someone plays ‘Stairway To Heaven’ in a guitar store, why it was initially played in guitar stores, and why it became so popular.

We will also look at the track’s pop culture references, why it is considered to be a forbidden riff, further controversies behind the track, and why guitar players should refrain from playing it in a store.

What Might Happen If Someone Plays ‘Stairway To Heaven’ In A Guitar Store?

You may not see a direct sign forbidding anyone from playing ‘Stairway To Heaven’ but there is an implicit rule that it should not be attempted.

Led Zeppelin do have several other classic riffs to try out, from ‘Immigrant Song’ to ‘Whole Lotta Love’ yet ‘Stairway To Heaven’ is strictly considered a no-no in a guitar store.

Should a store employee hear the opening bars to THAT song then there may be some eye-rolling and the sound of teeth being ground. Guitar store employees may even fix a hard-eyed stare and politely request that another guitar riff be played instead.

Why ‘Stairway To Heaven’ Was Initially Played In Guitar Stores?

For a spell in the Seventies and into the early Eighties, Led Zeppelin were arguably one of the biggest bands in the world.

Any aspiring guitarist would want to mimic Jimmy Page and ‘Stairway To Heaven’ proved to be one of those riffs that could separate hopeful guitarists from good, and even great, ones.

If they could play ‘Stairway To Heaven’ well then that was a good sign of their guitar-playing prowess. That did mean that any chance to practice the riff would be taken, especially when trying out a new guitar in a store.

When played well, ‘Stairway To Heaven’ can sound pretty good on any well-tuned guitar. However, a lot of new, aspiring guitarists would play the riff simply as it seemed to be the riff to test themselves on.

To the chagrin of many guitar shop employees, anyone who wanted to buy a guitar would try to play ‘Stairway To Heaven’.

A guitar shop employee could hear that riff several times a day, to the point where it got really annoying. Granted, ‘Stairway To Heaven’, is a classic rock riff, which is largely why so many new guitar players wanted to play it but anything popular can be quickly overplayed.

The Popularity Of ‘Stairway To Heaven’

To be considered one of the most popular rock songs of all time, it has to be a good one. ‘Stairway To Heaven’ is undoubtedly one of the best songs by Led Zeppelin, it also changed music by paving the way for progressive rock.

While some guitar riffs can be completed in a few seconds, ‘Stairway To Heaven’ has a comparatively long guitar intro section which remains an iconic and essential riff for many aspiring guitar players to learn.

Though relatively easy to play, there are several parts to learn to play the riff in its entirety. That’s largely why a lot of guitar players will learn that riff alone, so that they can feel confident in mastering various notes and sections.

Once a guitar player has learned the riff then it is the one they choose to play when they test out a new guitar in a guitar store.

For some guitar players, the riff to ‘Stairway To Heaven’ can seem like a complete riff. One that opens up their guitar playing to so many different genres and melodies.

Though it is considered to be a classic rock riff, it is also, arguably, the earliest prog rock riff too. Even if it is hugely popular, guitar players should try not to be that guy when they test out a new guitar in a store as they should have another riff they can play.

Like the best guitar riffs, ‘Stairway To Heaven’ is pretty much instantly recognizable to any rock fan. That means that after a couple of seconds, any guitar store employee should be ready to grimace upon hearing it.

Part of the reason why it seems so popular is because of how often it has been played. That can be nirvana for rock fans though its huge popularity does mean it can be overplayed too as it seems to be a default riff for guitar players.

Despite the song’s seemingly forbidden nature, that does not mean it is not practiced often. For many guitar players, it is the first guitar riff they will learn off by heart and their music teacher may even decide to use it for an entire class.

It still sounds exceptionally cool, to this day, and can be highly rewarding once it is fully mastered.

The fact that the riff uses finger-picking techniques too means that it does require some skill to learn as well. A guitar player does not need years of experience to play ‘Stairway To Heaven’.

Other riffs are not to be tested on a new guitar yet there is an accessibility to the Led Zeppelin track that means it gets played very often.

The Pop Culture References To ‘Stairway To Heaven’

The 1992 film ‘Wayne’s World’ is well-known for helping launch the career of Mike Myers. One memorable scene also features an excerpt from Queen’s, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’.

While the head-banging in that scene is one of the reasons why the film is so memorable, ‘Wayne’s World’ also played a role in showcasing Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway To Heaven’.

When Wayne, played by Myers, steps into a guitar store and begins to play that riff, things changed for guitar stores across the globe.

Not that you can automatically tell that the riff is to ‘Stairway To Heaven’. One of the reasons why Myers’ playing seems so poor, and why it bears little resemblance to the track, is actually financial.

The rights to such a well-known song would be expensive and the film wanted to feature the track but not have to pay the fees. Led Zeppelin were also notorious for their sheer refusal to allow their tracks to be played in movies or TV shows.

That Myers is told “No Stairway! Denied” by a guitar store employee is a testament to the number of times it would be used to test out a guitar.

The denial also seems to make a reference to the band’s own attitude towards having their songs played in TV shows and movies.

Chances are, you will not see a sign in a guitar store that states that ‘Stairway To Heaven’ cannot be played. Many guitar store employees may even want to play the game by shouting ‘No Stairway! Denied’ simply to get them through the day.

It is a joke that has been recreated for a famous scene in a very popular movie yet some guitar stores will actively discourage customers from testing their guitars with that very riff.

The Forbidden Riff: Why Exactly Is Playing Stairway To Heaven BANNED In Guitar Stores?

The Forbidden Riff

There was a spell when ‘Stairway To Heaven’ was seemingly banned, but not in guitar stores. According to various individuals, if the track was played backward then diabolical messages could be revealed that were supposedly hidden in the track.

One religious broadcasting network even announced that hidden and evil messages were to be found in some popular rock songs, including ‘Stairway To Heaven’.

This was in 1982 and was conducted using a method known as backmasking. Whether Led Zeppelin were masters of the dark arts or not, there is a part of the track that does not sound like regular singing.

Backmasking was said to be involved as a recording technique to allow for such a secret message to be heard, should the track be played backward. That seems like a lot of effort as the track sounds passable when played as it is intended to be played too.

To those who want to believe it, when the track is played backward, it can sound like an ode to ‘Sweet Satan’. The specific reference seems to be ‘The one whose little path would make sad’, and that he will ‘give you 666’, whatever that means.

Some hear the devil in the track, and others fail to hear anything at all. For a certain generation of protective parents, Led Zeppelin, and rock music in general, will seem to have been delivered from the devil himself.

While many radio stations would ban the playing of rock bands due to their lifestyle, Led Zeppelin seemed to typify that censure for a few years.

That rock ‘n’ roll culture of sex, drugs, and general debauchery may be enough to justify banning the playing of some songs. However, the nature of Led Zeppelin’s forbidden riff can be attested to by guitar store employees, parents, and radio stations.

Part of the reason why ‘Stairway To Heaven’ seems to be the forbidden riff is that so many people buy in on the joke. It may be the case that many guitar shop employees actually do not mind the track being used to test a guitar.

However, to keep up appearances, they may want to jokingly recreate the scene in ‘Wayne’s World’. New guitar players may only play the opening bars to the riff simply to see the reaction in a guitar store and test that ‘ban’.

Even accomplished guitar players will play the riff, just to annoy guitar shop employees too and to see if their guitar playing is up to muster. Should the shop employee recognize the riff then it may seem that the guitar player can liken themselves to Jimmy Page.

No matter how great the song is, like Christmas music, if it is overplayed then it can become tiresome to listen to.

There may be a few seconds of random guitar noodling yet as soon as those recognizable notes are heard, it could be the tenth time that day that a guitar shop employee has heard it.

Further Controversies Behind ‘Stairway To Heaven’

While claims of satanism may seem controversial enough, the outcry to ‘Stairway To Heaven’ does not end there.

The song was originally written by Robert Plant and Jimmy Page back in 1971, though later on there were claims that they did not completely write it themselves.

Before it became one of the most revered tracks, and one of the most popular rock songs ever produced, it did not go down well with Led Zeppelin’s own fans.

When the song was played live, many fans simply did not seem to enjoy it, there are even claims by the band’s own bassist that the live audience seemed bored.

More recently, in 2014, Led Zeppelin found themselves embroiled in a legal battle over the track’s copyright issues. Another band, known as Spirit, claimed that Page had more than borrowed the melody from one of their songs.

While the opening riff from ‘Stairway To Heaven’ may seem familiar to millions, to Spirit it evoked a track of theirs which had been written in 1968.

That track was called ‘Taurus’ and the case was brought forward by a trustee of Mr. Wolfe who was said to have originally written the song by Spirit.

After six years, a court ruled that Led Zeppelin had not in fact stolen Spirit’s, or Mr. Wolfe’s, melody. The case remains an important one in music law and in copyright law.

The band were not found guilty of copyright infringement, even though the case had re-hearings.

The mere suggestion that one of the most iconic riffs in rock history could have been plagiarized heightened the track’s mythicism and raised concerns for other bands, especially after all that time.

That the matter even went to court is another element that makes the song so controversial.

The court case also went a long way to reinvigorate the song’s iconic status. While many may have forgotten the scene in ‘Wayne’s World’, memories came flooding back once the case was featured in the news.

If more people are talking about the song, more guitarists may be tempted to play the song in a guitar store.

Why Guitar Players Should Refrain From Playing The Forbidden Riff?

Yes, the ‘Stairway To Heaven’ riff may be easy to learn, it may be one of the most iconic guitar riffs but there are plenty of reasons why it is seemingly forbidden.

Aside from the copyright infringement claim and the satanic links, it is simply not cool to play it in a guitar store. Any guitar player worth their salt should be able to play some scales or simply another, more complicated guitar riff.

Perhaps it is fair to say that the ‘Stairway To Heaven’ joke went too far. While aspiring guitar players still know that they are likely to irk a guitar store employee with a few bars, few would find that funny.

If you want to have some good customer service, you should try to impress the employees with another track, any other track. You could even play an original riff and see if the guitar store employee can recognize it.

Trying on a guitar in a guitar shop should be the ideal opportunity to try to practice a new riff. Anything but ‘Stairway To Heaven’ can, and perhaps should, be played instead. Maybe some 12-bar blues or part of the minor pentatonic scale.

If you want to give the guitar store employees some relief then play something completely different.

Just because the guitar riff is overplayed, does not mean it is not great. If it is the only guitar riff that someone has learned then it may be the best way to try out a new guitar.

However, with so many other memorable guitar riffs out there, surely one of them would be preferable for a guitar store employee to hear. Even if there is a joke behind playing ‘Stairway To Heaven’, a very well-known one too.

Final Thoughts

Playing ‘Stairway To Heaven’ in a guitar store is either foolish or incredibly brave. Though the track is not explicitly banned, nor will you see signs stating that you cannot play it, it has been played far too much in a guitar store.

It remains a classic track and one of the most popular guitar riffs to play. Yet playing it in a guitar store is both the wrong time and the wrong place to do so.

Part of the problem may lie in simply how recognizable and how versatile the guitar riff is. Many guitar players can pick up an electric or an acoustic guitar and then play that iconic riff.

The guitar will not light up in flames due to satanic links, despite the vast majority of accomplished guitar players knowing how to play it. Then again, few guitar riffs seem so damn satisfying and rewarding when you play them.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Other Popular Rock Songs Can Typically Be Practiced In A Guitar Store?

While ‘Stairway To Heaven’ may seem to be effectively banned in a guitar store, there are plenty of other rock songs that get regularly played. Such familiar tracks include Queen’s, ‘We Will Rock You’, ‘Purple Rain’ by Prince, and ‘Wonderwall’ by Oasis.

A guitar shop employee may also expect to hear ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ by Nirvana, the Guns N’ Roses track, ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’, and ‘Smoke On The Water’ by Deep Purple.

This all depends on which guitar is being tested as you may need a cutaway guitar for several of those tracks or just an acoustic guitar.

What Are The Other Indications That ‘Stairway To Heaven’ Should Be Considered One Of The Most Popular Rock Tracks Of All Time?

That the famous Led Zeppelin track should be considered one of the all-time classic tracks is not up for much debate. ‘Stairway To Heaven’ is often known to be one of the best-selling pieces of sheet music ever produced.

One radio station even played the track for 24 hours straight in 1991, in fact, the emergency services were called to KLSK Radio just to ensure that the DJ hadn’t had a heart attack.

For any guitarist who can play the track from start to finish perfectly, head down to The Guitar Store in Seattle for a 15% discount, another reason why the track is so popular.


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