Led Zeppelin’s 1971 masterpiece, “Stairway to Heaven” features on practically every “greatest songs of all-time” list, and frequently emerges victorious – so why is it that this iconic song is the butt of so many jokes?
The most famous of these jokes is, of course, that the arpeggiated intro to Stairway is cast as “the forbidden riff”, and is seemingly banned in guitar shops around the world. We’ve made the joke ourselves, without giving it much thought, but in this KillerGuitarRigs Special, we’re looking to get to the bottom of why such a popular song draws so much ire.
Keep on reading as we explore the myths and urban legends surrounding the forbidden riff.
- Is Stairway to Heaven Really Banned in Guitar Stores?
- Why is Stairway to Heaven Known as the Forbidden Riff?
- The Conservative Christian Radio Theory
- The “It’s Not Cool to Like Popular Things” Theory
- The “People Just Got Sick of it” Theory
- The Stairway Was a Rip-Off Theory
- The Wayne’s World Theory
- What is the Story Behind Stairway to Heaven?
- Why is Stairway to Heaven So Popular?
- How Do You Play Stairway to Heaven?
- Are Any Other Songs Considered Forbidden?
- Final Thoughts on the Forbidden Riff
Is Stairway to Heaven Really Banned in Guitar Stores?
We’ll start by sorting fact from fiction – Stairway isn’t actually banned in guitar stores (that we know of!). It’s become a big inside joke amongst those who work in music shops, and while those who tempt fate by playing it might end up with a store clerk raising their eyebrows, or staring them down, it’s (almost) always all in good fun.
Why is Stairway to Heaven Known as the Forbidden Riff?
There are a number of prominent theories that could explain why Stairway’s opening bars became known as the forbidden riff. Some are pretty plausible, while others are just borderline ridiculous. Here are some of the most prominent theories that try to explain.
The Conservative Christian Radio Theory
Many conservative Christian groups have long opposed rock and roll, deeming it to be the “Devil’s Music”, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that many prominent figures took it upon themselves to look for hidden meaning in the lyrics of popular rock songs. At the time of Stairway’s release, vinyl was by far the most popular medium, and it was well theorized that some artists hid secret messages in the discs, so that when played backwards, they could spread these coded phrases to their followers, or God forbid, to impressionable god-fearing folk!
A prominent Christian radio DJ by the name of Michael Mills was one such theorist, and in 1981, he suggested to his listeners, that besides the blasphemous use of Heaven in the lyrics, backmasked within Stairway to Heaven, were phrases like “Master Satan”, “Serve Me” and “There’s no Escaping it!”.
He called for listeners to boycott the song, and for other stations to stop playing it – and of course, very few took his demands seriously.
Some say that the “banning” of Stairway to Heaven in guitar stores was an ironic response to the conservative Christian effort to actually ban the song. It’s a strong theory, but, it’s not likely to be the real reason.
The “It’s Not Cool to Like Popular Things” Theory
There’s a pervasive faction within guitar culture that tend to believe that it’s cool, or edgy to be against mainstream songs or music that is objectively good. The number of musicians who are vehemently opposed to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and other huge acts, who have left indelible marks on music as a whole, is both ridiculous and sad. While we’re not advocating that you have to like every band, you don’t necessarily have to hate on them either.
There’s a good chance that Stairway to Heaven was “banned” in music stores because of pretentious employees, who thought popular mainstream songs were uncool, for no reason other than they were popular – given the immense popularity of Stairway such, patrons may have been asked not to play it because the employees who worked there thought themselves above enjoying anything popular.
The “People Just Got Sick of it” Theory
Stairway to Heaven is one of the most played songs in the history of radio. In fact, it was so overplayed, that Robert Plant himself once offered a radio station $10,000 to never play it again after he was subjected to his own music so often on a cross country tour of the USA. In addition to Stairway being played on the radio ad nauseum, it’s also a go to lick for players testing guitars in music shops.
New players who pick up guitars tend to gravitate towards iconic, yet simple riffs in an attempt to play something recognizable when at their local stores. The intro to Stairway has consistently been a favorite amongst beginners, and is often touted in “easiest riffs for beginners” lists. Of course, when new players enter a guitar store with a limited repertoire, they’re going to bust out the songs that (they think) they play best.
If you happened to work in a guitar store, and you were subjected to the same song played poorly by people who aren’t even planning to buy a guitar, day in and day out, there’s a good chance you’d find yourself putting up a sign that attempts to put people off from playing it!
Is this the right approach from the stores? Not really – it’s important that as a community, guitarists lift each other up and encourage new players from the beginning. Making them feel bad about playing one of the only songs they know is detrimental to music in general, and we hope that this isn’t the real reason for the song being forbidden.
The Stairway Was a Rip-Off Theory
Many guitar store employees are musicians themselves, and relate to the struggle that comes with pursuing ones art. As such, they often find themselves siding with the little guy in the event of disputes, and especially so when it’s about a seemingly clear cut copyright infringement involving one of the biggest bands in history.
In 1968, 2 years before Stairway was written, and 3 before it was released a band called Spirit released a song titled “Taurus”. Taurus was a short instrumental track, with a main riff that you might find extremely familiar if you check out the song for yourself.
Spirit claimed that Led Zeppelin outright copied their hook, and honestly, they might well be right. The story gets even more interesting when you find out that Spirit actually opened for Led Zep on tour between the release of Taurus, and Stairway being written.
Guitarists around the world who knew about this issue may well have been inclined to show solidarity with Spirit by referring to Stairway as the “Forbidden Riff”. This is an interesting theory, but again, is not likely to be the source of the phrase.
The Wayne’s World Theory
Readers of a certain vintage will recall a scene from the cult classic, “Wayne’s World”, a 1992 movie about a pair of music loving friends who run their own public access cable TV show in Aurora, Illinois. In the referenced scene, after signing a deal to sell their show to a major network and getting checks for $5000 each, the protagonists, Wayne and Garth visit a local music store.
Wayne sees his dream guitar in the store, encased in plexiglass, a “’64 Fender Stratocaster in Classic White with triple single coil pickups and a whammy bar – Pre-CBS corporate buy-out”. He summons one of the store’s employees using the “may I help you riff” on another guitar, and asks to try the Strat. Immediately after picking it up, he begins to play the opening bars to the Led Zeppelin classic, but is quickly stopped by the store clerk, who points to a sign (ironically placed next to a staircase) that reads “NO STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN”.
“No Stairway?! Denied!”
Despite being from a movie, this Wayne’s World scene is widely regarded as the first recorded banning of Stairway to Heaven in a guitar shop. Interestingly enough, due to copyright issues, if you watch Wayne’s World today, Wayne doesn’t actually play Stairway. Only during the original US theatrical run was the real intro used. On international screenings, and the subsequent TV, VHS, and later DVD/Blu-Ray releases, a different riff altogether was used – something that’s likely to confuse younger viewers.
What is the Story Behind Stairway to Heaven?
The story behind Stairway is nowhere near as epic as the song itself. Ultimately, it was written over quite a long period of time, starting in early 1970. Page and Plant were on a retreat in Bron-Yr-Aur, in the Welsh countryside, relaxing after spending much of the preceding year on tour, and it was in the cottage in which they were staying, that Stairway started to come together.
They went to Basing Street Studios in London, England, in December of 1970 to start recording the music for the song (check out the guitar gear used on the recording here). The vocals weren’t completed until 1971, and were actually recorded at Headley Grange, in Hampshire, England.
The song was included on the album Led Zeppelin IV, but was never released as a single. Many bought into the idea that the band wanted their art to be listened to in its entirety, or that controlling their music so tightly added to the whole mystique of their act, but the reality is that even giants like Led Zeppelin were in it for the cash.
Their manager, Peter Grant actually refused to let the band release singles in order to force the public to buy the entire album, which cost significantly more money. In fact, Grant wouldn’t even allow the band to appear on TV to ensure that fans had to pay for a ticket if they ever wanted to see them.
Why is Stairway to Heaven So Popular?
It’s hard to say why Stairway to Heaven in particular got so popular when you consider how many other great songs Led Zeppelin released.
While Led Zeppelin weren’t truly a prog rock band, Stairway is sometimes regarded as one of the original tracks of the progressive rock movement. At the time, it was unlike anything that had ever been released (save for Spirit’s “Taurus”), and it certainly got people talking.
The fact that it became such a commercial success is a miracle in and of itself when you consider that radio airtime was the real measure of success in the 70s. To put that into context, Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”, which was released 4 years after Stairway, was almost shot down by EMI executives because they thought that due to the length of the song, radio stations wouldn’t touch it – it was an entire 2 minutes less than Stairway to Heaven.
The slow buildup of this epic 7 minute and 55 second track, flows effortlessly into a rocking mid-section before launching into what is considered by many to be one of the greatest guitar solos ever recorded.
The ethereal lyrics also hold a certain mystery that has kept fans guessing for decades, further increasing the mystique and interest in the song. There has never been an official explanation given for a “meaning” to the song, and of course, this has led to many discussions surrounding the origins of the lyrics, and with that, lots of listening to the track on repeat.
How Do You Play Stairway to Heaven?
If you’re feeling rebellious and you want to cause a scene, why not learn the forbidden riff, walk into your local Guitar Center, plug in a guitar, turn the amp to 11, and play the Stairway to Heaven intro?
Jokes aside, if you’d like to learn this song, there are a number of great resources on YouTube, or if you’d prefer to learn the old fashioned way, Songsterr is a great reference for tabs and chords.
Are Any Other Songs Considered Forbidden?
Stairway to Heaven isn’t the only taboo song out there. Depending on which of the above theories as to why Stairway is forbidden that you subscribe to, there are a number of other riffs that can draw negative attention in a music shop.
Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana
This iconic Nirvana track is not only fun to play, but because of the simple power chords it was written with, it’s an incredibly popular track with novice guitarists. Because of that, it’s been played to death in guitar shops across the world.
Sweet Child o’ Mine – Guns ‘n’ Roses
Like Stairway to Heaven, Guns ‘n’ Roses’ “Sweet Child o’ Mine” has an unmistakable opening hook that isn’t all that difficult to play. It’s another go to for guitar shoppers, and one that store employees have probably heard one too many times.
Enter Sandman – Metallica
Enter Sandman is yet another song with an earworm of an opening riff that also happens to be quite easy to play. As a result, beginners who enjoy heavier styles of music often learn this track, or at least the intro, early on in their journeys.
Smoke on the Water – Deep Purple
The final forbidden riff is probably the most egregious of all. The main hook to Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water is one of the most recognizable licks on the planet, and is often the very first thing new guitarists (especially the self-taught) ever learn. Not only is it iconic, it’s also super simple to play, making it a popular guitar store test riff that employees are no doubt tired of!
A number of content creators on the TikTok app actually test a lot of these songs to gauge reactions in the store and get a rise out of the employees. Those reactions may or may not be staged for likes, but either way, it’s still pretty funny to watch.
There is no doubt a number of others, and as the years go on, we’re sure new popular songs will be added to the list!
Final Thoughts on the Forbidden Riff
Stairway to Heaven is a fantastic song, there’s not much doubt about that, but as they say, you can always have too much of a good thing, and in the case of this Led Zeppelin masterpiece, that seems to be the case for many.
As for Stairway being “forbidden”, we think it’s safe to say that it’s definitely all just a big joke. While the fact that it has been chronically overplayed for decades has clearly added to most guitarist’s Led Zeppelin fatigue, we’re almost certain that the concept of the song being forbidden wasn’t realized until Wayne’s World, and like any good movie, fans had to keep on quoting it.
Being a music based movie, it’s highly likely that a lot of guitar store employees saw it, and jokingly stopped patrons from playing Stairway to Heaven like the clerk did to Wayne at their own places of work, berthing the legend of the forbidden riff.