Since its release on the 1971 album Led Zeppelin IV, Stairway to Heaven’s sweeping vocals, epic lyrics, and grandiose guitar solos have all firmly established the song as one of rock’s greatest. In the 50 years since its release, the song has gone from smash hit to legendary joke between musicians and music buffs, so much so that it’s said to be banned from being played at guitar stores around the world by novice and pro alike.
In this article, we’re going to investigate where this rock lore started, why it’s so widely believed, and if you’ll indeed get kicked out of a store for playing Stairway to Heaven at your local guitar shop.
No Stairway! Denied! – What Does Wayne’s World Have To Do With It?
Excellent! Wayne’s World is one of the most iconic rock-centric films ever made (and I’m not saying that just because I’m from Chicagoland). In one scene, the titular Wayne (played by the legendary Mike Myers) goes to a guitar shop to finally purchase his coveted “Excalibur,” a ‘64 Fender Stratocaster in classic white, with triple single-coil pickups and a whammy bar.
He tests out his prize by playing no more than five notes of Stairway before an employee shuts him down and points to a sign stating “No Stairway to Heaven.” A confused and disappointed Wayne looks at the camera and laments, “No Stairway! Denied!”
Did The Joke Or The Movie Happen First?
Clearly, this scene is exactly what is foretold in rock lore: if you play Stairway to Heaven at a guitar store, you will be asked to stop or, worse, be kicked out.
But which came first, the joke or the movie? By all accounts, the gag is very much an inside joke for guitar shop employees and musicians who, by the film’s release in 1992, had suffered through 20 long years of terrible attempts at Stairway by legions of amateur customers. Since it is not illegal to play any song in public, the joke in the film is no more than a throwaway nod to guitar shop culture.
Is Stairway To Heaven Actually Banned In Guitar Stores?
So will you actually be denied or kicked out of a guitar shop for playing Stairway? Probably not. As a joking threat, maybe! Wayne’s World is a wildly popular and influential movie and its jokes and visual gags have shaped how a lot of people engage with rock music to this day.
We all headbang to Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and gyrate to The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Foxy Lady all thanks to Wayne’s World. The joke that you’ll get booted for playing a “forbidden song” is just another part of the movie’s enduring legacy in pop culture.
What Exactly Makes Stairway To Heaven The “Forbidden Riff”?
Now you might be asking, “I’ve heard that Stairway to Heaven is a “Forbidden Riff”? What’s that? Does it have to do with the Devil?” Why yes, dear reader, the Devil is definitely one of the reasons that Stairway is considered “forbidden,” but there are a few more to explore as well.
The Devil Factor
There’s nothing more forbidden than the Prince of Darkness himself, right? As with anything rock ‘n roll, the Devil is always somehow involved and Stairway is definitely no exception.
Led Zeppelin’s on-stage personas and infamous off-stage antics reflected the unabashed decadence of 1970s rock culture. This obviously shocked and appalled American conservatives, who quickly denounced rock music as “devil’s work” to corrupt young minds.
One of the most famous champions of this rhetoric was early 80’s Michigan radio televangelist Michael Mills, who insisted that Stairway to Heaven had devilish intent in hidden subliminal messages when the record was played backwards (aka “backmasking”).
Mills demonstrated that one could clearly hear “Master Satan” and “there’s no escaping it” amongst the warped gibberish of the vocal track.
Stairway wasn’t the only song to receive Satanic backmasking accusations at the time. Songs by bands such as Queen, Styx, Pink Floyd, and ELO were actually used as evidence in a 1983 anti-backmasking bill that passed through Arkansas State Congress before being shot down by then-Govenor Bill Clinton.
The fear of backmasking subliminal messages in rock music became a key part of the Satanic panic religious craze of the 1980’s and left an indelible mark on rock music to this day. I mean, you can’t get more forbidden than that.
The Legal Factor(s)
Led Zeppelin actually forbade the producers of Wayne’s World from using the opening riff of Stairway to Heaven in the film’s home video or foreign release versions, which created a lot of confusion amongst later fans of the film who didn’t see the original theatrical cut and only watched it on video (like myself).
What Wayne plays in the guitar store sounds nothing like Stairway to Heaven, which morphed into a joke all on its own for fans of the cult classic.
In a bit of poetic irony, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page were sued for copyright infringement in 2014 by the estate of 70’s rock band Spirit, who claimed that Led Zeppelin stole the opening riff of Stairway from Spirit’s song Taurus shortly after the two bands toured together in 1968.
The case went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2020 before being declined, thus maintaining a previous 2018 decision in favor of Led Zeppelin.
People Got Tired Of An Overplayed Song
Even in the 1970s, at the height of the song’s popularity, many people despised Stairway to Heaven because it was and is still the most requested song on FM radio of all time. Not only does that mean it was played constantly, but clocking in at 8 minutes and 3 seconds, you were strapped into Stairway for a long time.
Multiple radio stations were known to play it simultaneously, which meant that you couldn’t really escape hearing it. Many people grew to resent the song which led to a backlash, even from Led Zeppelin themselves! In 2002, frontman Robert Plant donated $10,000 to a Portland radio station on the stipulation that they would never play Stairway again. Stairway denied!
The famous Wayne’s World joke really struck a chord with guitar shops and in the years since Wayne was “denied” playing “Stairway to Heaven,” many employees have placed the song as the first on a list of “Forbidden Riffs” never to be strummed or plucked in public.
According to rock lore, the concept of the “Forbidden Riff” actually dates back to the 1970s in London’s famous Denmark Street guitar shops. Exasperated employees decided enough was enough and that they were sick of hearing the same songs played badly by beginner players all of the time, “Stairway” included.
Thus the idea of the “Forbidden Riff” was born. This list has expanded since then and honorees such as “Smoke on the Water,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” and “Enter Sandman” have all been added to the informal list.
Tips On What You Should Do Instead At A Guitar Shop
So you want to try out a new guitar at a shop but don’t want to be side-eyed at best or “denied” at worst? First, it’s all about etiquette and mindfulness of those around you. Turn down your amp volume while you’re plugging in or out to avoid a massive POP sound. Speaking of volume, you don’t have to turn everything up to 11.
Keep it balanced so that you can hear your guitar clearly and your fellow test neighbors can hear theirs too. In terms of what to play, play a riff, song, or solo that you know very well so you can be focused on the feel and handle of the specific guitar you’re testing and not be overly concerned about how to play the song itself.
Everyone can tell when someone is at a shop just to show off instead of being an interested customer. If you want to display your rock skills for all to hear, start a band or sign up for an open mic so your talents can truly be appreciated instead of being merely tolerated by long-suffering music store staff just trying to do their jobs.
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Frequently Asked Stairway To Heaven Questions
How long is the song Stairway to Heaven?
Stairway to Heaven clocks in at 8 minutes and 3 seconds.
How do you play Stairway to Heaven on guitar?
There are a wide variety of chords, tabs, and tutorials to be found across the web that will break down what you need to know to learn Stairway to Heaven on guitar.
How long did it take to make Stairway to Heaven?
After 18 months of non-stop touring in 1970, Led Zeppelin announced that they were writing a new song as the centerpiece of their touring set. After months of playing around with the shape of the song, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant settled into a 250-year-old Welsh cottage to work out its final form with Plant’s lyrics pouring out of him all at once. “I almost leapt out of my seat,” he later said in an interview.
What is Stairway to Heaven about?
Robert Plant, who wrote the lyrics, has spent his entire professional life being questioned about what Stairway is about. “Depending on what day it is,” Plant stated during an interview shortly after the song’s release. “I still interpret the song a different way – and I wrote the lyrics.”
Why do guitar stores have forbidden riffs?
Guitar shop employees have to listen to many, many people play guitar every day, many of whom play the same classic rock song riffs and licks over and over again without much self-awareness. Thus the list of “Forbidden Riffs” was created, although it’s more a matter of guitar store etiquette than anything else.
Are there any other forbidden riffs we should know about?
Basically every cliche rock song you can think of with a super famous and easy-to-learn riff. I mentioned classics like Smoke on the Water, Sweet Child O’ Mine, and Enter Sandman earlier in the article, but the list is constantly evolving and now includes more modern hits such as Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit and the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army. This writer predicts that every song by Imagine Dragons will be on the list of “Forbidden Riffs” soon enough if not already.
And She’s Buying a Stairway to Heaven…
Even though its riffs are “forbidden” from guitar shops, Stairway to Heaven is still one of the most popular songs for beginning guitar players around the world. Its enduring lore and legacy will surely ramble on through the decades to come for rockers new and old, with the occasional roast thrown in for good measure. Party on!
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