For this article, let’s say you are a novice guitarist. Even if you’re a pro, we’ve all been there. I can remember a surprising amount of detail about the birthday on which I finally got my first electric guitar.
I was turning fourteen, and for months leading up to that fateful day in May, I looked at catalogs and visited guitar shops whenever I could. In my youth and naivete, I probably broke the cardinal sin of guitar shop visitors dozens of times.
If you don’t know what that cardinal sin is, then this article is for you. If you are familiar with the cardinal sin I’m referencing, then stick around anyway, because there’s sure to be something here for you.
In this article, we’ll cover:
The origins of the forbidden guitar riff
The story behind Wayne’s World’s take on the forbidden guitar riff
The nine riffs you shouldn’t play in guitar stores
THE FORBIDDEN RIFF: A MEMOIR
My introduction to the guitar is possibly the single most perfect anecdote for opening this article. My first instrument was the violin. I was lucky enough to attend a public middle school in southeastern North Carolina with a terrific string orchestra led by an outstanding teacher.
My mother’s friend brought over a violin the night before I started the sixth grade and, though I originally thought I’d be a great bass player, I joined the orchestra as a violinist.
My teacher taught all of us novices alongside the kids who had studied privately before sixth grade. She caught us up and we played quite well within a year.
In the summer before eighth grade, I borrowed my dad’s Led Zeppelin II CD and took it on a car trip to Maine. It was the only thing I listened to for that whole trip. I played it over and over again, and to this day I could probably riddle off the track list and the lyrics to each song from memory.
I became obsessed with Led Zeppelin, and little by little, I saved up to buy each of their CDs.
When I returned to school, I told my teacher about how my relationship with music changed. She was particularly responsive to our musical interests, so she found an orchestral arrangement for Stairway to Heaven. Moreover, there was a guitar part in the score, and she would audition the guitarists in the class to find a soloist.
I had played around with my mother’s acoustic guitar here and there as I learned the violin. There’s a lot of overlap in how the instruments are played, which makes it easy to get started.
That said, I wasn’t quite ready to solo in front of people yet, so I went straight to work learning Stairway to Heaven.
Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin would not have recognized what I was playing, but I did my best. In fact, I learned Stairway to Heaven to the exclusion of anything else.
Anytime I got the chance to play some guitar in a guitar shop, I played Stairway to Heaven, having no clue that what I was playing was widely understood to be the forbidden guitar riff.
In the end, I did not get the part–perhaps it was bad karma from having broken the cardinal sin on so many occasions–so I had to be content with playing as part of the orchestral accompaniment.
Nonetheless, this was a formative experience in becoming the musician I am today.
FORBIDDEN RIFFS IN GUITAR STORES (A LIST)
With time, other songs have been added to the list.
As it stands, these are some of the most iconic songs considered to be forbidden guitar riffs in guitar stores:
Stairway to Heaven – Led Zeppelin
Smoke on the Water – Deep Purple
Iron Man – Black Sabbath
Seven Nation Army – The White Stripes
Freebird – Lynyrd Skynyrd
Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana
Wonderwall – Oasis
Sweet Child O’ Mine – Guns N’ Roses
Back in Black – AC/DC
Can you think of any we missed? Let us know what we should avoid playing at Guitar Center in the comments!
1. STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN – LED ZEPPELIN
“Stairway to Heaven” was released in 1971 as part of Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album. It was co-written by Jimmy Page and Robert Plant and features three sections of music, each section faster than the last.
The forbidden riff comes from the tune’s first section, which is slow, reflective, and typically finger-picked.
Deep Purple was in Montreux at the time recording tracks using a sound truck they had rented from the Rolling Stones.
This same town, sitting on the banks of Lake Geneva (the ‘water’ of Smoke on the Water) is where Queen recorded seven studio albums.
The iconic power chord riff of “Smoke on the Water” is both one of the easiest and most recognizable riffs in guitar history, making it an obvious thing for someone in their first few weeks of learning guitar to practice, as well as an obvious candidate for the list of forbidden guitar riffs.
3. IRON MAN – BLACK SABBATH
“Iron Man” came out in 1970 as part of Paranoid, Black Sabbath’s second studio album. Depending on whom you ask, Black Sabbath is the original heavy metal band or a deeply influential proto-metal band. “Iron Man” is simple yet incredibly heavy.
The story goes that Ozzy Osbourne heard Tony Iommi playing the riff in rehearsal one day and said it sounded like, “a big iron bloke walking about.”
That idea began the theme around which Geezer Butler, the bassist, wrote the lyrics to the song. The central riff, composed of power chords that, for a beginner, can be simplified to a single note melody, was destined to be included among the forbidden guitar riffs, just like “Smoke on the Water.”
It is iconic and much more approachable for a beginner than Stairway to Heaven, making it lower-hanging fruit for a new guitarist hoping to get kicked out of a guitar store for the playing of forbidden guitar riffs.
4. SEVEN NATION ARMY – THE WHITE STRIPES
“Seven Nation Army” was released in 2003 as part of The White Stripes’ fourth studio album. The song won the Grammy for Best Rock Song at the 46th annual Grammy Awards.
The central riff was called the best riff of the decade by a writer at Rolling Stone. This is another one of those incredibly simple riffs that are playable for a novice within a few weeks of learning guitar. Jack White is a brilliant musician, but his songs are not known for complicated instrumentals.
It sounds like a bass line, but Jack White achieved that sound with the use of a pitch shifter.
Teenagers taking a trip to Guitar Center will play this riff, forbidden though it may be, as single notes up an octave from the original, since it would take a lot of convincing to get a Guitar Center employee to plug a pitch shift pedal into your signal chain without a guarantee that you’ll buy something after–especially if you’re in the store playing forbidden guitar riffs–or as power chords.
5. FREEBIRD – LYNYRD SKYNYRD
Stereotypically, we think of the annoyance around “Freebird” originating with an obnoxious audience member shouting it at a band as a request. That said, the opening riff to the tune is iconic and instantly recognizable to a classic rock aficionado.
What keeps it on the forbidden guitar riffs list, if it is included at all, is the fact that it ought to be played with a slide and it’s a little more complicated than most of the other riffs on this list.
Having lived up North for the past thirteen years, I might have just forgotten my southern roots. Still, when thinking of Lynyrd Skynyrd I am definitely more inclined to think of the “Freebird!” shouted by a bored audience member than the, “No Freebird!” shouted by a hypothetical Guitar Center employee.
6. SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT – NIRVANA
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” is another one of those oh-so-simple yet iconic power chord riffs. It is really staggering to think of how much music has been built on top of a mostly power chord foundation.
The four chords and rhythmic sequence that make up the bulk of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” are practically universally recognizable, which is surprising because “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was not originally meant to be the crossover hit became.
Of the two singles that came out before Nevermind in 1991, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the first and “Come As You Are” the second. The plan was for the latter single to possibly make a dent into mainstream radio but “Smells Like Teen Spirit” ended up being incredibly popular.
Its ascent in the charts, alongside the full Nevermind album, is widely understood to mark the moment grunge went mainstream.
7. WONDERWALL – OASIS
Anyway, here’s “Wonderwall.”
The fact that “Wonderwall” has its own joke, akin to “No Stairway” tells you everything you need to know about the forbidden nature of the 1995 Oasis hit. It is relatively easy so a lot of folks who were learning guitar in the late 90s and aughts picked it up as their first full song.
In the awkward stage between bringing your guitar to parties with one full song under your belt and learning enough songs for people to actually to want you to bring your guitar to parties, Wonderwall figures prominently in countless one-song setlists.
Likewise, it has a well-deserved place among the forbidden guitar riffs, even if it is most recognizable for its vocal line over a relatively simple chord progression.
8. SWEET CHILD O’ MINE – GUNS N’ ROSES
The iconic lead at the start of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” is one of the most played and worst-played riffs and guitar store employees have heard enough of it.
It is fundamentally a pretty simple riff in terms of rhythm and structure, which makes it alluring to newer guitarists, but it has a sort of etude quality to it, in that it requires some finger gymnastics fairly high on the neck.
Newer guitarists hoping to impress their friends by dragging them to a guitar store and playing the lead from “Sweet Child O’ Mine” have to maintain the pulse to avoid the most common pitfall with this song.
Practicing the riff at a relatively slow tempo to maintain the pulse, then gradually working the whole thing up to speed without sacrificing the pulse is the way to be slightly less annoying when you show up at the guitar store.
9. BACK IN BLACK – AC/DC
Three power chords, four notes, one of them bent, the same three power chords, and a few more notes lead off “Back in Black”, and guitar store employees are tired of hearing them.
The compound nature of the riff, part power chords, and part lick with a bent note, means this is one of the riffs where newer guitarists will pick up one part of the riff more easily than the other part.
This makes it particularly grating for guitar store employees, as the trickier parts of the riff are consequent phrases to the power chord antecedent phrases.
To hear the antecedent played clearly and in time, and then to hear the consequent phrase butchered, is tough on the soul of a musician.
FORBIDDEN RIFF: ORIGINS
The concept of the forbidden riff originated as an inside joke among staff at music stores on London’s Denmark Street in the early 1970s.
Music store salesmen noticed a developing trend: it was becoming increasingly common for novice guitarists to walk into stores and ask to try out guitars.
They all wanted to play the same thing: the beginning of Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin.
This is not an easy riff for a novice guitarist. Probably you have some idea of how practicing sounds: pulse falls off as a guitarist manages to play a part of a phrase in tempo but has to slow down for another part, the guitarist accidentally mutes a note or plays the wrong string.
As a music teacher, I listen to a lot of practice. I probably hear more practicing than finished music. It is hard listening to people practice: it requires a lot of patience.
Guitar store employees grew increasingly fed up not only with hearing the same melodic fragment repeatedly but also hearing it played poorly. What followed was a joke, but it was the type of joke that has a serious undertone: the forbidden riff.
The first was Stairway to Heaven, but more were soon added to the list. Whole Lotta Love, another Led Zeppelin song, made the list early on.
Over time, the notion of forbidden guitar riffs in guitar stores spread outside of London, bringing more people into the inside of the inside joke. The forbidden guitar riff concept gained even more prominence with Wayne’s World.
Wayne and Cassandra are in a guitar store and Wayne picks up a white Fender Stratocaster and picks a few notes before the store clerk silences his strings and points to a sign that reads, “NO STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN.”
The scene below is taken from the film:
The discerning viewer will notice that the fragment in the clip sounds nothing like Stairway to Heaven, though. The especially discerning viewer will notice that what Wayne plays on the guitar looks nothing like what you hear.
The story behind the mismatch between the sound and the appearance of the riff has to do with Led Zeppelin and Warner Music Group’s refusal to allow the film rights to the music past two notes.
In the original theatrical run of the film, there is a much more convincing Stairway in this scene, but in the VHS release and all subsequent distributions, there is a shoddy dub over that sounds nothing like the actual forbidden riff.
Regardless of the artistic merit of the overdub, the joke landed well enough that the line, “No Stairway… Denied” is every bit as legendary as, “We’re not worthy” and, “Party time, excellent.”
The good news for aspiring guitarists is that the Guitar Center Forbidden Riff List does not exist. Smaller, independent shops might have their own policies, but I could not find an official Guitar Center Forbidden Riff List anywhere.
This is good news, as it means forbidden guitar riffs are fair game in one of the country’s largest retailers of musical instruments and audio equipment. If these large stores allow the commonly forbidden riffs in guitar stores to slide, then it must mean the music world is a little more inviting than it might seem.
Perhaps there are musicians out there who would prefer music to be a more exclusive undertaking. Perhaps the guitar center employees are the unsung heroes of opening music up to everyone, including the novice guitarist. Still, I would like to suggest that the fact that the Guitar Center Forbidden Riff List does not exist must be a net positive.
As long as there is no Guitar Center Forbidden Riff List, guitar playing remains open to beginners, and everybody has to start somewhere.
In the end, the concept of forbidden guitar riffs is just an inside joke. Nobody will get thrown out of a guitar shop for playing an annoying riff, or for playing a great riff annoyingly.
That said, it is an inside joke based on the preferences of guitar store employees.
The most important thing to keep in mind when visiting a guitar store is to be kind and not waste too much of the guitar store employees’ time before either buying something or being on your way.
Still, it doesn’t hurt to keep the idea of forbidden guitar riffs in the back of your mind, because though it is a joke, it is one of those jokes that are based in truth.