The Forbidden Riff: Why Stairway To Heaven Is Banned In Guitar Stores

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  • Why is the Stairway To Heaven riff so controversial?
  • Is the “ban” just a joke?
  • Discover some bonus Stairway trivia in our FAQ!

Recorded in 1970 and released in November of 1971, “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin is one of the most famous rock songs of all time. In fact, many large publications (and probably your dad’s friends) argue that “Stairway to Heaven” is both one of the greatest and most popular songs ever recorded.

Here’s a quick rundown of some accolades surrounding this infamous metal power ballad:

So clearly, “Stairway to Heaven” is an important song that resonates with many listeners. Its legacy is unmatched as nearly every person who has picked up a guitar attempts to play Stairway and dreams of the day they can compose such an iconic piece of music.

With that in mind, guitar stores around the world have semi-jokingly banned the song’s angelic opening notes from being played while customer’s test guitars. Infamously, this trend has earned Stairway‘s intro the nickname “the Forbidden Riff” over the past several decades.

This has left many people wondering, “Why is Stairway To Heaven banned in guitar stores?” In this article, we explore the lore surrounding the song, including its history and legacy.

Why Is Stairway To Heaven Banned In Guitar Stores?

Okay, well let’s get right to it. The main reason “Stairway to Heaven” is banned in guitar stores is actually due to a movie that debuted 20 years after the song’s release: Wayne’s World.

Wayne’s World

In the 1992 music comedy Wayne’s World, the title character, Wanye Campell (played by Mike Myers), attempts to play the Stairway’s opening riff while testing out his dream axe in an Illinois guitar shop. The store’s attendant quickly grabs the guitar’s fretboard and points to a sign posted above a stairwell that reads: NO STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN.

After seeing the sign, Wayne is astonished, and breaks the fourth wall to tells the audience, “No Stairway, Denied!” If you’ve ever worked in a guitar shop, chances are that you’ve heard this particular line more times than you can count.

Strangely enough, the riff he plays in this clip sounds almost nothing like the original Stairway riff. If you guessed that this was down to licensing, give yourself a pat on the back.

According to IMDB, the riff had to be changed for international, cable, and video releases due to copyright issues, and only the original US theatrical release has the proper riff. This brings a whole new meaning to the term “forbidden riff” – it was literally forbidden to be in the film itself!

For most people, the attempt to play Stairway in Wayne’s World is the most iconic instance in which a ban has been enforced against the “forbidden song”. However, with 20 years between the movie and the song, it is easy to speculate that a ban on playing Stairway could have originated elsewhere.

What Came First, The Joke Or The Movie?

In a sense, the reason why Stairway to Heaven is banned in guitar stores is a bit of a “chicken or the egg” situation. Because the Wayne’s World writing staff was made up of many hilarious former Saturday Night Live cast members and writers, there is a chance that this joke was written about a real-life experience one of them had.

But also, these kind of novelty signs and gags are not entirely out of place in a music store.

Think about it, nearly every guitar store you’ve ever been in has had a novelty sign or two on the wall. These usually say something like “Hippies Use the Backdoor,” “Real Men Play the Blues,” or pay homage to local musicians and past gigs.

With this in mind, it is quite possible that Wayne’s World simply popularized one of these signs from a real store. Either way, it is true that you can now purchase unofficial “NO STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN” signs from a variety of sellers, including this one on Etsy.

Is Stairway to Heaven Actually Banned in Guitar Stores?

Well, technically “Stairway to Heaven” isn’t actually banned in most guitar stores, and even if they do have a sign saying this, it’s almost certainly a joke and not an actual policy.

However, the legend of exactly why it is banned in guitar stores actually goes much deeper than the comfortable combines of a local music shop. In fact, the opening notes of Stairway to Heaven are known in some other circles as the “forbidden riff” or the “forbidden song.”

Much like “He-who-must-not-be-named,” from Harry Potter, the opening riff of Stairway to Heaven is considered forbidden among people who are so against the song that they cannot even bear to hear it played. The reason for this popular nickname could come from a number of sources, which we will explore below.

So, What Makes Stairway To Heaven The “Forbidden Riff”?

This is where it gets interesting. No one is quite sure how Stairway to Heaven‘s opening notes became known as the “Forbidden Riff.” However, there are many interesting theories that people have developed since the song’s 1971 release.

The Devil, Duh

First, let’s consider the otherworldly forces that surround this song. While the tune’s lyrics take the listener on an emotional ascension into heaven, some extremists believe that the song was either created by or for the Devil himself.

Yes, it’s true. Many people claim that if you play “Stairway to Heaven” backwards, the audio produces satanic messages intended to appease the Dark King of the Underworld. Notably, many suspicious God-fearing people claim to hear the words, “Here’s to my sweet Satan”, “Master Satan,” and “there’s no escaping it.”

These back-masked messages were largely popularized by Christian radio host Michael Mills in the early 1980s. However, this was not the last time the song was used to please the Dark Lord.

In 2002, the band Tenacious D released the song “Tribute,” which tells the tale of band-members Jack Black and Kyle Gass encountering Satan himself while “hitchhikin’ down a long and lonesome road.” The story goes on to explain that Tenacious D played “the greatest song in the world” for the demon, but that they cannot remember how it goes.

Although the band has used a battle with the Devil in a few different releases, this clip from Tenacious D’s television show illustrates the exact moment when rock music is used to tame a member of the underworld. Skip to around 1:10 if you are in a hurry, but unmistakably, you will hear Kyle Gass play the Forbidden Riff in order to appease the devil.

With all of this supernatural mumbo-jumbo in mind, some true believers are actually convinced that “Stairway to Heaven” is completely sacrilegious, and should therefore be banned in guitar stores and on radio waves throughout the world.

People Just Got Tired of Hearing It

Another more accessible theory is that “Stairway to Heaven” is banned in some guitar stores because the staff simply got tired of hearing it. This is incredibly believable, as anyone who has ever stepped foot into a guitar store will agree that amateur attempts at famous guitar riffs can sound just like nails on a chalkboard.

Think about it, no matter how down to earth they are, most young guitarists continue to play their instrument because it gives them a feeling of pride and joy. Beyond this, skillful finger-picking is a great way to impress friends, family, and members of the opposite sex.

With one of the most iconic riffs of all time, learning “Stairway to Heaven” is practically a requirement for any guitar player hoping to earn a right of passage. Although it may sound cool in your parents’ basement, most guitar store employees have heard good, great, and downright awful versions of the forbidden riff so many times that it no longer sounds like music to their ears.

In fact, “Stairway” became such a massive hit that even Led Zeppelin lead singer, Robert Plant, got tired of hearing it. While driving down the west coast of the United States, Plant pulled his car over and pledged $10,000 to the radio station KBOO so that they would never play the song again.

Although he used a credit card, we think that Plant was good for the money. After all, Led Zeppelin IV has sold over 37 million copies.

Pretentiousness And Nothing More

Although it is clear that many people love and adore the song, “Stairway to Heaven” has also received its fair amount of criticism from the newspapers, musicians, and the general public.

Famously, music critic Lester Bangs once called Led Zeppelin’s Stairway “a thicket of misbegotten mush.” Whereas most of the world’s music lovers were under the spell of the song’s sheer optimism and beauty, Bangs and other music snobs simply weren’t having it.

Lester Bangs was famously dismissive of Stairway To Heaven. (Image: Rolling Stone)

In many ways, the delicate instrumentation and seemingly meaningful lyrics throughout “Stairway to Heaven” have mass appeal to every teenager who believes that they are the next Jimmy Page. With hordes of young people playing the guitar on the sales floor, there is no doubt that seasoned guitar store employees have quickly grown tired of hearing the riff that makes newbies feel as if they are “the chosen one.”

With this in mind, aging rockers helping teenagers pick out their Stratocasters may cringe at the sounds of the forbidden riff.

Of course, beyond this, we all have a friend that doesn’t like things strictly because they are too popular. “Stairway” often falls victim to these opinionated, contrarian minds who claim the song “isn’t even that good”. If you want to have some fun, challenge these people to name a song they have written that is even half as popular as Stairway and wait for the “that’s not the point…” line.

It Was Stolen

Lastly, there has been a lot of controversy as to who the original writers of “Stairway to Heaven” actually were. Although the song was released by Led Zeppelin in 1971, another band by the name of “Spirit” sued Zep in 2016, claiming the song had been copied their song, “Taurus,” which had been released 3 years earlier.

Although many musicians, including Led Zeppelin’s guitarist Jimmy Page, have been known to “borrow” riffs and lyrics from other songs, Spirit actually made quite a case for copyright infringement. After all, the band opened for Led Zeppelin on a tour directly before Stairway was written released.

Plus, more critically, the songs actually do sound fairly similar.

Here is a side by side comparison on YouTube, which compares the introduction of “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven.” We will let you form your own opinions, however, it is important to note that multiple juries have determined that there is no copyright infringement or foul play involved. This verdict was reached after the case was taken through several appeals.

So even though it may or may have been stolen, this controversy has generally led to bad press with some of the public no longer iodizing Led Zeppelin as untouchable, rock heroes. With this in mind, bad karma and nightmare gigs may haunt anyone who dares play the forbidden riff.

Bonus FAQ & Stairway To Heaven Trivia!

How long is the song Stairway to Heaven?

In its original recording, “Stairway to Heaven” clocked in at 8:02. This “epic” length is not unusual for Led Zeppelin, but it’s at least twice as long as most other popular songs.

How do you play Stairway to Heaven on Guitar?

If you’d like to learn the forbidden riff and the “greatest guitar solo of all time,” there are many online resources with tabs, video tutorials, and sheet music available. Quite frankly, we are astonished that you are even asking this question with all this in mind. Once you are done feeling ashamed of yourself, we recommend watching this video.

What is so special about Stairway to Heaven?

Although it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact reason why any song is so good, “Stairway” is largely known for its superior composition, the heartfelt and dynamic vocal performance by Robert Plant, and a flawless, marathon guitar solo by Jimmy Page.

It’s hard to think of a song that sounded anything like Stairway back when Led Zeppelin’s fourth album dropped in 1971. So it’s easy to see why it had the impact it did – there was simply nothing else like it.

How long did it take to make Stairway to Heaven?

“Stairway to Heaven” was written during the height of Led Zeppelin’s fame, with the band claiming it took over 18 months to fully write and record while continuing to tour.

So, in short, the answer is quite a while.

What is Stairway to Heaven about?

In truth, no one truly knows what “Stairway to Heaven” is about. In fact, Robert Plant, who wrote the song’s lyrics, has been quoted as saying, “Depending on what day it is, [he] still interprets the song a different way.”

The lyrics, which were written in a “flash of inspiration” have been interpreted to reference drug use, or perhaps a woman who gets everything, but gives nothing back in return.

And As We Wind On Down The Road…

At the end of the day, many people believe that some of rock and roll’s greatest songs and riffs are so good that they are just plain inhuman. In the case of Stairway, religious undertones, overplaying, and controversy have led to the song’s opening notes to be nicknamed “the Forbidden Riff“.

Although many guitar stores only jokingly enforce the rule, it is still true that these factors (as well as national attention from the movie Wayne’s World) have led to real bans on playing Stairway in music shops around the world.

So next time you’re playing guitar with or without the intention to purchase it, be careful before shredding the forbidden riff.

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