Stairway to Heaven is an iconic rock song by one of the greatest rock bands of all time – Led Zeppelin. It was a huge hit and it earned itself a place in pop culture as one of the most epic rock songs of all time.
And yet, Stairway to Heaven comes with some baggage – any guitarist will tell you that it is taboo to play Stairway in a guitar shop or anywhere people take music seriously, and some even say it’s the illegal or forbidden riff.
What does that mean? Are you really going to be thrown out of a music store for playing Stairway to Heaven, one of the most popular guitar songs of all time?
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Is Stairway to Heaven Really Banned in Guitar Stores? And Is It Illegal?
It’s not necessarily illegal to play Stairway when you’re trying out the Gibson of your dreams, but any guitar player will tell you it is a faux pas.
Playing Stairway to Heaven at a guitar store is like going to a 5-star restaurant, ordering a steak well-done, and then covering it in Ketchup. You’re not going to get kicked out or fined, but you might get some weird looks and the staff won’t be very impressed with you.
If you’re a guitar player who has just learned how to play this classic hit, you may be wondering why Stairway has such a taboo.
Well, two reasons: Stairway to Heaven was not just overplayed by the radio, it was also overplayed by guitar players, and Wayne’s World made a joke about playing Stairway in a guitar store, that continues to be a part of guitar culture today.
Why did the song become such a part of guitar culture? First, you need to understand just how popular the song is.
How Popular Was Stairway to Heaven?
Stairway to Heaven was huge. A massive hit. It wasn’t just a successful song, it became an anthem.
As of 2000, the song had been on radio over three million times – an impressive feat for an eight-minute long rock epic. It is also one of the most over-played songs of all time. It still gets played on radio over 4200 times every year in the US alone.
Rolling Stone lists the song as #31 on their ‘Top 500 Songs of All Time’ and VH1 lists it as number #3 in their list of ‘100 Greatest Rock Songs of All Time’.
The song was on Led Zeppelin IV, which is Led Zeppelin’s best-selling album. Led Zeppelin also played the song at almost every concert until they broke up, fans loved it.
The song was huge, and it was guitar heavy. This prompted many aspiring guitarists to pick up their axes and learn to play it. Soon enough, Stairway to Heaven became the biggest-selling peace of sheet music in rock n’ roll history, and it still is today.
The average hit single will sell 10,000 to 15,000 copies of sheet music over the course of its entire lifetime as a hit. Stairway to Heaven has sold over a million.
That’s a million guitar players with Stairway under their fingertips. And you better believe there are millions and millions more now that guitar players are using tabs.
Why Do Guitar Store Employees Hate Stairway to Heaven?
If you work at a guitar store, you get to be surrounded by guitars all day – awesome. You also get to be surrounded by people who don’t know how to play guitars all day – not as awesome.
Stairway to Heaven became the kind of song that novice guitar players would roughly learn to play, and then immediately rush off and show everyone their accomplishment. Stairway to Heaven is one of the most overplayed songs as it is, so this was annoying to people who can really play.
Music store employees have to grit their teeth and sell guitars to people who are plucking out the janky first notes to one of the best rock songs ever played. They also have to hear guitar players play ‘Smoke On The Water’ badly, ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, and ‘Enter Sandman’. It gets old pretty quickly.
Over time, guitar stores started putting up signs that jokingly ‘banned’ certain songs that their customers always played and always played badly.
No Stairway? Denied!
The song really cemented itself in guitar culture when the 1992 hit movie ‘Wayne’s World’ arrived in theatres.
The movie is all about a couple of slackers, Wayne and Garth, who love rock music, and they love Stairway to Heaven.
When Wayne goes into a guitar shop, he picks up a guitar and starts to jam, but he gets through two notes before the clerk grabs the guitar and points to a sing:
NO STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN
Wayne looks at the camera and says, “No ‘Stairway’? Denied!”.
This is the scene in question.
The joke is at the expense of guitar players coming in and playing Stairway to Heaven, thinking they’re being slick.
Soon enough, guitar stores around the world had signs in their shops that looked like the sign from Wayne’s World; ‘NO STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN’.
All in all, the ‘no Stairway to Heaven in guitar stores’ trope is just a joke. But it definitely has some truth to it – you should pick something else to play, just for the sake of etiquette and your dignity.
Is Stairway to Heaven Hard to Play?
If you love the song and want to learn how to play it, you totally should! It’s still a great song.
All this fuss might have you wondering; how hard is it to play anyways? If everyone played it so much it got ‘banned’ it must be pretty easy, right?
Yeah, mostly! The song has fairly simple fingerpicking throughout, but it is also very long, so there is a lot to remember. Part of the reason that guitar stores got tired of Stairway to Heaven is that the first few bars are iconic, and they aren’t very hard.
However, if you get well into the song, there’s more to consider. In particular, the guitar solo is legendary and it is not easy.
Learning the guitar solo note for note would be impressive, and nobody would make fun of you for playing that in a guitar store!
Back in the 70s and 80s, there’s a good chance that this song was the first one many people learned on guitar, these days not so much. So, if you want to give it a shot, go ahead!
Is Stairway To Heaven The Best Song Ever?
For all the stigma, is Stairway To Heaven the best song ever? It’s pretty hard to say that any song is the ‘best song ever’, but I think it is safe to say it is one of the best songs ever.
As mentioned, it earned the #31 spot on Rolling Stone’s ‘500 Best Songs of All Time’ and the #3 spot on VH1’s ‘100 Best Rock Songs of All Time’. That certainly counts for something!
As a song, Stairway has a lot going for it. It’s not a ‘simple’ song, despite it being somewhat easy to play. It was a tricky song for Led Zeppelin to write.
Jimmy Page said “It’s not just one of those things where it goes verse-chorus-verse. It was tricky because it had sections, but they didn’t repeat exactly the same each time.”
The song also changes tempo from beginning to end, pretty drastically. Studio musicians aren’t supposed to speed up or slow down, but this song does.
The lyrics are also interesting. They were written by Robert Plant, inspired by his search for spiritual perfection. It contains references to the book ‘Magic Arts in Celtic Britain’ which Plant had read around the time of writing the song.
The song’s lyrics can come off as a bit obtuse, absurd, or pompous, but the truth is that the mystical nature of the lyrics is part of what made the song so magical when it first came out.
People, particularly kids and teenagers fall in love with Zeppelin for the same reasons they fall in love with Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter – there’s a certain style mysticism or fantasy that sets the imagination on fire!
It’s a great song no doubt about it.
Stairway to Heaven Breeds Controversy
Stairway to Heaven isn’t just controversial in guitar stores, it’s been controversial throughout its existence.
Do you remember when parental associations were very worried about satanic messages in rock n roll music? Well, Led Zeppelin definitely does.
In 1982, a California State Assembly consumer-protection committee heard testimony from so-called experts that claimed that when you played Stairway to Heaven backwards, it would play satanic messages.
The backwards lyrics apparently included ‘I sing because I live with Satan. The Lord turns me off — there's no escaping it. Here's to my sweet Satan, whose power is Satan. He will give you 666. I live for Satan.’
Obviously, Led Zeppelin denies this and it is definitely far-fetched. Check it out for yourself if you like.
The song has also been subject to copyright claims over the years. According to some, Led Zeppelin stole the introduction to the song from an instrumental song called ‘Spirit’ by Taurus.
In 2016, a federal court jury in LA ruled that Led Zeppelin did not plagiarize the song, especially given that copyright law does not protect chromatic scales, arpeggios, or short sequences of notes.
However, the case is back in the courts as of 2019. There are many rumors about whether or not the song was plagiarized, but Spirit’s frontman Randy Wolfe always maintained that the similarities were too strong.
You can decide for yourself!
Here’s Stairway to Heaven:
And here is Spirit’s song, ‘Taurus’, check it out around 0:40, where the similarities begin.
By the way, did you watch that clip from Wayne’s World? Did you notice that the guitar riff that Wayne is playing sound literally nothing at all like Stairway to Heaven?
Yeah, so did everyone else! Is Wayne just so terrible at guitar that he can’t even get the first few notes right? Did the employee just assume he was going to bust into Stairway to Heaven?
What seems like a weird off-kilter gag, is actually the result of Led Zeppelin being cagey about licensing the song to be used in the movie.
In the first U.S. release of the song, Wayne played a much more recognizable version of the song, which makes the joke a whole lot better. But at some point, Warner Music Group and Led Zeppelin refused to give them the rights to even the first few notes of the famous song.
The film’s director, Penelope Spheeris, said “With ‘Stairway to Heaven' we were told that we could only use two notes before we’d have to pay $100,000, so to sell that he’s gonna play ‘Stairway to Heaven' in two notes is pretty difficult”.
No doubt it is, Penelope!
What Should You Play Instead of Stairway to Heaven?
Guitar stores are filled with guitar players just trying to find their next axe. How do you know which kind of guitar is right for you? Play what you love to play!
Play your own material, make up a solo, just mess around. Enjoy the guitar for what it is: an instrument meant to be played.
Nobody will make fun of your or complain if you’re playing for enjoyment. That’s what it’s all about! People only get annoyed when you’re trying to show off.
If you don’t want to play anything of your own, choose a guitar player that inspires you – Hendrix, John Mayer, even Jimmy Page! Maybe just play Black Dog instead…
If you’re nervous about playing out loud in a store filled with other musicians, that’s totally fair. Fortunately, the best way to battle nerves is with preparation.
Find a couple licks or riffs you want to play and learn them. Memorize them so that you don’t have to look at your phone. Play them like you mean it!
Try out riffs and licks in styles you either already play or want to play more. That’s the only way you’ll know that the gear you’re trying is going to work for you anyways.
Final Thoughts on Stairway to Heaven Being Banned From Guitar Stores
Stairway to Heaven is a great song. It’s one of the best songs of all time, and definitely one of the best rock songs of all time.
It’s so great, that tons of people have learned it, and that is not a bad thing! Anytime you learn something new on guitar, that’s a win!
Over time, the song got overplayed and tired, especially in guitar stores. Remember that it is best-selling piece of rock sheet music, ever.
So, Wayne’s World made fun of novice guitar players trying to impress people with Stairway to Heaven in guitar stores. And the joke stuck.
For that reason, it’s not recommended you play the song in a guitar store. It’s not illegal, but it’s a bit of a breach in etiquette.
The same thing applies to other over-played guitar songs – ‘Wonderwall’, ‘Smoke On The Water’, ‘Sweet Home Alabama’, ‘Enter Sandman’, ‘Sweet Child of Mine’, and ‘Wagon Wheel’ are all songs that guitar store employees complain about.
That said, if you learn Stairway to Heaven, can play it all the way through, and love the song, play it. Do whatever you want, and enjoy the music, that is what it’s there for.