What is the forbidden riff? The forbidden riff is “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin. It was dubbed as the forbidden riff as a running gag from Wayne’s World (1992), where the film pokes fun at how the iconic song is so overplayed when people test an instrument in guitar stores.
The lore among guitarists is that there is a “forbidden riff.”
If you play this guitar riff, you may be reprimanded or asked to leave the store. You may also get on the bad side of the guitar staff.
So what is the forbidden riff and why can’t you play it at the guitar store?
Is it really forbidden?
Will playing it land you in some kind of guitar jail?
You’ve come to the right place to learn all about the forbidden riff and what it really means.
If you aren’t already familiar with it, the forbidden riff is “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin.
Led Zeppelin is often hailed as one of the best rock bands of all time, and perhaps their most iconic song is “Stairway to Heaven.”
Why is Stairway to Heaven banned in Guitar Stores?
During the 70s and 80s, it wouldn’t have been uncommon to hear guitar enthusiasts playing the well-known riff.
It was extremely popular and fun song to show off your guitar skills.
In fact, it was played so often that it was likely very annoying to the staff that worked at music stores.
Imagine day in and day out people strolling into the store thinking they’re God’s gift to guitars and sitting down and playing the exact same song the previous customer played.
It would be hard to stifle an eye roll or an audible sigh.
Even if the guitar player was particularly talented, it would take a lot of willpower to not be annoyed by the lack of originality. It would be even more challenging if the person playing it performed poorly.
But is that irritation enough to ban the song completely from stores?
Are there stores that will actually remove you from the premises or ask you to stop playing if you play those hallowed notes on the guitar?
And wouldn’t there be other riffs just as likely to be annoying?
How Wayne’s World Changed The Guitar Industry
In case you were born after the 90s, you may not have heard of Mike Myers’ pop hit Wayne’s World.
This 1992 comedy was based on a Saturday Night Live comedy skit starring Mike Myers and Dana Carvey.
The duo played characters Wayne Campbell and Garth Algar, two major rock fans who conducted interviews and presented top-10 lists on a public access cable show.
Mike Myers took that concept and made the movies Wayne’s World and the sequel Wayne’s World 2.
These movies turned out to be the highest grossing movies based on an SNL skit.
The 1964 Fender Stratocaster in “Classic White”
In one of the scenes in Wayne’s World, Wayne and Garth are driving in their AMC Pacer rocking out to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Wayne asks Garth to pull over, and Garth laments, “Not again.” Garth then explains to the camera that Wayne “does this every Friday.”
Then he calls out to Wayne and says, “Stop torturing yourself. You’ll never afford it! Live in the now!”
The thing he will never be able to afford is a Fender Stratocaster, and it’s the one thing he wants more than anything.
Wayne responds to the camera, “It will be mine. Oh yes. It will be mine.”
In the words of Wayne’s love interest Cassandra, the guitar is a “64 Fender Stratocaster in classic white, with triple single-coil pickups and a whammy bar.”
Wayne adds that the guitar was “pre-CBS Fender corporate buy-out,” referring to the 1965 CBS corporation buy-out of the Fender brand.
Having been made before the corporate buyout makes it more desirable to many collectors.
No Stairway! Denied!
In a later scene, Wayne returns to the guitar store to once again see the Fender Stratocaster.
He asks the sales clerk to remove the coveted guitar from it’s plastic case so he can try it out.
Wayne proceeds to play three notes before the clerk stops him and points to a sign on the wall that clearly states “NO Stairway to Heaven!”
Wayne looks at the camera and says, “No stairway. Denied!”
After this comedy bit, “No stairway!” has become something of an inside joke in the guitar world.
It’s not illegal to play Stairway to Heaven in a music store, and it’s highly unlikely that it’ll actually get you kicked out, but good etiquette would tell you to avoid it.
Copyright Problems in Wayne’s World’s Rendition of “Stairway to Heaven”
Perhaps an additional jokes of the movie is the fact that what Wayne plays sounds nothing like Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” This was no accident, as the film was intentionally avoiding having to play expensive copyright costs for using the song.
In the original theatrical showing of the movie, Wayne plays something that sounds a lot more like the Led Zeppelin hit. However, when it came to airing it in foreign countries or for home release, the song was altered to sound different. If you didn’t see it in the theaters in the United States in 1992, then you’ve never heard Wayne playing the beginning notes to “Stairway to Heaven.”
The reason for this was a copyright dispute with the filmmakers of Wayne’s World and Led Zeppelin and their producers Warner Music Group.
In an interview with Billboard, director Penelope Spheeris is quoted saying, “…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. I don’t know this to be absolutely true, but somebody told me that in the first version of the movie we play too many notes. So they had to go back in and edit a note or two out.”
Here’s a video that does a great job explaining this:
Who is Led Zeppelin?
Led Zeppelin started with guitarist Jimmy Page in 1968 under the former name Yardbirds. Though he planned on forming a new band under the name The New Yardbirds, he decided to go a different direction. The Who’s drummer Keith Moon, who was considering joining the band, made a crack that their project would “go down like a lead balloon.”
This comment inspired their new name, but instead of sticking with a simple balloon, they went with the biggest balloon they could think of. The zeppelin. The “a” from lead was dropped to avoid someone mispronouncing the name. (Some stories say that the Who’s bassist John Entwistle is actually credited with the name, while others think it was Chris Dreja, a former member of the original Yardbirds).
Keith Moon didn’t end up staying with Led Zeppelin and Jimmy Page took on the task of finding new bandmates. The final lineup for Led Zeppelin included vocalist Robert Plant, bass player John Paul Jones, and drummer John Bonham.
Led Zeppelin’s music was experimental and they often played around with new sounds and rhythms. Though their music was rooted in the blues, they were also influenced by psychadelic rock, Celtic, Indian, rock and roll, folk, and Arabic music.
Between 1968 and 1979, Led Zeppelin released eight studio albums including Led Zeppelin I-IV, Physical Graffiti, Houses of the Holy, Presence, and In Through the Out Door.
Besides “Stairway to Heaven”, some of their most famous songs are:
- “All My Love”
- “Immigrant Song”
- “Black Dog”
- “Whole Lotta Love”
- “Communication Breakdown”
- “Dazed and Confused”
- “Traveling Riverside Blues”
- “The Rain Song”
Led Zeppelin’s run only lasted for about a decade because the band broke up shortly after the unexpected death of drummer John Bonham. Today, Led Zeppelin is regarded as one of the pioneers of heavy metal and classic rock and they’re thought to have influenced many other bands and musicians.
A History of Stairway to Heaven
“Stairway to Heaven” was released in 1971 on the Led Zeppelin IV album.
In an interview with the Guardian in 2014, Jimmy Page explains the idea behind “Stairway to Heaven:”
It begins with the concept of trying to have something [that] would unravel in layers as the song progressed. You’ve got the fragile guitar that is going to open the whole thing, you’ve got the vocal over that fragile guitar, and then it moves into the more sensual wave with the twin 12-strings, and the electric piano as well.
“Stairway to Heaven” has been regarded by some as the greatest pop rock song of all time. Its sheet music has sold over a million copies — well above the average amount for sheet music.
The band played “Stairway to Heaven” at nearly every show since its release in 1971, and the beginning guitar riff has been played and replayed by guitarists for many years.
Despite it’s intense fame and recognition, “Stairway to Heaven” is not without its criticisms. Even vocalist Robert Plant admitted that the song isn’t for everyone. In a 1988 interview with Q Magazine he is quoted saying, “I can’t blame anybody for hating Led Zeppelin. If you absolutely hated ‘Stairway To Heaven’, nobody can blame you for that because it was…so pompous.”
Another criticism of the band was their reputation. In the late 60s through the 70s, Led Zeppelin was considered by some to be a poor influence on the youth. The band didn’t try hard to drop this reputation, and it could be argued that it was part of their branding.
There are even some rumors that the band was involved in Satanism. Some people believed if you played “Stairway to Heaven” backwards you’d hear satanic messages using a method called backward masking.
In a 1990 interview with Rolling Stone Robert Plant stated, “I mean, who on earth would have ever thought of doing that in the first place?…Especially with ‘Stairway.’ I mean, we were so proud of that thing, and its intentions are so positive, that the last thing one would do would be..I found it foul, the whole idea, you know?…I figure if backward masking really worked, every record in the store would have ‘Buy this album!’ hidden on it.”
Page agreed saying, “ You’ve got it, you’ve hit the nail on the head. And that’s all there is to say about it.”
Led Zeppelin and their song “Stairway to Heaven” have definitely shared an interesting history, but no one can deny their influence on music and popular culture. Even people unfamiliar with Led Zeppelin’s greater body of work will likely recognize the beginning guitar riff for “Stairway to Heaven.”
What Guitar Did Led Zeppelin Use to Play Stairway to Heaven?
Led Zeppelin played their first live version of “Stairway to Heaven” at Belfast’s Ulster Hall on March 5, 1971. It became an anthem of sorts of Led Zeppelin, and they would often end their set with it.
If you’ll recall, “Stairway to Heaven” starts out with “fragile” guitar. The song continues to grow until it culminates into a sound more reminiscent of other Led Zeppelin songs.
To achieve the different sounds, Page would use a Gibson EDS-1275 Doubleneck guitar. Since the performance was live, it alleviated the need for him to switch from a six-string guitar to a twelve-string guitar mid-song.
When Led Zeppelin recorded “Stairway to Heaven”, Page used an acoustic 60s Harmony Sovereign H1260 guitar for the introduction. He then switched to a 12-string 1965 Fender XII guitar around the two-minute mark.
What Happens if You Play “Stairway to Heaven” in a Guitar Store?
By now you probably realized that you won’t end up in any kind of guitar jail for playing “Stairway to Heaven” but that doesn’t mean the store owners will like it.
After the movie Wayne’s World, some guitar stores purchased signs saying “No Stairway to Heaven” in response to the film. These signs are still available for purchase today if you’d like to continue the gag in your home (or guitar store!)
Other guitar stores have taken the joke and flipped it on its head. One store in Seattle made an ad in 2013 stating that you could play “Stairway to Heaven” in their store and even receive a discount — but you had to play it the whole way through without making a mistake. Otherwise, they might hit you with a broom.
The most likely thing that will happen if you play the forbidden riff is the store clerk will half-smile at you and say “Wayne’s World?” They may silently roll their eyes, or they may point to a “No Stairway” song indicating that they want you to stop.
Another likely scenario is they ignore you completely and let you try out the guitar in any way you see fit. Afterall, you finding the right guitar for you is more important than what song you choose to play on it.
How to Really Get Banned From a Guitar Store?
You’re far more likely to get banned at a guitar store for hanging around too long without making a purchase, treating instruments or equipment poorly, or simply being rude to the store clerks.
If you’re genuinely interested in music and treat the staff well, most store owners won’t care if you play “Stairway to Heaven” or the theme song to Sesame Street.
Are There Other Songs That Should Be Banned From Guitar Stores?
If guitar stores ban “Stairway to Heaven” for excessive playing, wouldn’t there also be other songs on the forbidden list? Here’s a list of other songs that get overplayed or easily butchered and should probably be avoided in the guitar store:
- “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple
- “Eruption” by Van Halen
- “Enter Sandman” by Metallica
- “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana
- “In Bloom” Nirvana
- “Longview” by Green Day
- “Vasoline” by Stone Temple Pilots
- “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath
- “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynrd Skynrd
- “Blackbird” by Beatles
- “Back in Black” by ACDC
- “Sweet Child of Mine” by Guns N’ Roses
- “Seven Nation Army” by the White Stripes
- “Cannonballs” by the Breeders
Why Can’t You Play Stairway to Heaven in Guitar Stores? (You Actually Can)
So after all of this, why is “Stairway to Heaven” banned in guitar stores? The simple answer is it was an overplayed song that the creators of Wayne’s World decided to turn into a joke. The joke resonated with many guitar players and store owners, and Mike Myer’s delivery stuck with viewers even if they had no personal interest in guitars at all.
If you’re wondering if you can go to your local guitar shop and play “Stairway to Heaven” the answer is probably yes. But there’s also a good chance you’ll annoy the store owners, especially if you’re not very well practiced.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.