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'The Forbidden Riff': Why guitarists hate Led Zeppelin song 'Stairway to Heaven'

‘The Forbidden Riff’, ‘The Riff That Shall Not Be Played’, ‘The Forbidden Song’, Led Zeppelin’s best-known effort, ‘Stairway to Heaven’, is one of the most controversial songs of all time. Whether that be down to the WASP claims of satanic backmasking, allegations of musical thievery, or due to that fact that it is just god damn overplayed, ‘Stairway to Heaven’ is a peculiar number in the sense that it is both hallowed and hated, much like the band who penned it.

Jimmy Page’s meandering and technically intermediate guitar part is a standard for guitarists worldwide looking for a rite of passage. Think ‘Wonderwall’ but for someone who’s a couple of steps ahead in their playing. Picking, strumming, and minor pentatonic soloing, it combines all of the necessary foundations of a technically proficient guitarist. Many people are often taught The Beatles‘ ‘Blackbird’ as an entry-level song for fingerpicking before moving onto ‘Stairway’.

One of the most overplayed songs of all time, on the radio, in media and by budding guitarists worldwide, this has led to the song cultivating a similar sort of stature for itself as has ‘Wonderwall‘. The only difference between the songs is that Led Zeppelin’s song has a bit more pulp to it, and that if you asked every trilby wearing type who rocks up to a party with a guitar and says “here’s Wonderwall!”, like a musical but no less demented Jack Torrance, the chances are they wouldn’t be able to manage ‘Stairway’. Hell, they can’t even make it through the intro of Oasis’ biggest hit without adding some accidental staccato-esque rhythm, making it sound more like something Incubus would produce.

Added to the fact it is overplayed, and the way that it is seen by six-string purists as being the guitar riff of the laymen, it was 1992’s Wayne’s World that truly solidified its standing as the ‘Forbidden Riff’ by any guitar player or musician with any ‘credibility’.

This comes from the iconic scene in which Wayne Campbell picks up his dream guitar in a guitar shop and attempts to play the riff, but quickly the guitar is grabbed by the shop attendant who points to a sign that reads, ‘NO STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN’. Ironically, the riff Wayne plays sounds almost nothing like the original, due to licensing the film could only use the real riff in the US release. Written by former SNL cast members, this is one of the most enduring scenes from 1990s cinema. 

Although it’s not actually banned in guitar shops, you will be met with disdain if attempting to play it in one. Usually, the sneering, vulture-like adherents of the guitar who frequent guitar shops are akin to hipsters, with their very unwavering worldview, but with a more fundamentalist dedication to their past time.

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I’ve always found this quite funny though, because guitar shops normally play music that is equally as annoying, or much worse, like Joe Bonamassa.  Also adding to the song’s ‘Forbidden’ nature is the way that many see someone playing it as a show-off, a total shyster with no real artistic or creative nouse. It’s a case of ‘we’ve heard it all before’ or ‘tell me something I don’t know’. Due to just how massive the song is, even 50 years after release, it continues to be a go-to for budding guitarists who have no real intention save for imitating their heroes.

Don’t get me wrong, this is brilliant, and a very honest thing, just try telling that to guitarists. They’d probably say, ‘learn the blues’ or ‘Zeppelin are boring, you should try learning some Steve Vai’. The irony is incredible. Ultimately, ‘Stairway to Heaven’ dug its own grave for guitarists, and ironically, this was by no real fault of its own. It’s what happens when a band gets so big, they fill the gap The Beatles left and then proceeds to produce a song that was so groundbreaking for the time, it continues to be regarded as so today. 

This is the internal juxtaposition/self-destruct function of any important hit. It gets so big that it takes on a life of its own. Even frontman Robert Plant hates the song. In truth, it’s not Led Zeppelin’s song anymore. Rather, it belongs to budding guitarists and those who maybe need to broaden their musical horizons. The song has entered the realm of the meme, and it will never return. Let it go.

Listen to ‘The Forbidden Riff’ below.