Why Can’t You Play Stairway To Heaven In Guitar Stores? The Forbidden Riff Explained

The Mystery behind the Forbidden Riff

The Forbidden Riff refers to the list of songs that are strictly prohibited to play in guitar stores. It is an inside joke that began in 1973 in the street of Denmark, London.

This list is comprised of songs often referred to as – overplayed riffs. A lot of beginner guitarists mostly play overplayed riffs to show off. They want to show that even though they are a novice in the music field, they can already play prominent guitar solos in history.

These beginner guitarists often played it a multitude of times and often poorly. Additionally, guitar shop owners also noticed that these beginner guitarists who played these riffs are most likely to play around and not even buy a guitar or other instruments in their store. Due to this reason, guitar owners became sick of hearing these riffs and decided to ban them.

Many are wondering about the meaning of these two words. What is this inside joke circulating in guitar shops really mean? Is it a joke that is meant to be taken seriously or not?

But kidding aside, where did this Forbidden Riff inside joke originate? How come that this riff became a legacy up to this generation? Why did every time the Forbidden Riff mentioned, the Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin always come into play? What is so special about this rock song tied with the Forbidden Riff?

In this article, we will unravel the mysteries behind this Forbidden Riff. We will take a sneak peek at the story behind this inside joke. We will witness the wonder blunder behind this iconic song- Stairway to Heaven.

what is the forbidden riff

The Chronicles of the Forbidden Riff

A Pun in London

The Forbidden Riff was first heard on a guitar shop in London way back in 1973. Just like in any other shop, customers examine their product before buying it. For instance, in grocery stores or any convenience stores, people must first scrutinize a pack of biscuits to see their expiration date or if there is damaged to the product by any means. The same goes with guitar stores- people are free to inspect and try out their instruments before purchasing them.

However, there was an incident that guitar shop owners have noticed on their customers. Every beginner guitarist that comes into their shop and tries out their guitar often plays overplayed riffs.

A man tries on a guitar before purchasing one
A man tries on the guitar before purchasing one.

Overplayed riffs are repeatedly played by beginner guitarists because they are easy to learn. In addition to that, these riffs are also most of the time played incorrectly.

Guitar shop owners and helpers became tired of hearing these songs played endlessly inside their shops. Reasonably, let us admit that most guitar shop owners and helpers are also guitarists themselves- so, it must be not an eargasm on their part.

Consequently, it was also said that the origin of the Forbidden Riff was derived from a scene in a movie entitled Wayne’s World. The Forbidden Riff in this movie pertains to the iconic rock song- Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin.

A Segment in Wayne’s World

Wayne’s World is a 1922 American comedy film. It is rated as the 10th highest-grossing film of 1922 and by far one of the highest-grossing films in the United States of America. The Canadian actor Michael John Myers or popularly known as Mike Myers played the title character in this film – Wayne Campell.

Wayne Campell attempts to play the opening riff of Stairway to Heaven while trying out his dream guitar (Axe) in a guitar shop in Illinois. Upon hearing Wayne Campell’s riff, the sales assistant beside them furiously grabbed the guitar fretboard and pointed at the sign on the wall saying: NO STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN.

After looking at the sign, Wayne himself was startled and told the audience: “No Stairway, Denied!”. It is beyond doubt that you have already heard this line countless times if you have ever worked in a guitar shop. What Wayne Campell really meant is- banning the iconic song is not right.

However, it is a point to recall that Wayne did not actually play Stairway to Heaven in that scene. He made a bit change in the riff to avoid copyright issues in the film.

People believed that the origin of the Forbidden riff emerged from this scene. After this film was released, a lot of guitar shops copied and posted the sign in their stores as well.

 What is the Forbidden Riff?

The Forbidden Riff refers to a list of songs that are not allowed to play in guitar shops. These Forbidden Riffs are strictly prohibited because of the nuisance and frustration that it gives to the guitar shop owners and sales assistants.

These riffs are beginner-friendly riffs – that is why most beginner or aspiring guitarists wants to learn these songs. It is easy to learn and master. Hence, it often became overplayed in guitar shops and played poorly by beginners.

As I stated earlier, Forbidden Riff refers to a list of songs that are repeated nonstop in guitar shops. One great example of Forbidden Riff is the Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin. Stairway to Heaven is one of the greatest rock songs in history.

The song itself has received a bunch of commendable accolades. Apart from that, the guitar solo is also praiseworthy. It has a tune and melody that is truly exceptional and totally eargasm. Furthermore, the song has beginner-friendly chords – making it a top-notch choice for beginners to try and learn on.

Why is Stairway to Heaven extremely popular?

Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin was recorded in 1970 and released in November of 1971. It is acknowledged by famous publications and music platforms as the legendary and most popular song ever recorded.

This song was played by nearly 3 million times on the radio in the first 20 years of its release. People believed that this song is still played 4,203 times a year by America’s sixty-seven huge AOR (album-oriented rock) radio stations. Some of the titles that this song earned are the following:

  • United Kingdom favorite rock anthem
  • Greatest guitar solo of all time
  • Greatest ever rock song
  • 31st Greatest song of all time

What is so special about Stairway to Heaven?

In terms of instruments, Stairway to Heaven is a treasure. Indubitably, it has one of the iconic guitar solos of all time.

It has mesmerizing and enchanting effect in the beginning and middle, then gradually progresses into hard rock. Furthermore, the song itself is considered by many acknowledged platforms in the music industry by one of the greatest songs of all time.

Why is Stairway to Heaven Banned in Guitar Shops?

Irrefutably, Stairway to Heaven is a remarkable song that marked its legacy in the music industry. Its legacy is incomparable as nearly every person who has grabbed a guitar attempts to play this song.

Due to this reason, guitar stores around the world have semi-jokingly prohibited the riff from being played while the customers try out their preferred guitars. As decades passed, this trend has led Stairway to Heaven’s enchanting introduction to the label “The Forbidden Riff”.

No stairway to heaven sign board
Illustration: In a guitar store, there is a sign that says “No Stairway to Heaven.”

In pop culture, it was believed that the banning of Stairway to Heaven in guitar shops started as a reference from the movie – Wayne’s World.

This movie introduced and tackled the controversial issue of playing the guitar riff of Stairway to Heaven and the song itself. It portrayed the irony of how Stairway to Heaven was overplayed by the people trying out guitars in music shops.

The popularity of the film, the exceptional song, and the irony within it- no wonder inspired a lot of viewers. After Wayne’s World was released in the cinemas, a lot of guitar shops copied and posted the sign in their stores as well.

Can you believe it? The impact of the film resonated not just in the whole London but also around the world. The inside joke from the film Wayne’s World became a part in the guitar culture all of a sudden.

What are the other Forbidden Riffs?

Forbidden riffs are a list of songs that are semi-jokingly banned in guitar shops. Aside from the iconic Stairway to Heaven, some songs are also overplayed. The following are some songs that are included in the said category:

  • Sweet Home Alabama by Lynyrd Skynyrd
  • Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes
  • Wonderwall by Oasis
  • Iron Man by Black Sabbath
  • Enter Sandman by Metallica
  • Smoke On the Water by Deep Purple
  • Nothing Else Matters by Metallica
  • Sweet Child O’ Mine by Guns N’ Roses
10 popular classic guitar riffs which may get you kicked out of a guitar shop.

Is there actually a Forbidden Riff?

Frankly speaking, there is no Forbidden Riff. Guitar shop owners and sales attendants would not stop you from playing any song that you want to try on your preferred guitar. They would not cringe and walk away if you played Stairway to Heaven or any other Forbidden riffs.

Nobody wants to drive their customers away. Nobody wants their product not to get sold because of the attitude that they showed towards their customers. Moreover, nobody wants their business to go bankrupt.

In reality, guitar shop owners and sales attendants would be there to guide and help you in selecting the best guitar that suits you. They would not stop you from playing any guitar riffs or songs that you feel like playing.

They would set up the amplifier at any level if you feel like playing any electric guitar. They would not stop you unless there is another customer who also wants to try the guitar.

A store employee aids the customer in selecting a guitar
A store employee aids the customer in selecting a guitar.

If they saw that you are eager to learn how to play the guitar, then they most likely would recommend any free guitar lessons on the internet or nearby. If they saw that you are eager to acquire a guitar, then they would probably offer you discounts and freebies.

Love for music is a different kind of art. You have to be passionate about it. You have to be persistent because it is no doubt that learning any instrument is a hard one.

But if you are passionate about music, then there is no hard chord or complex riff for you. Sharing is caring for your advocate. If you have seen the passion that you have for others, then without a doubt, you would also help them in enhancing their skills.

Final Verdict on Forbidden Riff

As a final verdict, the whole idea of a Forbidden Riff is primarily just an inside joke within the guitar culture. It is only a pun popularized by a movie. Seriously, you would not get kicked out of any guitar shops by simply playing the Forbidden Riff.

The forbidden riff is just a list of songs that are semi-jokingly banned in guitar shops because it is overplayed many times.

Stairway to Heaven is one great example of the Forbidden Riff. It is considered the legendary rock song of all time. It has the distinction of greatest guitar solo of all time. It is also easy to learn- Ergo, many people are eager to learn and play this legendary song.

From my standpoint, I believe that you can play any song or riff that you want whenever you are trying out a guitar. If you can only play some easy riffs, then so be it. First and foremost, you are not there to show-off or put on a performance. You are at the store to try out the guitar that you admire and to get a feel of it.

Bear in mind, you have the freedom to play anything you want when trying out your guitar. There is no standard song or riff that you should know before testing your guitar.

Whether you are a novice or an experienced guitarist who wants to upgrade your guitar- you have the privilege to choose your preferred guitar and play any riff that you like.

Make sure that the opinions and jokes of others would not weigh you down or wear out your passion for pursuing music. Music is for everyone. Continue pursuing music and disseminating the wonders of it. It is truly promising and a healing one.

If you have any questions or suggestions that you would like to ask, feel free to comment down below. We will answer all your queries to the best of our abilities, so let us know.

Finally, remember that Forbidden Riff is not that forbidden.

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About Maggie Holding

Hello! My name is Maggie and I am a proud Editor/Author for PlayTheTunes. Coming From South Carolina, USA, my whole life I've sang and played the guitar and flute! I love music with a passion, and am ecstatic to help others in their own music journey!