Recently I was talking with a friend, Art, who is from Southeast Asia. He is a guitarist and under the age of 30, and he asked me a peculiar question, “Why is Stairway to Heaven BANNED in guitar stores?”
I asked him where he heard that notion. He said he saw people talking about it in online guitar forums and some Facebook guitar player groups. Some people said it was true, and others said it wasn’t. For a second, I had no idea what he was talking about, but then I remembered.
A Grand Conspiracy?
“I thought America was a free country,” he teased. “Why can’t you play Stairway to Heaven in a guitar store?” I had quite a chuckle and was about to tell him that it was an old inside joke among guitar players and guitar store employees. But, I decided to have a little fun.
“You see, Art. The record companies want everyone to forget the legendary music and exceptional guitar players from the 60s and 70s. They can’t make the same amount of money from people listening to old Zeppelin albums as they can from Katy Perry and Machine Gun Kelly ones. So, they made guitar stores ban Stairway to Heaven and a few other songs.”
Art, being the clever lad he is, simply said, “I don’t believe you.” I had to admit I made it up, but there is a little nugget of truth to the matter. Plenty of people wouldn’t mind if Stairway to was truly banned. He asked me to explain it to him, which I did. And here is what I told him.
The Song That Shall Not Be Played
First of all, you need to understand something about Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” It is one of the most iconic, memorable, awesome, and overplayed rock anthems in music history.
The guitar solo ranks among the greatest guitar solos ever. As recently as 2020, it was dubbed the greatest rock song according to a survey by the classic rock radio station WAXQ in New York City.
Composed by guitarist Jimmy Page and singer Robert Plant, “Stairway to Heaven” was released in 1971 as the fourth track on side one of the Led Zeppelin IV album. However, it wasn’t until 1973 that the song was elevated to “anthemic” status. To be fair, 1971 was a huge year in music history.
A Timeless Song with Worldwide Appeal
The opening bars of Stairway to Heaven are unmistakable. In the year 2004, it was estimated that the song had been played more than three million times on the radio. That’s just radio. In 2004. There’s no telling how many times it’s been played in bars, clubs, music festivals, homes, campsites, concert halls, and any other place you find music.
The popularity and greatness of Stairway to Heaven is evidenced by the numerous covers you can find. There’s a version of Stairway to Heaven by Mary J. Blige, along with a fantastic Roma Symphony Orchestra rendition.
Likewise, you can find a reggae version of Stairway to Heaven by Sublime Reggae Kings, a country version by Dolly Parton, a swinging crooner version by Pat Boone, and a jazz cover by The Brain J. White Quartet. Heck, there’s even an accordion version by Those Darn Accordions and a lullaby version of Led Zeppelin’s masterpiece.
A Magical Guitar
In addition to a truly epic song was a certain special guitar Jimmy Page played it on. A guitar that was seen by millions of aspiring guitarists for the first time when Led Zeppelin played the song live. That, of course, is the Gibson EDS-1275 double-neck guitar, which is one of the most memorable guitars ever made.
Hearing that song played on that guitar sent hordes of people into guitar shops looking to become the next Jimmy Page. Nowadays, you are unlikely to find that guitar in most guitar shops, aside from under lock and key. But from the 70s on through the early 90s, it was a near mainstay in guitar shops around the world.
During that time, people would often come into a guitar shop and inquire about that guitar and if they could “try it out.” The staff knew exactly which song the customer was going to try to play. No one asked to for a Gibson EDS-1275 to just sit and play “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
This trend continued for quite a while. And still does today, minus the Gibson EDS. I told Art, if he had worked in a guitar shop in the 80s, at least every week, someone would have come in and started playing Stairway to Heaven. As a result, guitar store staff began sizing up customers and betting if they would play Stairway or not.
It was pretty fun, and the joking just grew. So some guys started joking about putting up signs in the store that said, “No Stairway.” And there are unconfirmed rumors some shops did just that. It was a joke to the staff, but also kind of not.
Sure, there are guitar store employees who would be happy to never heard Stairway to Heaven played in the store again. But, they also know actually banning it would do more harm than good. So, “No Stairway” is a joke but also a warning, “enter at your own risk.”
So, Why Do People Think You Can’t Play Stairway to Heaven in Guitar Stores?
“I don’t need a history lesson,” quipped Art. I told him you need to understand how influential Stairway was. And how that popularity, along with all the people trying to play it, ended up turning it into a joke. A joke that was told to the world in 1992.
From a Basement in Aurora Illinois
Before Mike Myers uttered “Yeah, Baby!” in Austin Powers, he was saying “Party On!” on Saturday Night Live skits called “Wayne’s World.” In 1992, the success of the skits was translated into a Hollywood movie of the same name.
In “Wayne’s World,” there is a scene where Wayne (Mike Myers) goes with Cassandra Wong (Tia Carrere) to a guitar store. A store that earlier in the movie showed Wayne pining for the 1964 Fender Stratocaster in the window.
The salesman hands the guitar to Wayne; he props it up on his knee and plays three notes. Immediately the guitar salesman stops him and points to a “No Stairway” sign. To which, Wayne looks at the camera and says, “No Stairway! Denied!” Any guitar store employee watching that scene laughed.
If you can’t play Stairway, you shouldn’t play Stairway
Half the gag is that Wayne is a rather poor guitar player. And here he is with one of the most awesome guitars to ever exist, a 1964 Fender Stratocaster. Also, of course, he was there with a girl, trying to impress her.
It was a very familiar scene to a select group of people. Stairway to Heaven remains one of the most overplayed songs, especially by less experienced guitar players. But it is still one of the greatest songs in its original form and when performed by competent musicians.
Hearing it butchered can be agonizing. That’s what helped make the joke and make it believable. Trying to stop people playing Stairway to Heaven in guitar stores is like trying to stop the seasons. There’s a bustle in the hedgerow, if you know what I mean.
Why is Stairway to Heaven Banned in Guitar Stores? Because it’s Believable
The Stairway to Heaven riff was and is practically a rite of passage for any guitar player. And to this day, guitar stores around the world will see people trying to pass the test. Most don’t pass and fail spectacularly instead. Unfortunately for the staff, it’s the price of doing business.
Furthermore, when someone does pass the test while in a guitar store, what do you think they do? They buy the guitar. Not always, but with a fair degree of frequency. A kind of bond is made when someone can pull off Stairway to Heaven on a guitar they have never played before.
However, the number of those with misgivings far outnumbers those who stand long and see the new day dawn. This is why it’s the average person who believes Stairway to Heaven is banned in guitar stores. They once witnessed the rocks that could not roll. And the idea of banning such disasters seemed reasonable.
The Piper’s Calling You to Join Him
This isn’t limited to just guitar players in guitar stores. People who don’t play guitar are subjected to family members and friends putting on a Stairway to Heaven performance. Art told me he got that. When he was learning to play Stairway to Heaven years ago, his older sister would always complain and tell him to stop.
She said he was ruining one of her favorite songs. He told me it got so bad he only practiced it when his sister wasn’t around. I bet at the time, if Art told his sister Stairway to Heaven was banned in guitar stores, she would have believed it.
Eventually, he got there and learned how to play Stairway to Heaven. And once he did, his sister always asked him to play it. And the irony then was Art got bored with playing it and told his sister it was overplayed. Imagine that.
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Why is Stairway to Heaven BANNED in Guitar Stores – Conclusion
Eventually, my friend Art got the joke about “No Stairway,” but he still didn’t think it was that funny. But that’s all it is, a joke. There’s no ban on “Stairway to Heaven” in guitar stores. There may be staff there you don’t enjoy when certain people play it, and they may ask them to wrap it up quickly if they try to do so.
Art did think “Wayne’s World” was a funny movie, and he gave me some thoughts the next time we spoke. He said he thinks Stairway is too old now, and people aren’t that interested in playing or listening to 10-minute guitar solos anymore. I had to agree, sadly enough. Fewer and fewer people will really ever get the joke.
Ooh, And It Makes Me Wonder
One thing Art did say is that the joke will likely continue but with a new song. He suggested something like “Perfect” by Ed Sheeran or some Blink 182 song. And rather than “No Stairway! Denied!” we’ll get something like, “Perfect ain’t possible! Canceled!”
And he may just be right. After all, the whole thing behind Stairway to Heaven being banned in guitar stores was about how overplayed it was. If there is a good candidate for overplayed songs these days, “Perfect” sits atop that list. And that sounds pretty darn funny to me.
Until next time, Party On.