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What is The Forbidden Riff?

You do read some interesting comments about certain subjects on the internet. Music does not escape these people who think they are at the center of the universe.

In Pop Culture?

I read recently that the idea of the “forbidden riff” emanated from a film called “Wayne’s World.” There is a scene in the film where Wayne plays “Stairway to Heaven” in a guitar shop whilst trying out a guitar. Fair enough, lots of people have done that. And, I might add, they still do. 

But, this commentator goes on to say that the impact resonated around the “whole of London.” As if London was remotely interested. They had their own Pop and Rock culture and didn’t need anybody else’s.

There have been “forbidden guitar riffs” around for a long time. Even while the actors in “Wayne’s World” were still in nappies.

What is The Forbidden Riff

Frowned Upon is Not Forbidden

“Wayne’s World” came out in 1992. “Stairway” in 1971. The Led Zep classic was frowned upon as a tryout piece as early as 1973 in the places I used to visit. It has to be said that other songs were also not looked upon too kindly, either.

If “a lot” of guitar shops in America copied the sign in the film about playing “Stairway,” it is unlikely they were serious. More just a way of trying to associate themselves with the film.

It is made out to be a “controversial” issue. Although, I am not sure who it is controversial for. Guitar shops want to sell guitars. You can go in and play whatever song you like if there is a chance they might make a sale.

Was It Ever Serious?

So, what is the forbidden riff? The expression “forbidden riff” comes from a list of songs that are forbidden to play in a guitar store. But, it was never serious. I doubt it began in London around 1973. And I can certainly remember the idea in the mid to late 60s as well.

For example, no one went into Jim Marshall’s shop in Hanwell in West London in 1966 and played the beginning of “Hey Joe.” Jimi or Mitch might have been out the back. You just didn’t do it. 

The same applied to several other songs recorded by such people as Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Richie Blackmore, or others who frequented the shop.

The Street of Denmark

It was always a bit tongue-in-cheek to suggest there was a riff that was forbidden. But, there was a growing insider joke about what and what not to play.

If it did begin in the West End of London, it was not in the “Street of Denmark” as I read. If that was supposed to mean Denmark Street, that would have been more accurate. That was where a lot of early music and guitar shops were located.

Just Played Too Much

There were some overplayed guitar riffs by the young pretenders in guitar shops. But you can’t blame them. They might be quite new to the guitar and wanted to impress. 

So, they went into the shops and gave it their best shot, which most of the time was quite poor. I don’t think that too many guitar shop owners were that put out by them. They might be a little bit of a nuisance in some respects as most didn’t buy. 

But, when the time came to buy, where would they go first? Shopkeepers understood that and allowed them some slack.

An Irritant?

To some people, they might be, but it depends on various things. In a small guitar shop, it could be a problem, especially if there were guitars and amps everywhere and lots of people in the shop. In larger shops, that potential problem is reduced because of the extra space.

An Extra Problem

An Extra Problem

In terms of an overplayed riff being a problem, there is an extra issue. The smaller guitar shops, which are often the most common, might be owned or managed by musicians. 

They might have a certain level of musicianship themselves. Usually, that is way above what most of the potential clients possess. Therefore, hearing some of these newbies come in and play things badly, and often wrongly, might grate on them a little. Understandable.

Many of these riffs and sections that are played often sound easy to learn. In their simplest format, some are, but that doesn’t mean you are playing them correctly. Because they sound easy to learn, they are often a prime offering to the young student.

Play It Well

A friend of mine, Geoff Baker, had a guitar shop in West Ealing. It was just down the road from the hallowed turf of Jim Marshall’s shop in Hanwell. He had a sign in his shop behind the counter, “Play what you like – just play it well.”

Is The Forbidden Riff a Myth?

Unless you go into a guitar shop that has its priorities wrong, then it probably is. It is almost a joke. And, as far as I can remember, never meant to be serious at all. 

Over the years, there have been plenty of songs where the shop manager or owner has rolled his eyes and thought, “Oh no, not again.”

You Really Got Me” by the Kinks was an early one I can remember. And anything that includes that Chuck Berry intro from “Johnny B Goode” was another.

It wasn’t the song… 

Usually, it was how it was played. When you got someone come in who could play it, then everyone, including the manager, would stop and listen. So, if that is the case, are they forbidden riffs for some and not for others?

What is the Forbidden Riff? – Over The Years

As we move through time and genres, there have been plenty of other well-known forbidden riffs. Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” seems to have been a popular choice. And “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple is another I can recall.

Of course, the one that turns my stomach when I hear someone attempt it in a shop is “All Right Now” by Free. It is a classic example of a newbie thinking, “That sounds easy; I’ll impress them with this.” They don’t realize that no one can recreate it on their own. 

There were two guitars in the song. Both are played by Kossoff and overdubbed with some subtle variations. That is what makes it sound like it did on the record.

Stairway’s Special Attention

Special Attention

But these days, it all seems to come back to Led Zep and their masterpiece from 1971. So, why does “Stairway to Heaven” get so much attention in the forbidden ranks? What is there that singles it out and makes it the number one musical persona non grata?

Its popularity…

Amongst the music fraternity, it is recognized as being a great track. It has a range of styles and tempos and, of course, a memorable guitar solo. Led Zeppelin was capable of brilliance at times, and this was one example.

A measure of a good song is how well it can be formed by others. This version by Heart at the Kennedy Center Honors evening, in my view, is the best version of all of them.

When you can produce something as good as that, you know you have a great song. But, surely that is not why people play it when they pick up a guitar in the shop. 

So, what is so special about it?

The style changes I have already mentioned and Page’s guitar solo. But other things make this a special song. Possibly overlooked at times are the orchestral inclusions by John Paul Jones, especially in the first few minutes of the song. 

Orchestrations make the difference…

Page’s guitar work is nice but would mean very little after the first round of phrasing without Jones’s additions. It is those arrangements behind the acoustic guitar that set an almost mesmerizing tone to the song. It could almost be called enchanting.

As the song progresses, John Bonham begins his assault on our senses with his stunning drumming. From there, it moves into a Hard Rock track until the very end. 

But, it is that first acoustic guitar phrasing of Page’s that most people launch into that has become forbidden. But, I still haven’t answered the question, “Why is Stairway to Heaven the forbidden riff?

A Defining Moment for Led Zeppelin

That is how I would describe this album. For me, Led Zeppelin II was always their best album, but Led Zeppelin III and Led Zeppelin IV marked a shift. A folk feel came into some of the songs and Led Zep III was full of it. 

By the time we got to Led Zep IV, the folk theme had become different. The album included “Rock and Roll” and “Black Dog.” But, only “Going to California” seemed to have that folk feel. Except, that is, for the beginning of “Stairway to Heaven.”

Enchantment

Enchantment has two meanings, but both have a link to each other. The principal meaning is being in a state of being under a spell, possibly a magical spell. I think that one of the reasons the song draws people to it is this “enchantment” that it creates. It is almost magical.

In some of their more “folky” songs, they leaned this way. But, in “Stairway,” it all seems to come together at one time. There is magic and mystery to it. Even the cover of the album has a strange mystical mood to it.

This mood is created not so much by Jimmy Page’s guitars but by John Paul Jones and his orchestral additions. They are almost medieval in their creation.

What is the Forbidden Riff and the Obsession with Playing It?

I’m not saying that this song becomes a total obsession with guitarists. I think that it has this enchanting sound that makes you want to play it. And, when you have learned to play it, even badly, you still want to demonstrate it.

It is a great song with a guitar part that, on the face of it, seems easy. And, I emphasize that I am aware that there are both 6 and 12-string guitars going on. But, the John Paul Jones “effect” is what makes you want to play it because of the mood it creates. 

You can take the notes to the music store, but you can’t take the ‘mood’ that should be with it. Maybe that’s why people don’t like hearing others play it. The notes might be right, but you automatically know something is missing. You need JPJ and his three overdubbed recorders.

So, Is It, Or Any Other Song Forbidden?

Song Forbidden

No, “Stairway to Heaven” is not a banned song in guitar shops. Neither is any other song. As I said earlier, the shop wants to sell you a guitar. If you want to play “Stairway” or anything else, they will be full of encouragement. 

They might think, “Oh no, not again,” but they are not going to say it. This idea of a forbidden riff, as I have already said, didn’t start because of a film. It was around way before then. 

It seems to me that the film jumped on the bandwagon of forbidden songs rather than creating the myth. But, songs were never forbidden in the first place.

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What is The Forbidden Riff – Final Thoughts

The myth of the forbidden riff is purely an extension in the shop of the “Oh no, not again” feeling. It is probably exacerbated by the fact that “Stairway To Heaven” has probably been played more than anything else by a newbie in a shop. 

That is understandable for the reasons we have already looked at. It is a mystical song that enchants you from its first few notes. You want to play it. I suppose that is a measure of the greatness of the song. But forbidden? I don’t think so.

Until next time, let your music play. Even the “forbidden” ones.

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About Corey Hoffman

Corey is a multi-instrumentalist who has played in numerous bands over the years, some good, some not so good. He has also written countless songs and recorded five albums in professional studios across America. Today he is a hobby musician but still loves the guitar after over 15 years of playing.

He considers his writing as a way to share what he has learned over the decades with younger generations ad always can't wait to get his hands on the latest gear.

He lives just outside New York with his wife Barbara and their two German Shepherds, Ziggy and Iggy.

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