Every guitar player was a beginner at one point. Even your favorite guitar heroes once picked up an ax for the first time, unsure of what to do with it. I remember going to a music shop to buy my first electric guitar and being completely overwhelmed by the options on display there.
A salesperson stuck a Mexican-made Fender Stratocaster in my hands, and I was in love, but what was I supposed to play to try it out?
My entire experience with the guitar came from strumming some chords that my uncle taught me on his trusty old acoustic. I also heard rumors of forbidden riffs that would incur the wrath of employees, but was this true, and what were those forbidden riffs?
What Is The Forbidden Riff, And Why Is It Forbidden?
The forbidden riff is any guitar riff that is commonly played by beginner guitarists. They’re always famous riffs that are easy to learn, hence their popularity among new players.
You may be wondering, why are these musical snippets forbidden if they’re so great? The answer is, guitar store employees are forced to listen to them countless times each day. This leads to some riffs being allegedly banned in guitar stores.
I used the term “allegedly,” because this is more of an inside joke among music-store employees than something serious. If you do happen to play a forbidden riff, you may solicit a few groans from the staff, and perhaps an eyeroll or two.
In the worst case scenario, someone might tease you about it. Chances are, you won’t be removed from the store by the guitar police.
The concept of the forbidden riff has been a part of guitar culture since at least the 1970s. It’s hard to pinpoint an exact origin, but many point to London’s Denmark Street.
This street was known as Great Britain’s “Tin Pan Alley,” being the home to a number of music-publishing companies. This also made the area a natural location for music shops to sell instruments.
The 1960s and 1970s saw a boom in guitar sales, thanks to the ever-growing popularity of rock music. The concepts of the rock star and the guitar hero took hold in the collective consciousness of music fans. The world was seeing more aspiring guitarists than ever before.
The staff at music stores noticed a trend in new players playing the same riffs over and over again. One song, in particular, seemed to be infinitely common to hear in music stores after 1971.
Stairway To Heaven: The Father Of Forbidden Guitar Riffs
The rock song in question is “Stairway to Heaven,” by the legendary English rock band, Led Zeppelin. The band was formed in 1968, and their debut album became a best-seller in the United Kingdom, as well as in the United States.
Their fourth album, untitled but colloquially called Led Zeppelin IV, was released in late 1971. This album included the classic hit, “Stairway to Heaven,” which also contained the most notorious guitar riff in history.
“Stairway to Heaven,” is unquestionably one of the greatest rock songs in history. It’s also one of the most overplayed songs in human history, both on the radio, and inside of music stores everywhere.
If you love Led Zeppelin as much as I do, you may be thinking that I’m speaking blasphemies. After all, can there ever be too much of a good thing? But consider this, guitar-store employees aren’t listening to Jimmy Page play the same riff over and over again.
The staff at a music store has to listen to the same riffs played by new players all day long. And this means, they’re being played poorly and usually at the wrong tempo. They know you’re a new player, and everyone was new at some point, but the repetition can be a bit much after a while.
I think we can all identify with this on some level. Most people have to deal with something repetitive on the job that drives them crazy at times.
The forbidden riff was known among guitar players for a long time but entered into pop culture through the movie Wayne’s World in 1992. The movie was based on a recurring sketch on the television show, Saturday Night Live. Wayne’s World was about a couple of rockers who hosted a public-access TV show out of their basement.
Wayne has his eye on a vintage 1964 Stratocaster at his local guitar store. When he starts playing the opening to “Stairway to Heaven,” an employee points to a sign that states, “No Stairway to Heaven.” To this, Wayne replies, “no Stairway? Denied!”
NO STAIRWAY, DENIED!
One thing that I’ve always noticed while watching this scene is that Wayne is playing the opening riff to the song with distortion when the part is played clean on the album. That would certainly make me cringe if I was an employee in a guitar shop.
This scene brought the idea of forbidden riffs to the masses. Shortly after this movie came out, I started seeing “No Stairway,” signs pop up in local guitar shops. The inside joke was now mainstream.
Other Forbidden Riffs Banned In Guitar Stores
“Stairway to Heaven,” isn’t the only guitar riff that gets played endlessly by beginners in guitar shops. As time marches on, and as music evolves, the list continues to grow. Some guitarists and bands, however, will always be revered by students of the 6-string.
Here are some other forbidden riffs that might gain the ire of your local music store employees. These songs contain some of the most recognizable riffs and the greatest guitar solos of all time. Unfortunately, this also makes them some of the most overplayed guitar songs of all time.
- House of the Rising Sun by The Animals (1964)
- Iron Man by Black Sabbath (1970)
- Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple (1973)
- Sweet Home Alabama by Lynyrd Skynyrd (1974)
- Eruption by Van Halen (1978)
- Back in Black by AC/DC (1980)
- Crazy Train by Ozzy Osbourne (1980)
- Sweet Child O’ Mine by Guns N’ Roses (1987)
- Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana (1991)
- Enter Sandman by Metallica (1991)
- Walk by Pantera (1992)
- Wonderwall by Oasis (1995)
- Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes (2003)
As I completed my list, I suddenly realized that the newest song was released 20 years ago. I started to worry that perhaps I’m getting old, but that can’t be it. After all, I still hear most of these songs played at my local Guitar Center every time I need some new gear.
Still, I wondered if I might not be recognizing newer forbidden or overplayed riffs, so I gave my friend, who works at a guitar shop, a call. He concurs that the most commonly played riffs are decades old.
As I pondered this, I realized that many of these songs were before my time too, yet I knew them all. I’ve even learned to play the main riffs in question from all of these songs.
I suppose some musicians have just left their mark on the guitar so strongly that they’ll always be loved by future generations of players that pick up the instrument. I’m willing to bet that legends like Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan still sell a lot of guitars for Fender.
The first riff that I learned to play was from “House of the Rising Sun.” This was around 1989, and I was just a kid at the time. Still, to this day, I often find myself playing that riff to warm up my hands before I really get going.
The truth is, all of these guitar riffs are worth learning, even if you never learn the complete songs. They’re great tools to expand your knowledge and understanding of the fret board while you also have some fun!
This list is by no means exhaustive. You could exchange the Metallica and Nirvana songs for just about any other Metallica or Nirvana song.
This was especially true if you walked into a music shop in the 90s, but you’ll still hear riffs from those bands played frequently today. I remember spending one whole summer learning to play every song from the album Nevermind by Nirvana.
Does The Guitar Center Forbidden Riff List Actually Exist?
Trying to find out if there’s an actual list of banned riffs is a bit like searching for Big Foot. I’ve asked staff members at my local Guitar Center about this on several occasions. I have yet to receive a definitive or even a serious reply.
I’ve never seen an employee make someone stop playing a riff because it was banned in guitar stores. I witnessed something close to this once, but that was under very specific circumstances.
In the early 2000s, I was fortunate enough to meet Steve Vai in person at my local Guitar Center. There was only a small crowd of people in the store that day. This was a rather intimate meet-and-greet where fans could shake Mr. Vai’s hand and get items signed.
After meeting his fans, Vai proceeded to play for us. This was soon disrupted by a young man who came into the store, plugged in a guitar, and started to play Nirvana riffs loudly and out of tune.
An employee promptly stopped him from drowning out the legendary guitar player in the room. In this case, the problem wasn’t that he played a forbidden riff. It was just a case of poor timing.
You’re not likely to ever be stopped while playing a forbidden riff unless you happen to be drowning out a world-famous musician. The odds of this are pretty low.
As you’ve probably figured out by now, this unique part of guitar culture is really just a bit of fun. While a popular song or riff might be a minor annoyance to some employees, I have never heard of anyone getting truly upset over this.
It’s part of the territory of working in a music store. If you’re new to the guitar, go into the local store and enjoy yourself by playing whatever you can to the best of your abilities.
Also Read: Does Guitar Center Buy Used Guitars?
Guitar Store Alternatives To The Forbidden Riff
So, what’s a new player to do if all they know are some of the famous guitar riffs from our forbidden songs list? How can you test out that shiny new ax without annoying the guitar store employees? There are some alternatives to playing the same old riffs over and over again.
If you’re a new or intermediate player, the first thing to realize is, you’re not in the guitar store to show off or to impress people. Your objective is to find the perfect guitar, amplifier or other related equipment.
You also have nothing to prove. You’ll likely never see the other customers again, and the employees are used to newer players testing out the gear.
The main objective inside the guitar shop should be to find your ideal gear while having fun. It’s okay to simply play a few full chords or power chords. No one will bat an eye if you simply play each note up and down the fret board.
In fact, this is a common thing buyers do to check for dead spots or buzzing strings. The main thing is to see how the guitar feels in your hands.
If you’re completely new, ask someone on the staff to demo a guitar or amp for you. That’s what they’re there for! This can give you an idea of the sonic possibilities of the instrument, as well as how to utilize any features.
Amplifiers and sound equipment can get quite complicated. Even old pros will want an employee to demo things for them, from time to time.
If you don’t know what you want, tell the staff what type of music you’re interested in playing. They can get you started by pointing to the best equipment for the sound you’re going for.
There are a lot of options to consider when choosing a guitar, such as the pickups and the bridge type. Let one of the pros explain the differences to you.
If you have a friend that’s knowledgeable about guitars, bring them along. They can test out the equipment for you. This has the added benefit of having someone you trust to help you, and not just someone who wants to complete a sale.
There are also a number of things to check to make sure the guitar is structurally sound and set up properly. A good friend who plays guitar can inspect these things for you.
If you’ve already been playing a bit, perhaps on your first guitar or a relative’s guitar, then try to make up your own riffs. Basic chord progressions and power-chord riffs are simple and fun to play around with. Build up a small repertoire of riffs, along with a few easy guitar solo and licks, before you come into the store.
If you’re an intermediate player or even a seasoned veteran, just pick some of your more obscure favorite tunes. Even among the legendary bands that we’ve talked about here, they all have songs that received less radio play than their mega hits. Learn a few riffs from those lesser-known tunes.
At the end of the day, don’t worry too much about what others think. Just use some common sense and courtesy. For example, it’s okay to test out the limits of an amplifier, but don’t play excessively loud for an extended period of time. Play what you can and what you want, spending enough time to make sure that the instrument feels comfortable to play.
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About the Author
Thomas M., the founder of Guitar Top Review, boasts 15+ years of guitar experience and was a church band member in L.A. Transitioning from piano to acoustic guitar, his first love remains his Taylor GS Mini. Alongside like-minded hobbyist friends, he launched the site, driven by a deep love for music that transcends professional boundaries.