While no one knows when guitar stores first banned forbidden riffs, we’re confident that overplayed licks are a problem! Even as you’re reading this, a budding musician enters a guitar shop, grabs a Strat, and plugs it into an amp.
But they’re not checking the instrument’s tonality. Nor are they turning the tone knobs to tweak their sound. So instead, they have the gall to play “Stairway to Heaven,” the number one guitar shop forbidden riff worldwide!
To better understand how this madness began, let’s dive into this phenomenon of playing forbidden riffs. While guitarists feel it’s their right of passage, they’re spreading a musical plague that drives guitar store employees bonkers!
Top 10 Forbidden Riffs Banned In Guitar Stores
We created our list based on what we’ve heard over the years and researched songs “banned” across social media.
Here’s our list of the top 10 forbidden riffs banned in guitar stores.
10. House Of The Rising Sun – The Animals
“House of the Rising Sun” is a rock classic from Appalachian and British folk music. Many artists have recorded the song, but The Animals made it a hit in 1964. Experts list it as the first rock and roll hit because of the band’s instrumentation.
The song’s lyrics tell of someone’s wayward journey in New Orleans and warn others not to follow suit. If you’re curious about other songs with a similar theme, check out our best songs about helping others playlist.
Simple chords in A minor and beginner-friendly riffs attract guitar players, young and old. But toss in the 6/8 rhythm, and it’s easy to see why it’s one of the most overplayed songs in guitar stores worldwide.
9. Seven Nation Army – The White Stripes
If you haven’t heard “Seven Nation Army,” you’ve been living under a rock! This smash hit by The White Stripes is played at sporting events, pep rallies, political rallies, and corporate functions.
The White Stripes is a duo featuring Jack White and his sister, Meg. Jack came up with the iconic seven-note riff in Melbourne on their 2002 Australia Tour. “Seven Nation Army” was a single from their 2003 album, Elephant.
While the lick sounds like a bass guitar, it’s Jack playing a semi-hollow body guitar through a DigiTech Whammy. The device dropped the guitar’s pitch to make it sound like a bass guitar.
We believe that over time, and because of its increased popularity, it will continue to be a popular forbidden riff around the world.
Because of the song’s grittiness, notoriety, and the ease of playing the riff in E minor, it’s no wonder it’s banned in guitar stores.
8. Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana
Rock music is built and fueled around rebellion. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is rock’s anthem. The song is off Nirvana’s second album, Nevermind, and became an international hit.
Nirvana’s grunge sound and Kurt Cobain’s sullen voice catapulted the group to stardom. Toss in the lyrics that critics have dubbed “the anthem for apathetic kids” of Generation X, and it’s no wonder this song is a classic.
When Cobain presented the song to the band, bassist Krist Novoselic dismissed it as “ridiculous.” Nevertheless, Cobain insisted they continue to work on the music, so Novoselick slowed the tempo, which inspired drummer Dave Grohl (who now fronts the Foo Fighters) to develop a distinctive groove. The rest, they say, is history.
For these reasons, guitar players worldwide are attracted to this rock song. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” consists of Fm-B♭m–A♭–D chords, but the band probably down-tuned their guitars. Doing so created a darker tone, making playing easier by using more open strings.
If you play this forbidden riff in your local music store, at least down-tune the instrument! The staff will still roll their eyes, but you may get a head nod to down-tuning.
Nirvana ruled the 90s, and today, they’re popular in karaoke bars. Check out where we ranked “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in our list of 100.
7. Back In Black – AC/DC
This exemplary rock song is from the massive hit album Back in Black. The record has sold over 22 million, making it the sixth best-selling album in America. The song “Back in Black” is a tribute to their first singer, Bon Scott, who passed away in 1980.
Brian Johnson was hired to replace Scott and wrote the lyrics. While the words are worth studying, it’s the powerhouse riff that attracts aspiring guitarists. Many critics have hailed “Back in Black” as the best riff from the 80s.
The three-chord opening riff and the deep pocket of drummer Phil Rudd are simple but intoxicating. Toss in guitarist Angus Young’s head-shaking antics and prep school attire, and it’s no wonder this song was a hit on the radio and with budding guitar players.
It’s important to highlight how the band uses space between the chords and the following licks. The silence lulls you into the groove, making you tap your foot and wag your head like Angus. While this simplicity has power, it’s also why playing this forbidden riff is so popular.
Guitar store employees cringe when guitarists crank the amp and jam on the song. Perhaps they’re trying to impress friends or a girl. Whatever the reasons, “Back in Black” has become one of the world’s most overplayed riffs of all time.
6. Wonderwall – Oasis
While most of our forbidden riffs showcase distorted guitars and powerful drums, “Wonderwall” is the exception. Most of the song features acoustic guitars, and the electric guitars use little to no distortion.
Drummer Alan White plays his kit with less finesse than most rock drummers, resulting in a “softer” feel that’s danceable. A mellotron (a keyboard that plays electromagnetic tapes of sounds) was played to create the string sounds.
And although “Wonderwall” isn’t a rocker, its chart success contributed to it becoming a riff banned in guitar stores worldwide. In 2006, a poll for Q Magazine ranked the song as the second-greatest song of all time, making it even more appealing in the guitar culture.
Thankfully, the song is complex enough to limit some from performing in a guitar shop. Others, clueless and undaunted, play the forbidden riff even if it’s played poorly. For all these reasons, “Wonderwall” is an insidious forbidden riff played worldwide by acoustic and electric guitarists.
5. Sweet Home Alabama – Lynyrd Skynyrd
During the late 70s, Southern Rock became an international sensation. Groups like The Allman Brothers paved the way with songs like “Whipping Post” and “Jessica.” The Charlie Daniels Band introduced the world to a fiddle challenge in “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
But Lynyrd Skynyrd gleaned the hits and became king of Southern Rock. And aside from their other recognizable hit, “Freebird,” “Sweet Home Alabama” is their greatest song.
The 1974 smash hit contains lyrical references to Neil Young, racism, Nixon, and Muscle Shoals. But the riff, not the lyrics, are banned in guitar stores.
Guitarist Gary Rossington created the opening riff. He played it regularly before rehearsals unnoticed until singer Ronnie Van Zant asked him to play it again. While Rossington played the lick, Zant wrote the lyrics and the rest, as they say, is history.
Although Southern Rock is a thing of the past, “Sweet Home Alabama” continues to intrigue new guitarists. But unfortunately, the song’s three chords are easy to learn, making it one of the most forbidden songs in music shops from Alabama to Timbuktu.
4. Nothing Else Matters – Metallica
“Nothing Else Matters” was written by guitarist James Hetfield to express being homesick while on tour.
Hetfield never intended for the song to be recorded, but when drummer Lars Ulrich heard it, the band decided to add it to the album. The 1992 ballad is from their self-titled album Metallica and is one of their best-known and loved songs by their fans.
So what makes this song appealing to guitarists? And how can a ballad be so obnoxious that guitar shops ban the song?
One reason is the slow tempo. You don’t have to be a shredder or technically proficient on the guitar to play the song. Another song of theirs that also includes forbidden riffs is “Enter Sandman.” But this tune requires more skill and expertise to execute.
Another reason “Nothing Else Matters” is banned in guitar stores is the simplicity of the guitar part. The opening lick is an arpeggio of an E minor chord. From there, the guitarist only has several other chords to learn.
3. Sweet Child O’ Mine – Guns N’ Roses
“Sweet Child O’ Mine” is from Guns N’ Roses’ first album and became the band’s only number one hit that we know today. Guitarist Slash played the opening lick, and it was something he doodled when warming up. But when the band heard it at practice, they all pitched in to create the classic rock hit.
The song was edited down from 5:56 to 4:14 to fit radio format but eliminated Slash’s guitar solo. This decision didn’t suit the band, especially when, years later, Guitar World ranked his solo as number 41 in their article “Copy of Top 50.”
Slash’s famous intro is challenging to play on guitar because it frequently crosses strings. Does this deter wanna-be rockers from giving it a go in a guitar store? Unfortunately, no! Which leads to more eye-rolls and disgusted looks from guitar store employees.
2. Smoke On The Water – Deep Purple
Deep Purple released the album Machine Head in 1972, and “Smoke on The Water” is now considered one of the world’s most overplayed songs.
Early on, listeners believed the lyrics to the song were cryptic, but in reality, the band was retelling a story they experienced in Switzerland. A fire at the Montreux Casino on Lake Geneva impacted their stay and recording sessions at the casino.
The next day, remnant smoke hung over the lake, which inspired the song’s name: Smoke on The Water. It’s also ranked #4 among the “Greatest Guitar Riffs Ever” by Total Guitar Magazine.
Guitarist Ritchie Blackmore created the famous guitar riff in G minor and was inspired by Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The remaining members of Deep Purple added to the brilliance of this hit with distorted organ, driving drums, and a gritty Rickenbacker bass.
Although “Smoke On The Water” is easy to play, most guitarists do so incorrectly. Check out guitarist Steve Morse explaining how to play “Smoke on The Water” properly.
1. Stairway To Heaven – Led Zeppelin
The year was 1971. The band: Led Zeppelin. They released their untitled fourth album (often called “Led Zeppelin IV”) and turned the rock and roll world upside down.
This classic album has songs like “Black Dog,” “Rock and Roll,” and “When The Levee Breaks.” But the tune everyone knows and overplays in guitar stores is “Stairway to Heaven.”
But who can blame these aspiring guitarists! “Stairway to Heaven” is filled with intrigue, musical brilliance, and a guitar solo for the ages.
Jimmy Page composed the music in the key of A minor, which lent itself well to the guitar. Robert Plant wrote lyrics that are mysterious and spiritual. Some claim that if you play “Stairway to Heaven” backward on a turntable, you’ll hear hidden Satanic messages like “sweet Satan.”
“Stairway to Heaven” has even been used as a spoof in the movie Wayne’s World. When Wayne is in a music shop, he plays the song’s opening arpeggios. But unfortunately, the music store employee cuts him off and points to the sign, “No Stairway to Heaven.”
The song is layered with soothing instruments and builds intensity and tempo. When drummer John Bonham comes in on toms, listeners sense a musical change is on the horizon. Then, the song pauses, and Jimmy Page introduces power chords that rival comparison.
All of which culminates in one of the most incredible guitar solos ever played. For decades, countless players have studied, analyzed, and imitated Jimmy Page’s solo.
For these reasons, we ranked Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” as the most forbidden riff to play in guitar stores.
While plenty of other forbidden riffs didn’t make the cut, our top 10 are the most notorious riffs banned in guitar stores. And although we’ve done our best to warn, advise, and try to end this musical plaque, no doubt it will continue.
So, please, do us all a favor. When you purchase your next guitar in store, memorize our list and refrain from playing one of these forbidden songs! You’ll make the world, and guitar shops, a much better place.
What’s the worst forbidden riff of all time, in your opinion? Leave a comment below.
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