As a guitarist, you’ve probably heard the term ‘Forbidden Riff’ bandied around. But what does it mean, and where did it come from? And as the most famous example, why is Stairway to Heaven banned in guitar stores?
In this article, we’ll answer all of these questions, and reel off 21 of the most well-known forbidden riffs which are banned in guitar stores.
You’ll also find a handy printable poster listing the forbidden guitar riffs that you can display in your guitar shop if you happen to be like me and work in one!
What is the Forbidden Riff?
The forbidden riff is any overplayed song that has been (jokingly) banned from being played in guitar stores. The list consists of many well-known, but easy-to-learn riffs and licks that guitar store employees are fed up of hearing on a daily basis – for example, Stairway To Heaven!
These tracks are particularly frustrating to guitar stores as:
- Almost every new guitarist learns these forbidden riffs
- Almost every new guitarist thinks they are the only one to ever learn them
- Almost every new guitarist plays them badly (but still looks around looking for recognition of their smokin’ hot skills)
The forbidden songs include massive hits such as Stairway To Heaven, Sweet Child O’ Mine, and Smoke On The Water amongst many others.
Check out the list below for plenty more overplayed and forbidden riffs that guitar shops HATE with a passion..
A famous example of this being joked about in mainstream media can be seen in the 1992 comedy movie Wayne’s World. It is arguably this movie alone that made the idea of the forbidden riff a popular gag.
In the scene in question, Wayne (Mike Myers) is immediately prevented from playing a banned song whilst test-driving the Stratocaster of his dreams.
Being utterly fed up of hearing the same old riffs over and over was not the only reason that the stores came to dread the most overplayed songs, however.
In addition, it was also thought that the guitar players who belted out these forbidden riffs were the least likely guitar shop ‘customers’ to actually buy something!
So if you’d like to be taken seriously when you go your local guitar shops, it’d probably be a good idea to avoid the most overplayed songs!
You should probably also watch Wayne’s World, just because it’s excellent…
Where Did The Forbidden Riff Originate?
It is widely believed that the idea of the forbidden riff began in the 1970s as an inside joke in the guitar stores of London’s famous Denmark Street.
Guitar shop employees began to circulate lists of forbidden riffs that they could no longer stand to hear from the (mainly beginner) guitar players trying out instruments.
Over the years the lists grew as new and popular songs became the norm for novice players to learn.
Forbidden Riffs In Guitar Stores
What is the forbidden riff? Although there is no standard list of banned songs, here are 21 tracks that would definitely receive a few eye-rolls from guitar store employees.
This list of forbidden riffs will also double up as a good source of absolute classic tracks that every guitarist should learn.
Just don’t play them at your local music store!
1. Stairway To Heaven – Led Zeppelin
Although many fans will happily refer to this track as Led Zeppelin’s magnum opus, Stairway To Heaven has become one of the main forbidden riffs that guitar retailers simply cannot bear to hear.
In fact, thanks to Wayne’s World (see above!), Stairway to Heaven is often referred to as THE forbidden riff.
Learning Stairway to Heaven has become almost a rite of passage for new guitar players. So, it’s easy to understand why it gets belted out so often.
t turns out that guitar shop employees aren’t the only ones who have tired of hearing Stairway To Heaven on repeat.
After claiming that he could no longer relate to the lyrics, Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin singer) once reportedly paid $10,000 to a radio station to prevent them from playing the track!
Fun Fact! Jimmy Page’s solo on this rock song was entirely improvised. He took three shots at recording and picked his favorite effort.
Guitar World has crowned it the greatest guitar solo of all time. Now, that’s impressive!
You can check out the tabs here if you’d like to learn Stairway To Heaven yourself.
2. Smoke On The Water – Deep Purple
Why is Smoke On The Water a forbidden riff?
The iconic opening guitar riff from this classic rock staple is so simple that most new players should be able to learn it in some capacity within their first few weeks (or even days!) of picking up the guitar.
And most do!
This rock song was my first introduction to power chords, and boy did I feel like a bonafide rock GOD when I nailed it. Never mind guitar store employees, my parents were the ones who had to suffer in my case…
The track itself was released back in 1972 and was inspired by a fire at The Casino in Switzerland the year previous.
Deep Purple was watching Frank Zappa play live at The Casino when the fire started. They were due to start recording their next album at the venue the following day.
After the fire died down there was a layer of smoke sitting on top of Lake Geneva. This became the title of the track, with the lyrics revolving around the saga of trying to get their album (Machine Head) recorded.
You can check out the tabs here if you’d like to learn this classic for yourself.
3. Sweet Child O’ Mine – Guns ‘N Roses
Another standard in many a guitarist’s repertoire is this absolute classic from Guns ‘N Roses.
It is one of many standout tracks from the band’s 1987 debut album ‘Appetite for Destruction’ and is one of those forbidden riffs that guitar store employees have heard to death.
Slash has stated that this forbidden riff was actually just a silly warm-up pattern he had been fooling around with which the band then added to.
In 2019, the song became the first 1980’s music video to reach the one billion views mark on YouTube!
Unsurprisingly, Slash has said that Sweet Child O’ Mine is the band’s most covered song.
In general, this forbidden guitar riff is harder to learn than the previous two songs in the list. This is because the opening guitar riff uses some fairly intricate string skipping. Unfortunately, that just means that it’s easier for newer players to butcher and drive people crazy with!
You can check out the tabs here if you’d like to learn it yourself. Note that you’ll need to tune your guitar down a half-step to play along with the original track.
Not that guitar shop employees will care!
4. The House Of The Rising Sun – The Animals
The oldest song in the list has had to be endured by guitar store employees from as far back as 1964 when the track was first released!
It’s also the only song on the list which wasn’t originally written by the artist. The true origins of this traditional folk song are largely unknown, but it was the Animals that finally made it a mainstream hit.
Many bands and artists have covered the song since.
As the origins of The House of the Rising Sun aren’t known, we also cannot say for sure what the song is about.
The two most popular theories are that it is either about a brothel or a women’s prison, both of which were located in New Orleans.
With the main riff being a sequence of simple arpeggios using basic open chords, the track is very accessible even for beginners to pick up on guitar.
It’s easy to see why so many guitar store employees have had to endure this song for decades!
Fancy adding this guitar riff to your repertoire of forbidden songs? You can check out the tabs here if you’d like to learn it yourself.
5. Enter Sandman – Metallica
Time to invoke your inner James Hetfield and become a down-picking God with this massive track from Metallica!
As a young metal guy, I was certainly guilty of ripping out this forbidden guitar riff way too many times at my local guitar shop.
Enter Sandman is the first track and debut single from Metallica’s 1991 album ‘The Black Album’. The song revolves around the theme of a child’s nightmares and things that go bump in the night.
The lyrics were originally centered around the much darker subject of crib death, i.e the sudden and unexplained death of a baby.
Producer Bob Rock managed to convince Hetfield to compose new lyrics to make the song more accessible to the mainstream.
Although a lot more proficiency will be required to nail Kirk’s electric guitar solo, the main riff to Enter Sandman is very straightforward to learn. Just remember, down-picking only, haha!
You can check out the tabs here if you’d like to learn this song that music store employees love to hate.
6. Sweet Home Alabama – Lynyrd Skynyrd
What list of overplayed riffs would be complete without this frustratingly catchy number from southern rockers Lynyrd Skynrd?
Sweet Home Alabama was released in 1974 as the opening track on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s second album ‘Second Helping’.
It was the band’s first big song and is also their biggest hit to date.
The song was actually written as a response to a Neil Young track which suggested that people from the south were mainly racists with outdated points of view.
The Lynyrd Skynyrd track instead talks about southern pride and all of the good which can be found in Alabama. Neil Young later admitted that he regretted the lyrics in his song.
Learning this classic note for note on guitar is probably going to be the hardest out of all of the tracks in this list. Y
ou’ll discover that although much of the riffs are fairly standard, you’ll often find challenging parts where your fingers are placed where they wouldn’t usually go!
You can check out the tabs here if you’d like to learn this Lynyrd Skynyrd classic yourself. Just remember, don’t play it in your local guitar shops!
7. Back In Black – AC/DC
Another forbidden riff that has almost become a rite of passage for many a fledgling rock guitarist!
You cannot help but get all fired up unleashing this powerful monster.
Back in Black was the debut single from AC/DCs 7th studio album of the same name.
That album is currently the second best-selling album of all time! So, it’s easy to see why the lead track is such a recognizable tune!
This rock song was written as a tribute to the band’s former singer Bon Scott, after he tragically died of alcohol poisoning in February 1980.
The opening riff is often referred to as the greatest riff of all time! So, it’s unsurprising that so many guitarists have added it to their repertoires over the decades since its release.
It also helps that it is super-easy to learn!
You can check out the tabs here if you’d like to add it to your collection of forbidden songs.
8. Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana
Another absolute monster anthem that nearly every guitarist will learn at some point is the track that launched Nirvana into the stratosphere.
Smells Like Teen Spirit is the opening track and first single from Nirvana’s second album ‘Nevermind’.
It is often quoted as being the song that brought grunge to the mainstream.
Kurt Cobain stated that when writing the song he was trying to imitate one of his favorite bands – The Pixies.
He aimed to write the ‘ultimate pop song’, and this is perhaps why it went on to become such a phenomenal mainstream success.
The song sounds huge, and is a ton of fun to belt out.
It is an absolute beginner’s dream to learn as the main riff features just a few very simple powerchords coupled with some percussive muting.
You can check out the tabs here if you’d like to learn it yourself.
9. Seven Nation Army – The White Stripes
Although this catchy lil ditty is now almost 20 years old, it’s still the most recently written track to appear in this entire list of forbidden songs!
Does that perhaps say something about the quality of modern popular music?
Seven Nation Army is the opening song on the White Stripes’ 2003 album ‘Elephant’.
Jack Black stated that he wanted to save this now fobidden guitar riff for if he was ever asked to write the theme tune for a James Bond movie.
However, he decided that was unlikely to happen and used it for this song instead. Ironically, 5 years later he was asked to write a Bond theme!
As a child, Jack White thought that the Salvation Army was actually called the Seven Nation Army.
The lyrics revolve around the theme of the rising popularity that the band was experiencing, plus the negatives that came along with that newfound fame.
Although the song is super simple to learn on electric guitar, you will need to tune to Open A to be faithful to the original! Here, Jack Black used an octave effect to make his electric guitar sound more like a bass.
You can check out the tabs here if you’d like to learn this forbidden guitar riff yourself.
10. Crazy Train – Ozzy Osbourne
Crazy Train was the first single release from Blizzard of Ozz. This was Ozzy’s first solo album after being fired from Black Sabbath in 1979.
The lyrics of this forbidden song revolve around the topic of the Cold War, and the song carries within it an anti-conflict message.
As far as the song title is concerned – both Randy Rhoads and bassist Bob Daisley were avid model train collectors.
Daisley commented that the sounds coming from Randy’s amp sounded a bit like a crazy train.
The intro riff is probably the one that is the most overplayed and most irritating to guitar shop employees. However, the main verse riff is also an absolute belter!
They’re both very easy to learn but sound absolutely monstrous with the gain cranked.
You can check out the tabs here if you’d like to learn it yourself.
What Songs Are Banned In Guitar Stores?
Clearly, there are more than just ten forbidden riffs, right? So here’s a bunch of additional overplayed songs that you might want to avoid unleashing in your local guitar stores!
- Blackbird – The Beatles
- Wonderwall – Oasis
- Eruption – Van Halen
- One – Metallica
- Bleed – Meshuggah
- Come As You Are – Nirvana
- Nothing Else Matters – Metallica
- Iron Man – Black Sabbath
- Walk – Pantera
- More Than Words – Extreme
- Everlong – Foo Fighters
Clearly, there are a lot more forbidden riffs than just Stairway To Heaven, right?
And the list just keeps on growing as new bands release catchy tunes that guitarists gravitate towards learning.
If you happen to work at any big stores such as Guitar Center, Sweetwater, or Sam Ash, please drop me an email with any new banned guitar riffs that I need to be aware of!
What is the forbidden riff in your store?
Forbidden Guitar Riffs Poster
If you work in a guitar store, here is an A4 forbidden guitar riffs poster that you can print out to display the most overplayed songs display in your practice booths.
Please don’t actually enforce this, cos that would be, y’know, lame. Please do use it for a little banter with your customers, however!
Please DO Learn These Riffs!
The majority of guitarists learn these forbidden riffs for one reason – they’re all AWESOME.
So please do go ahead and add them to your repertoire! Just spare a thought for those of us who work at guitar stores and keep them for home practice or gigs!
Especially Stairway To Heaven, haha. Sorry, Led Zeppelin fans!