11 Facts About Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven"
In the pantheon of classic rock songs, there's arguably no tune more classic than “Stairway to Heaven.” Led Zeppelin’s 1971 opus has it all: mystical lyrics, memorable riffs, a monster guitar solo, and crazy urban legends involving Hobbits and the Devil. In celebration of the song’s 50th anniversary, here are 11 facts about "Stairway to Heaven" that are guaranteed to put a bustle in your hedgerow—whatever that means.
1. “Stairway to Heaven” features an instrument you played in second grade.
In the opening section of the song, Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones traded his four-string for a recorder—that old standby of elementary school music classes—and played it with a medieval flourish. Guitarist Jimmy Page has called the passage a “poor man’s" version of Bach’s "Bourrée in E minor."
2. Some fans think “Stairway to Heaven” was inspired by The Lord of the Rings.
Long before Peter Jackson’s blockbuster movies, Zeppelin's band members were big fans of The Lord of the Rings. And J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy novel inspired several of their songs, including “Ramble On,” “The Battle of Evermore,” and “Misty Mountain Hop.” Many Tolkien buffs believe “Stairway” also leads straight to Middle-earth. According to one theory, the lyrics echo the “The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen,” a story of two lovers told in the appendix of The Lord of the Rings. Singer and lyricist Robert Plant has said he actually drew inspiration from Lewis Spence’s Magic Arts in Celtic Britain, a book about occult beliefs.
3. Even Robert Plant isn’t 100 percent sure what “Stairway to Heaven” is about.
Plant believes the power of the song lies in its “abstraction.” “Depending on what day it is, I still interpret the song a different way—and I wrote the lyrics,” he said.
4. “Stairway to Heaven” sounds wicked backwards—Literally.
What if the lyrics to “Stairway” are so strange and convoluted because they’re actually meant to be played backwards? That was the theory of televangelist Paul Crouch, who decided in 1982 that the verse beginning around 4:19 (“If there’s a bustle …") offers a satanic message when played in reverse. This, according to Crouch, is the hidden message: “Here’s to my sweet Satan/The one whose little path would make me sad, whose power is Satan/He will give those with him 666/There was a little tool shed where he made us suffer, sad Satan.” In the book Hammer of the Gods, one of Zeppelin’s recording engineers offers this rebuttal: “Why would they want to spend so much studio time doing something so dumb?”
5. The solo in “Stairway to Heaven” was completely improvised.
Page’s soaring “Stairway to Heaven” solo showcase, which was ranked by Guitar World as the greatest solo of all time, features 50 seconds of face-melting glory. Turns out the legendary axman was flying by the seat of his bell-bottoms. “The solo sounds constructed—and it is, sort of, but purely of the moment,” Page told Rolling Stone in 2008. “For me, a solo is something where you just fly, but within the context of the song.” Page did three takes—all different—and picked the best one.
6. Jimmy Page played the solo on a “magical guitar.”
Zep’s lead guitarist was known to dabble in the occult, but the so-called “magical” instrument he used for his “Stairway to Heaven" solo wasn’t infested with demons or blessed by witches or anything cool like that. It was simply a 1959 Fender Telecaster he got from fellow British shredder Jeff Beck. Page also used that Telecaster during his days with the Yardbirds and on sessions for the first Zeppelin album. “A bit of a magical guitar, really,” Page said.
7. “Stairway to Heaven” spawned a copyright infringement case.
In 2014, the estate of Randy California, late guitarist for the American rock band Spirit, sued Led Zeppelin for copyright infringement. The suit alleged that Zeppelin stole the “Stairway” riff from Spirit’s 1968 song “Taurus.” Zeppelin opened for Spirit on their first American tour, so it’s possible they heard “Taurus” before penning “Stairway.” But Page and company have denied any thievery, and in 2016, a jury ruled in their favor. In March 2020, the ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the ruling.
8. “Stairway to Heaven” was never released as a single.
Led Zeppelin were not a Top 40 band. They hated the idea of reworking their songs for radio, and for years, they refused to even release singles in the UK. So it’s no surprise that “Stairway to Heaven”—an eight-minute epic you wouldn’t dream of editing—was strictly an album cut. That didn’t stop radio from playing the hell out of it. By its 20th anniversary in 1991, the song had been spun more than 2,874,000 times. In 2007, as Zep’s catalog became available digitally, “Stairway” finally hit the UK charts, peaking at No. 37.
9. The first fans to hear “Stairway to Heaven” weren’t that impressed.
Zeppelin debuted the song on March 5, 1971, during a concert in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The crowd of assembled fans didn’t immediately begin weeping over the majesty of Plant’s lyrics and Page’s fretwork. “They were all bored to tears waiting to hear something they knew,” John Paul Jones recalled.
10. “Stairway to Heaven” is supposedly “forbidden” by guitar store employees.
Nearly every budding guitarist who digs classic rock tries to learn the intro to “Stairway to Heaven” at some point. It’s practically a rite of passage. That adds up to a lot of Page wannabees fumbling through the finger picking at guitar shops. No wonder the song has been unofficially barred from being played in music stores worldwide. The ban makes for a hilarious moment in the 1992 comedy Wayne’s World, as Mike Myers’s titular character is denied by a cranky salesman.
11. Robert Plant once paid to never hear “Stairway to Heaven” again.
One night, while driving along the Oregon coast after a solo performance in Portland, Plant came across a radio station playing really cool non-mainstream music. The DJ then came on and said that for a donation of $10,000, the station would promise to never play “Stairway to Heaven” again. Plant pulled over his car, whipped out his credit card, and ponied up the dough. “It’s not that I don’t like it,” he said of the song. “It’s just that I’ve heard it before.”