In 1992’s Wayne’s World, Wayne (Mike Myers) and Garth (Dana Carvey) are dismayed when a guitar store visit turns confrontational. As Wayne begins to strum the first notes of Led Zeppelin’s "Stairway to Heaven," a surly employee points at a sign: “No ‘Stairway to Heaven.’”
“No ‘Stairway,’” Wayne observes. “Denied.”
It’s a throwaway joke in a ‘90s comedy touchstone, but it also seems to strike a nerve among actual guitar store owners, who—as Wayne’s World notes—have had to hear it played (poorly) for decades.
In a 2002 Chicago Tribune profile of Guitar Works in Evanston, Illinois, employees were said to be in the habit of telling guitar enthusiasts “no Stairway to Heaven.” The Spokane-Review in Spokane, Washington, dubbed it “the unspoken guitar store rule.”
But are they making an oblique reference to the movie or a serious rejoinder not to play the song? Is launching into “Stairway to Heaven” truly bad form?
Stairway, (Sometimes) Denied
For the most part, a ban on “Stairway” is a joke with an element of truth behind it. Guitar shops aren’t necessarily in the habit of kicking out potential customers, because someone who plays poorly has money that’s just as good as that of a relative pro. But suppose a guitar store employee did take umbrage at your rendition of the song and really did ask you to leave—or even ban you from the premises. Is that legal?
“The short answer is, yes, the business could make that kind of rule, but it may not be a great idea,” Jed McKeehan, an attorney in Knoxville, Tennessee, tells Mental Floss. “Customers to businesses are invitees. That means that generally, businesses are inviting customers onto their premises, so customers have a right to be there.”
Businesses can, however, revoke that invitation. Though there doesn’t appear to be a case of a customer complaining that they’ve been literally banned for strumming “Stairway,” the store likely has the right to ask anyone to leave so long as they’re not part of a federally protected class under the Federal Civil Rights Act and not being discriminated against based on race, color, religion, or national origin. Additionally, no one can be refused service on the basis of a disability; many states further limit businesses refusing service based on gender or sexuality.
But stores can—and often do—ask customers to leave if they’re disruptive or harassing others. Would playing “Stairway to Heaven” poorly count?
“Businesses can deny service based on inappropriate behavior [like] profanity, harassing customers, threats to employees, lack of hygiene … [or] trying to access the business during off hours,” McKeehan says. “So can a place prevent a song being played? Yes, but what kind of precedent does that set? Is becoming the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld good for business? I personally wouldn't think so, but as far as I know, it is legal to prohibit specific songs being played.”
Perhaps one could argue that a disability prevented you from playing “Stairway to Heaven” properly, in which case the store could face some kind of fallout for asking you to leave. More likely, they’ll simply garner a bad reputation for being intolerant of subpar guitar playing.
It may also be a myth that people gravitate toward the song because it’s one of the first tunes amateur players pick up or because it’s easy to learn. Neithers appear to be true. More likely, it’s because the song is so well-liked and familiar that people tend to project their fantasies of rock stardom on it.
As for Wayne’s World, the joke that popularized the trend had a meta meaning. The original cut of the movie had Wayne playing a few notes from the actual song before the clerk intervenes. But when producers found out it would cost $100,000 in royalties for even a handful of notes to remain for broadcast and home video release, they edited it out. In the current version of the movie, Wayne isn’t playing the song in any recognizable way. Even Led Zeppelin, it seems, doesn’t want anyone playing “Stairway to Heaven.”