If you’re a guitarist or a frequent visitor to guitar stores, then you’ve probably heard the term “forbidden riffs”.
There are numerous forbidden guitar riffs that you should avoid playing at all costs.
Forbidden riffs in guitar aren’t really banned. It’s just that people everywhere are so sick of hearing certain songs that they jokingly announced it as forbidden. Those songs include Stairway to Heaven, Back in Black, Highway to Hell, and so on.
Stick around to know more about forbidden riffs in guitar, why they’re banned, and what these songs are.
What Is a Forbidden Riff in Guitar?
Forbidden riffs are overplayed songs that have been banned. Of course, they’re not banned for real. It’s more of a joke between guitar players.
Additionally, those songs are marked overplayed because most of them are popular and somehow easy to learn.
In other words, the problem is that every new guitar player starts off by learning these songs.
Not just that, they also play them badly thinking they sound cool; when they’re just starting to get the hang of playing.
Where Does the Idea of Forbidden Riffs Come From?
It’s said that the idea of forbidden riffs started at a guitar store in London during the seventies.
Back then, guitar store employees jokingly circulated a list of songs that they couldn’t stand hearing anymore.
Those riffs were mainly played by new guitar players while they were trying out instruments in the store.
The riffs then became so popular since they were beginner-friendly and easy to play. That’s why they were played constantly as well as poorly.
As time went by and new songs were released, the list started to grow longer and longer, as did the idea of forbidden riffs.
That doesn’t mean the songs are bad, though.
On the contrary, these are great songs.
However, there’s only a limited number of times a person can handle listening to the same song, no matter how beautiful it is.
Where Are These Riffs or Songs Forbidden?
The forbidden riffs are particularly forbidden in music stores.
That’s because the employees there are so sick of hearing them.
As such, it’s kind of an inside joke at music stores.
Not only are those riffs banned because of how often they’re played, but also because it’s believed that whoever plays those riffs isn’t likely to buy anything.
In fact, the idea of the forbidden riff was featured in the 1992 comedy Wayne’s world.
That’s when Wayne, played by the comedian Mike Myers, went into a music store to try his dream guitar which he couldn’t afford.
Apparently, he’d done that numerous times before. So, as soon as he started playing the guitar, the employee pointed at a sign that said “NO STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN.”
Is This “Forbidden” Thing Really Enforced in Guitar Stores?
As mentioned before, a forbidden riff is only a joke in the world of music stores and of course, no one’s going to ban you from playing any song you choose.
You might get a few eye rolls here and there, though.
That said, after the release of the previously mentioned comedy “Wayne’s world,” some music stores did hang a similar sign to that which appeared in the movie.
However, it’s nothing serious, just a pun.
So, if you’re a new guitarist and these are the only songs you know how to play, don’t let this “forbidden riffs” thing stop you.
Just make sure not to be loud, or even better, you can always ask to use the store’s soundproof studio.
After all, whatever song you choose, there’s a high possibility that the music store employees are tired of hearing it, anyway.
7 Forbidden Riffs You Should Know
There isn’t a specific forbidden riffs list per se.
However, there’s common knowledge of certain, forbidden songs in the music store world.
Here’s a list of the seven most overplayed music riffs:
1. Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin
Released in November 1971, the song, Stairway to Heaven, is the ultimate forbidden song out there, thanks to Mike Myers’s movie.
It’s often referred to as “THE forbidden riff.”
The song was co-written by Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. It features three consecutive sections that get faster as the song goes on.
The first slow section is the part that’s mainly considered the forbidden riff.
That doesn’t deny the fact that it’s one of the greatest songs ever made and it has one of the most beautiful guitar solos.
For years, guitar players everywhere have tried to imitate Jimmy Page’s solo—which, by the way, was completely improvised.
Fun Fact: Reportedly, Robert Plant, Led Zeppelin’s singer, once paid a sum of $10,000 to a radio station just to stop playing the track, as he could no longer relate to the lyrics.
2. Back in Black by AC/DC
The song’s opening riff has been called the greatest riff of all time. That’s why it became one of the most played riffs among guitarists.
This riff is basically a mix of power chords and licks, which makes parts of it easier to pick up by new guitar players than others.
3. Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana
This song is the opening song in Nirvana’s second-ever album, Nevermind. Though the guitar riffs of this track are simple, it’s quite iconic.
The song is recognized worldwide because of its unique rhythmic sequence.
Guitarists around the world love playing this rock song because it consists of four simple chords. Plus, these chords were down-tuned by the band to create a darker tone.
4. Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple
The song, Smoke on the Water, was released in 1972 among other songs in the album Machine Head.
It’s considered one of the most overplayed songs worldwide.
That day, the band was watching Frank Zappa playing live at The Casino when the fire started.
The song’s name was inspired by the layer of smoke that was sitting on top of Lake Geneva after the fire, and the lyrics were describing their journey to record the album.
The iconic riff from this song is so simple and recognizable that it became one of the easiest riffs for new guitar players to learn in entire guitar history.
That’s why it sits among the top forbidden guitar riffs.
5. Sweet Home Alabama by Lynyrd Skynyrd
To this date, Sweet Home Alabama is Lynyrd Skynyrd’s biggest hit ever.
It was released in 1974 as part of their second album, Second Helping. Sweet Home Alabama is the album’s opening song and it’s hands down a southern rock sensation.
The song was written with an intent to respond to Neil Young’s track, in which he claimed that southern people were racists.
The track talks about all the good things that can be found in Alabama.
This specific song’s riffs are one of the hardest to learn. Although most of the riffs are simple and easy to execute, some parts will suddenly feel a bit tricky.
6. Sweet Child O’ Mine – Guns N’ Roses
Sweet Child O’ Mine is a song from Guns N’ Roses’s album Appetite for Destruction.
It’s the band’s only no.1 hit known to this day, and it has quite an impressive guitar solo, played by their guitarist, Slash.
Originally, this guitar riff was a piece that Slash used to warm up with, and the band decided to add it to the song when they heard it.
Additionally, in 2019, this song became the first eighties music video to reach one billion views on YouTube.
This specific guitar riff has a hard technique and some tricky string crossing.
That’s why it’s often misplayed, and despite that, it became the band’s most covered song.
7. Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes
As for something relatively new (it’s actually almost 20 years old, but the newest on this list), the song, Seven Nation Army, was a smashing hit.
It actually won a Grammy at the 46th annual Grammy Awards for Best Rock Song.
This song’s central riff was called by a writer at Rolling Stone the best riff of the decade. Despite that, it’s so simple and easy to learn for beginner guitarists.
Jack White achieved that sound using a pitch shifter—that’s why it sounds more like a bass line.
Although the forbidden riffs in guitar are annoying for some music store employees, the chances of someone stopping you from playing one is close to none.
That said, there are some acts of common courtesy to follow.
Just be gentle, don’t hammer hard on the guitar, and don’t crank up the volume.
Additionally, don’t spend longer than you should play, and if you’re not really looking to buy a guitar, try to stick to jamming on used ones.
Hello there, my name is Ramiro and I’ve been playing guitar for almost 20 years. I’m obsessed with everything gear-related and I thought it might be worth sharing it. From guitars, pedals, amps, and synths to studio gear and production tips, I hope you find what I post here useful, and I’ll try my best to keep it entertaining also.