When you go to some guitar stores, they have a huge poster listing songs they call “forbidden riffs.” This sign is for those guitar god hopefuls looking to purchase a new axe for their collection.
But, why do guitar stores have such a list and what is the purpose of it?
Since 1973, people tend to play the same songs repeatedly to test out new guitars. If you worked in a guitar store and heard the same riff all day, you’d get sick of them too.
It can be mind numbing for the employees and definitely frustrating if a newbie comes in whaling on the strings in a horrid way.
Now, this isn’t to say you shouldn’t learn the songs, but refrain from playing them at the guitar store. For employees, it’s akin to nails on a chalkboard, especially if you aren’t good at playing yet.
Defining Forbidden Riffs
Any overplayed popular rock or metal song will almost always appear on at least one forbidden riff list. These well-known, easy-to-play riffs/licks are what most guitar stores detest.
These are frustrating because every new guitar player learns them, they think they’re the only ones to learn the song and they play them horribly.
For an example of how popular this notion is, there’s a scene from the movie Wayne’s World. Here, a guitar store employee stops Wayne (aka Mike Myers) from playing “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin almost immediately.
Forbidden Riff History
The most famous and agreed upon history of creating forbidden riff lists began around 1973 and started in stores of the reputable Denmark Street in London.
Employees spread these lists everywhere as a testament to their impatience toward beginner players testing instruments. This is poignant in the case of “Stairway to Heaven.”
However, there are some arguments that forbidden riffs got their genesis back in the 1960s. One example we’ll soon discuss is one by The Animals, “House of the Rising Sun.”
Regardless, the list has grown exponentially over time to include any song that has become a nationwide hit.
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15 Most Forbidden Riffs
The list below is the top 15 forbidden riffs you should never play at a guitar store. Unless you know you’re some kind of virtuoso with proof to back it up, avoid them at all costs.
Of course, there are others you should know and always look for a list on the wall when you arrive. However, these are the most detested:
1. “House of the Rising Sun”
“House of the Rising Sun” is a classic by The Animals. It has held its title as one of the most overplayed songs since its release in 1964.
Not only is this song what makes the forbidden riff list much older than 1973, but it’s also cringe-worthy for many guitar store clerks and employees.
2. “Stairway to Heaven”
Released to the public in the late 60s, everyone knows “Stairway to Heaven.” It was the number one song played at school dances for almost three decades, every new guitar player learns this song and you’ll hear it at least once during an hour of listening to a classic rock station.
This is the gold standard for forbidden riffs, so never ever whip it out at a guitar store.
3. “Smoke on the Water”
As heavy and awesome as the opening riff is for “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple, it comes near the top of the forbidden list.
New students to the guitar should study Ritchie Blackmore and, specifically, this song. But not if you want to get a noticeable eye roll trying out a new guitar.
4. “Back in Black”
Being the lead track of AC/DC’s seventh album and sharing the same name, “Back in Black” is another song most beginners pick up.
Plus, it’s in honor of their fallen singer who left this world in February 1980 due to alcohol poisoning. But, if you want the sales clerk to take you seriously at the store, don’t play it.
5. “Enter Sandman”
Metallica’s Kirk Hammet displays pure genius for the intro to “Enter Sandman.” It’s hardcore, powerful and absolutely resonating.
But, this song has been so played out at guitar stores, avoid playing this one unless you want to be chased out.
6. “Sweet Home Alabama”
“Sweet Home Alabama” is Lynyrd Skynyrd’s first hit and their largest one to date, next to “Free Bird,” of course. Certainly, learn this fantastic tune at home, but don’t play it at the guitar store.
7. “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
Setting off the grunge scene of the 90s, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was the perfect blend displaying the angst of the youth of the time and musical prowess.
However, the opening riff is what all the beginners play and it has become an ear sore when heard at a guitar store.
8. “Sweet Child O’ Mine”
The riff that starts out “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Slash of Guns-n-Roses is a timeless epic. Anyone who knows the song can pick it out in 30 seconds.
This is also why you should never play it when looking to purchase an axe.
If you are new to playing guitar, please don’t try the opening lick to “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC. While it’s one of the more easier yet complex ones to learn, it’s easy to get it awfully wrong. No one, not even other customers, will be able to stand it.
10. “Iron Man”
Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” should need no explanation as to why it makes the list of forbidden songs. Yes, it’s awesome.
But, anyone worth their salt in metal and hard rock has heard this at least once. New players tend to pick it up because it’s a quick study, but don’t play it at the store.
11. “Purple Haze”
Jimi Hendrix is guitar royalty and all of his songs are topnotch. However, the few licks that start out “Purple Haze” is something every string aficionado has played and heard.
Avoid it at when attempting to make a buy unless you know you can rock it better than the master himself? If you think so, know those are fighting words.
12. “Breaking the Law”
“Breaking the Law” by Judas Priest is the ultimate rebellion song that pounds down into your very soul. So, you should definitely learn it. But, don’t play it at your local guitar store.
The fingering is precise and, if you’re new, won’t go over well with all and sundry.
13. “Crazy Train”
You’re not Saint Randy Rhoads, so don’t pretend to be while testing out a potential guitar for your collection. “Crazy Train” is immortal, but it won’t sound that way if you’re new to the art form.
14. “More than Words”
Extreme’s “More than Words” is excellent for acoustic learning. But, it was so overplayed in the late 80s that guitar store employees still wince when someone attempts to play it.
Plus, neophytes tend to mess it up big time, which only adds to the frustration.
15. “Seven Nation Army”
For the love of all that is holy, sacred and good! Do not play The White Stripe’s “Seven Nation Army” when looking to purchase a new axe.
If you study it closely, the lick is essentially the same for the entire duration. While it’s excellent for newcomers to learn, the song is mind-numbing at a guitar store.
With so many riffs NOT to play, which ones are OK?
There is a world of music out there and plenty of licks to pick from to test out a new guitar. You might be okay playing other sections of these songs that are not so popular.
But avoid playing songs where the riff is similar for the duration of the tune; such as is the case with “Seven Nation Army.”
Why are so many riffs on the forbidden list?
The reason why so many riffs are on forbidden lists is because of their simplicity combined with popularity. If you heard the same 10 notes, chords or arpeggios in the course of an eight-hour day, you’d find them mentally draining as well. It’s simply part of the guitar-shopping etiquette you should follow.
Is “the forbidden riff” the same as the forbidden riffs list?
“The forbidden riff” indicates one song that guitar stores prohibit the most and that’s “Stairway to Heaven.” The reason for this stems back to a running joke fostered by the movie, Wayne’s World, as discussed above.
Guitar stores utilize forbidden riff lists to protect the ears of sales clerks and other employees. Understand, many people come through the doors every day looking to acquire that killer axe to propel them into the limelight.
But, when people play the same licks over and over, it gets old fast.
Also keep in mind that’s it’s just good etiquette to observe certain protocols when buying a guitar. Just as you wouldn’t place a guitar on an amp or stool, don’t play certain popular songs.
My name is Howard Matthews and I have been playing the guitar since I was knee-high. My parents like to joke that I was pulling the strings even before I was born. In fact, one of my earliest memories is sitting on the couch with my dad’s guitar, wreaking havoc on the chords.
Now, 40 years later, I can attest that I play them much better than I did back then. I have followed in the footsteps of both my parents – much to their delight – and have been the main guitarist in my band for the best part of three decades.
Music has always been my passion, and until recently my life has been so consumed with it that I haven’t had a moment to have a breath (and I wouldn’t have it any other way)!