Stairway: A Masterpiece or Socially Unacceptable?

April 28, 2014 11:20 am

As a guitarist, it is ridiculously cliché to sit down and play “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin… or even reference it, for that matter.

stairway to heavenIn Wayne’s World, there is a very tongue-in-cheek reference to that same cliché, stopping Wayne mid-song whilst he is testing out his dream Fender Stratocaster, when the camera zooms in on a sign saying “NO STAIRWAY” – this really is no exaggeration. If you sit down in a guitar shop and try out a guitar with that song, you will feel the disapproving stares of every other person within the same four walls as you after just a bar or two of the intro. The same happens if you play it in a soundcheck before a gig; the glares of the sound engineers, who have control over how you sound, pierce your soul. Although it is a more impressive piece of music to play than songs within a similar category, Deep Purple‘s “Smoke on the Water” for example; it simply is not socially acceptable. No one really knows why, but it just isn’t.

“Why is he talking about Stairway?” you might be asking at this point.
Well, I came to a conclusion yesterday evening and, though it may not be of any interest or significance to you; I found it quite fulfilling.

If you were to ask me to sit down and list songs which contain lyrics, time signatures, guitar pieces that I prefer to Stairway, I would be there for a fair old while doing so. Songs which have far more of an emotional connection with me or songs that are more fun to play as part of a band; there are several. Lyrically, I find the likes of Thom Yorke, Dave Grohl and Mark Knopfler more engaging. In terms of guitar riffs, the list would literally go on and on and on – (in no particular order) Metallica, Maiden, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Muse, Hendrix, Frusciante, etc. You get the gist of what I’m getting at; in many more narrow senses, Stairway is not at the top of my list.

Stairway, however, is special.

After much consideration, I can safely say that Stairway contains my favourite moment of a song – yes, moment. Just before the guitar solo, where it’s simply a guitar going between D-major, D-sus4 and D-sus2 chords; it’s nothing short of incredible, majestic.

If you are not familiar with this part of which I speak or are not a guitarist, go to 5:33 in this video and you will know exactly which part I am talking about:

At the climax of a song which climbs up and down the fretboard in a minor key, this use of the D-major chord is overwhelming. It triggers emotions that very rarely come to the surface. It stands every hair of the body on end. It turns my usually smooth skin into a sea of goosebumps — those goosebumps then develop goosebumps on top of themselves. This subsequent state of sheer ecstasy, euphoria, then tees you up to be utterly dazzled by Jimmy Page’s guitar solo and the very hard-hitting ending. It is a patiently-developed epic with a mind-blowing conclusion.

You may not understand the reasoning behind me posting this. You may not understand the significance of this conclusion that has been reached inside my own head. Stairway may not be a favourite of mine in many small ways but, in one big way, it is a masterpiece.

It’s a song not written, but composed.

Now go back to that video and listen to Stairway, again and again and again. 

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