Jimmy Page Tells the Story of “Stairway to Heaven”: How the Most Played Rock Song Came To Be

in Music | January 7th, 2015

Walk into any guitar store, anywhere in the world, and you’re likely to hear the strains of one, or both, of two songs: Guns n’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” (Some guitar shops supposedly banned the latter several years ago.) Why are these so popular with budding players? Perhaps it’s because they have two of the most memorable guitar intros in rock history.


But only one of those intros might be lifted almost wholesale from another song, at least if you ask the estate of Randy California. Heirs of the late guitarist and co-founder of the band Spirit have claimed for years that the delicate acoustic melody that opens Zeppelin’s song came directly from California’s tune “Taurus.” The lawsuit is ongoing, and maybe not without some merit.

But all that aside (and what song, after all, doesn’t at least reference another?), “Stairway” is a phenomenal piece of songwriting, with its Celtic folk undertones and orchestral crescendos. So how, apart from some borrowing, did Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page come to write it? You can hear the story from the man himself above. Page talks about the use of recorders in the song’s “exposed acoustic” intro to give it a “slightly medieval feel.” Given the number of Lord of the Rings references in Robert Plant’s lyrics, this seems only fitting. Multi-instrumentalist bass player John Paul Jones came up with the idea for the recorders, Page tells us, and played them himself. (Page would have gone with “the texture of electric piano”).

Page offers many other fascinating tidbits on the moody, layered “Stairway.” To hear what it sounded like at first, before the storied album version’s cavernous production, listen to the early acoustic demo above. Page and Plant composed the rudiments while vacationing in Wales at a cottage called Bron Yr Aur (now a famous pilgrimage site for fans). Recording sessions took place in 1970 and 71 at Basing Street Studios in London and Headley Grange in Hampshire, where the band lived at the time. Zeppelin debuted “Stairway” live at Belfast’s Ulster Hall on March 5, 1971, with Page playing his many parts on a Gibson double-necked guitar. You can hear that first performance, and the somewhat tepid audience response, in the muffled recording below.

According to John Paul Jones, the crowd was “all bored to tears waiting to hear something they knew.” Nonetheless, “Stairway to Heaven” became the band’s “most requested song ever played on American radio” and was “included at every subsequent Zeppelin show.” Though it may be the most overplayed song of all time, “Stairway” has certainly earned it status as a rock ‘n’ roll milestone. As Page says at the top, the recording captures the band in their most inspired moment, a time when they did “nothing but eat, sleep, and make music.”

Related Content:

‘Stairway to Heaven’: Watch a Moving Tribute to Led Zeppelin at The Kennedy Center

Deleted Scene from Almost Famous: Mom, “Stairway to Heaven” is Based on the Literature of Tolkien

Zeppelin Took My Blues Away: An Illustrated History of Zeppelin’s “Copyright Indiscretions”

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Comments (17)

  1. Paul Tatara says . . .
    January 7, 2015 / 6:14 am

    LOTS AND LOTS of songs don’t reference another, at least not THAT overtly.

  2. David Bradley says . . .
    January 7, 2015 / 8:16 am

    “Some guitar shops supposedly banned the
    latter several years ago”

    You haven’t seen Wayne’s World, then?

    dB

  3. Hank says . . .
    January 7, 2015 / 8:32 am

    Take a minute, (all that’s needed)to listen to the song Taurus. How that lawsuit made it to the second stage is beyond me. A total waste of tax dollars and it just clogs up the courts for cases that have true merit.

  4. Tim says . . .
    January 7, 2015 / 9:41 pm

    After I heard about the lawsuit, I found the song and listened to it. My first thought was, “That’s supposed to be where STH came from? I don’t hear any real similarity.”

    It doesn’t sound any closer than those Songs that are made for royalty-free use where they take well-known songs and tweak the chords and note order enough to make it different (so as not to be sued), but similar enough so that you can recognize the song that inspired it. The STH->Taurus link isn’t even that strong, and those songs are differentiated enough to be defensible.

  5. Shawn says . . .
    January 8, 2015 / 7:49 pm

    really? I think it sounds like a total theft. Google the sites that have all the songs listed from the first album. We all steal a littl when we learn to play an instrument but for top muscicisls they clearly too huge chunks of others work. They idolized the blues so I understand hey.

  6. robert garcia says . . .
    January 8, 2015 / 10:53 pm

    stolen or not doesn’t matter. Stairway to Heaven is a masterpiece there’s no denying that. A classic for all time. Besides, it puts the other song “Taurus” to shame, (wouldn’t you agree)? we all know and love the song, and you either love Zeppelin or hate them,take your pick. As for me I’m a fan. I was fortunate enough to see them play for three and a half hours in 1975, I’ll never forget it. They were everything “great” that anyone has ever said they were, and more.

  7. Elroy says . . .
    January 8, 2015 / 11:19 pm

    Page nicked it alright, but then ran with it and transformed it good and proper. This really isn’t that unusual. Page and Randy C. were contemporaries at the time and both could play a bit, so it would be quite normal for one to say ‘Ooh, I like that!’ and have a crack at it. One thing leads to another and…bingo! It wasn’t malicious or scheming, it just occurred, it was just rattling around in Page’s black box.

    Did George Harrison set out to deliberately defraud Berry Gordy, or whoever it was who wrote ‘She’s So Fine’? No. It was just wedged in his head from years before.

    Did Ray Parker Jr. Set out with malice aforethought to rip off Huey Lewis? Yes, and admitted as much. I Want A New Drug did not sneak up on him, he expressly knocked it off for Ghostbusters. Big difference.

    Although why I’m defending Jimmy
    Page I’m not entirely sure…

  8. Charles Boyle says . . .
    January 9, 2015 / 8:00 pm

    George Hartison wrote My Sweet Lord after he heard Billy Preston playing the iconic riff at a Chiffon’s concert where it was “He’s so fine” (written by Ronnie Mack).
    He acknowledged the infringement, but the US court quantified the value of the infringement based on the number of airplays, value of record sales (further enhanced by appearing in a triple album) and an assessed contribution of the riff. Airplays were hugely amplified in number because it was shirtly after the break up of the Beatles and everyone wanted to hear, plus it was a bloody good song because of the profuction values, meaningfulness and beautiful embellishment by way of the slide guitar. The assessed infringement was pursued and later sold to former manager Alan Klein and this pretty much bankrupted Mr Harrison.
    he was never the same and the case was with him for much of the rest of his life.
    One of the nastiest and tragic cases of its kind. Mr Harrison was a kind and decent guy undeserving of such.

  9. rik alan says . . .
    January 26, 2015 / 7:01 pm

    I enjoy the lyrics even though I don’t quite understand them. I always felt the melody set the mood for the verse which is very poetic and changes with the tempo.

  10. Bruce Coons says . . .
    July 20, 2015 / 8:59 pm

    You mean Mellotron recorders and flutes

  11. unitron says . . .
    September 13, 2015 / 4:51 am

    Nobody ever mentions that Johnny Rivers’ “Summer Rain” beat both of them to that same opening riff.

    The version by the guy who wrote it

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yeR-SrAIv48

    makes it even more apparent than the Rivers arrangement.

  12. Mike Fetty says . . .
    September 19, 2015 / 3:01 am

    i don’t hear any similarity at all! What a bullshit lawsuit.

  13. Cheryl says . . .
    December 22, 2015 / 6:56 pm

    Wow!! Sooo cool to hear the very 1st live Stairway To Heaven!! I’ve been blessed to have seen Robert Plant & Jimmy Page live twice. Awesome concerts!! Also, I saw the live Jason Bonham/Heart concert @ DTE Energy(Pine Knob formerly) in Pontiac Michigan. Absolutely Amazing!!! I have them on video singing “Stairway To Heaven. It touched me so much, I cried & was so glad I experienced it!!

  14. drkrick says . . .
    January 1, 2016 / 5:27 pm

    The debt to “Taurus” and Randy California strikes me as hard to miss, but Page and Plant certainly did a lot more with it than Spirit did. The link to Heart’s version at the Kennedy Center Honors is highly recommended. I got a kick out of watching the three of them bob their heads along while listening as the rest of us have done so many times over the years. Kudos to the BBC for a nicely conceived and executed piece.

  15. Bill G says . . .
    January 2, 2016 / 7:20 pm

    As to Stairway and Freebird being banned in most music (instrument) stores that’s 100% true! I can’t tell you how many I walked into in the northeast back in the 70s and early 80’s where there were signs on the wall about No Stairway and No Freebird or you’d be “thrown out, beaten, sold for medical experiments”, etc and the like LOL

    As to the Taurus by Spirit thing I think it’s possible that Jimmy owes a debt of gratitude to Spirit since they did tour together for a while and I’m sure he heard this in the back of his ear while “living like a rock star” in the dressing room waiting to go on and it may have subtly wormed its way into his head and given some inspiration but as has been said before it’s simply a chord progression and an arpeggio and you can’t copyrite either of those.

  16. Lucky Haskins says . . .
    January 3, 2016 / 7:22 pm

    Nothing will make me turn off a radio faster than STH. As far as plagiarism, they did that more than once. Still I like lots of their music.

  17. Al says . . .
    January 3, 2016 / 11:17 pm

    I listened to Taurus back when I first heard of the lawsuit. I’ve been playing guitar for 45 years (professionally for a few dozen of that) and I can tell you that while the mood of the songs and guitar sounds are similar, there they never share more than two consecutive common chords. There are a hundred pairs of songs that are far more closely related and none of those have spawned lawsuits.

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