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

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 (19)
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  • Paul Tatara says:

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

  • David Bradley says:

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

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


  • Hank says:

    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.

  • Shawn says:

    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.

  • robert garcia says:

    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.

  • Elroy says:

    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…

  • Charles Boyle says:

    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.

  • rik alan says:

    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.

  • Bruce Coons says:

    You mean Mel­lotron recorders and flutes

  • unitron says:

    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


    makes it even more appar­ent than the Rivers arrange­ment.

  • Mike Fetty says:

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

  • Cheryl says:

    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!!

  • drkrick says:

    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.

  • Bill G says:

    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.

  • Lucky Haskins says:

    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.

  • Al says:

    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.

  • Robert Wallace says:

    If you ask a mil­lion peo­ple to give their inter­pre­ta­tion of Led Zep­pelins’ Stair­way to Heav­en, with­out col­lab­o­ra­tion, you will get a mil­lion dif­fer­ent inter­pre­ta­tions. And each and every one of them would be absolute­ly cor­rect. Where you are spir­i­tu­al­ly, will deter­mine how you inter­pret any­thing in life. Even if you don’t con­sid­er your­self spir­i­tu­al, every­thing you see, touch, hear, smell, taste, feel, etc. is respond­ed to spir­i­tu­al­ly, to some degree or anoth­er. Again it just depends on where you are at spir­i­tu­al­ly as to how you respond and or inter­pret any­thing. When read­ing any kind of lit­er­a­ture that con­tains metaphors, EVERYONE is going to inter­pret it dif­fer­ent­ly. And this song is writ­ten almost entire­ly metaphor­i­cal­ly. I inter­pret­ed this song with a Chris­t­ian point of view, so this video may not work for you if you are not a Chris­t­ian. On the oth­er hand, it’s a pret­ty pow­er­ful inter­pre­ta­tion, and should be inter­est­ing regard­less what reli­gion you are. Also, I found it vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble to con­vey this song visu­al­ly with­out cre­at­ing it as, what I call, a wide awake dream. So it will require a bit of think­ing out­side the box. It nor­mal­ly takes me 4–5 days max to cre­ate a clas­sic rock bal­lad video, but a lot of research went into this mon­ster and took near­ly 2 months to com­plete. And so, here is my inter­pre­ta­tion of Stair­way To Heav­en, I hope you enjoy it.

    “There’s a lady who’s sure, all that glit­ters is gold. And she’s buy­ing the stair­way to Heav­en”

    There’s a sug­ges­tion in this open­ing line that the “lady” is mis­guid­ed, because all that glit­ters is NOT gold.
    The 12th cen­tu­ry French the­olo­gian Alain de Lille wrote “Do not hold every­thing gold that shines like gold”.
    I used an image of a gold­en ser­pent in the video not specif­i­cal­ly to rep­re­sent the love of gold and or wealth; (The root of all evil) But in my research of the mean­ing to these lyrics, I con­clud­ed that “gold” in this case, rep­re­sents the sev­en dead­ly sins, (lust, greed glut­tony, sloth, wrath, envy, pride). Unre­al­ized by the “lady” in her mis­guid­ed sense of enti­tle­ment.
    I chose 1 Tim­o­thy 6:9 ‑10 as the Bible pas­sage to sum­ma­rize this part of the lyrics. (Verse 11 is added here, but comes more into play fur­ther into the song.)
    “But they that will be rich fall into temp­ta­tion and a snare, and into many fool­ish and hurt­ful lusts, which drown men in destruc­tion and perdi­tion.
    For the love of mon­ey is the root of all evil: which while some cov­et­ed after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced them­selves through with many sor­rows.
    But thou, O man of God, flee these things; and fol­low after right­eous­ness, god­li­ness, faith, love, patience, meek­ness.”

    “When she gets there she knows, if the stores all are closed, with a word she can get what she came for”
    More clar­i­fi­ca­tion of her mis­guid­ed sense of enti­tle­ment. This is point­ing out the irony of they way she is lead­ing her life. What is she going to do with the mate­r­i­al things if that is all she has in her life?
    I chose the doors (“stores”) clos­ing leav­ing her in dark­ness hold­ing her “gold”, to rep­re­sent Heav­en is not sell­ing tick­ets for admis­sion. Hence the mon­ey she is pour­ing up to heav­en. Admis­sion is a free gift from God, But the doors won’t open until you get rid of that suit­case full of unGod­ly pas­sions. There is a lit­tle more to it which comes in lat­er, but for now this needs to be her first epiphany.
    I chose Acts 8:20 as the Bible pas­sage to sum­ma­rize this part of the lyrics.

    “But Peter said to him, “May your sil­ver per­ish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with mon­ey!”
    Click The Link Below­To Con­tin­ue Read­ing http://classicrockballads.blogspot.com/

  • Brian Travinski says:

    Stair­way to Heav­en is one of the most played and most icon­ic songs EVER writ­ten. Led Zep­pelin are music leg­ends! In the his­to­ry books for life! Not many can say that.

  • Dave says:

    No. The part you ref­er­ence is still set up for the sto­ry with­in the song by dis­cussing the priv­i­leges the woman has in life. Read it again, “When she gets there she knows, if the stores all are closed, with a word she can get what she came for.”

    It does­n’t mat­ter if the stores are closed, she can just make a call and have some­one come down and sell her what she wants. You have over thought it and framed this in your Chris­t­ian upbring­ing.

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