Rock Guitar Lessons: How to Play "Stairway to Heaven"
Years ago, I remember my friends talking about a supergroup headed our way from the UK. The band was the brainchild of guitarist Jimmy Page (formerly of the Yardbirds). We waited for Led Zeppelin's first album with bated breath, and it was all it was promised to be. Supergroup is an understatement when it comes to this band. That first record was like hearing Jimi Hendrix for the first time. Everyone knew it would change the face of rock music. Long, drawn-out, improvised songs, drenched in blues rock overtones, Led Zeppelin One became a staple on my turntable.
In February of 1969, they played their first Toronto concert at the Rock Pile. I was there, on the outside looking in (I couldn't afford the ticket price), but I could hear everything they played through the walls. Incredible! I must admit here that, I kind of lost interest in the band after the first two albums. But they have maintained a huge fan base throughout the world.
Stairway To Heaven has to be the most famous rock ballad ever recorded. Weighing in at eight minutes long, it rivals Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody in many ways. Both these songs smashed the boundaries of normal mainstream radio airplay. At a time (and it is still true today), when the average pop song lasts three minutes, and have formulaic chord progressions, lyrics, etc., Stairway To Heaven is an anomaly. A huge song, that will never go away.
If you are just entering into the concept of fingerstyle guitar, practice this warmup before attempting to play the intro. Keep your pick hand fingers moving in a fluid motion, close to the strings. Watch the video and make sure to use the designated fingers on the proper strings. T = thumb, I = index, M = middle, R = ring
Is there a more recognizable intro in rock music? From the very first arpeggio, everyone (seems no matter what their age), knows what song this is. Incredibly well constructed with the descending bassline in the chord voicings (measures one to three, A, G♯, G, F sharp), the chords set the mood for the rest of the tune.
Most of these chord shapes are partial barre chords. For example, the Am is the top four notes of a standard root 6 barre on the fifth fret. The second chord (the Am9 Maj7) is not very common but is found in many songs following the normal minor chord. This change can be found in the bridge of 'God Bless The Child', in the main progression to Tom Petty's 'Into The Great Wide Open', and George Harrison's 'Something'. Chord spelling for Am9 Maj7 is: G♯ (Major seventh), C (minor third), E (fifth) and B (ninth).
Fingerpicking or hybrid picking (pick and fingers), is essential in this section. I use my thumb, index, middle and ring, in the normal order of: thumb for the fourth string, index for the third, middle for the second and ring for the first. I find a lot of students have difficulty when beginning fingerpicking, mostly due to hand position. Do not let your fingers 'fly away' after you pluck the string, keep them close to the fretboard. Try to maintain the same position for all the chords, and if necessary, find an anchor spot, either for the palm or some players anchor their pinky on the pick guard side to keep their fingers aligned over the proper strings. Chords that are played without arpeggiation, are best executed with the 'grab' technique (thumb and fingers operating as one unit).
Verse Section One
The verse structure for Section One is pretty much the same as the intro, except for variations in measures twenty five to thirty two. As in the intro, this section is mostly common open chord shapes. The C Major chords in the intro at measures nine and thirteen are played in opposites to Section One, measures twenty five and twenty nine. This helps to remember the arrangement in this section. When I perform this piece, I always think ahead to this part. Also, in measure thirty one, the C Major to D Major change is not played as ascending arpeggios. Subtle differences, but they do make a difference.
Verse Section Two
The first line is an exact repeat of the first line of the intro (and the only time the F and E fill notes in measure thirty six are added, apart from the intro). The second line is the same progression with the arpeggios moving into sixteenths. Obviously these are much harder to execute for the novice fingerpicker, since sixteenths are simply, twice as fast as eighth notes. Do not vary your fret hand fingers, in other words, do not change the picking pattern fingers (thumb, index, middle, ring), just add the extra notes. In measure thirty nine, count careful and give the eight notes their proper time. If you try to play this measure as strict sixteenths, it won't even out. The entire measure will offset itself.
Verse Section Three
This is a huge part of the song, even though the preceding sections are more recognizable. The fingers give way to a pick here, and much of this section is strumming. Even measures forty nine to fifty seven, which return to arpeggios, are picked (also doubled by an electric guitar). In the strumming section, treat the eighths and any notes with a greater time value as downstokes, and the sixteenths as down-upstokes. Some very interesting chord shapes in this section. The Em/D, D, and C/D are all upper partials of normal Root 5 barre chords. The rest of the chords are normal open shapes, except for the FMaj7♭5. This is an F Major Root 6 barre shape without the barre with the first finger. The first finger is only pressing down the low F on the E string, allowing the open B (second) and E (first) to ring. This shape is nothing new and can be played with pleasing results on other frets. Alice In Chains and Rush have used these shapes extensively. Try playing the same shape on these frets: third, fifth, seventh, eighth, tenth. They lend a very pleasant sound on these frets. In fact, when played on the eighth fret it is simply a CMaj7: chord spelling is C, G, C, E, B, E.
This section is tricky, a total departure from the rest of the song. The first two measures are fairly common, just different flavours of a D Major chord: Dsus2, D Major and Dsus4. These changes have been used in many songs. An older song, that was covered by Tom Petty, comes to mind, Needles And Pins. This arrangement of the chords is quite hard to execute, as the change form the Dsus2 to D Major is very quick. Try down-up strokes for these two chords. This section then moves into a normal C Major open chord, followed by a very unusual Cadd9♭5. Chord spelling: C (root), E (third), G (fifth), D (ninth), F♯ (flat fifth). Jimmy Page made a career out of unusual chords and tunings. Very cool!
In measure sixty two, the time signature changes to three four. In measure sixty six it is two four time. I may have taken some liberties here, or you may see this section written differently by other transcribers, but this seems to work. Count carefully and compare this to the recording or instructional video to get the proper feel.
Solo Rhythm and Ending
The rhythm guitar behind the solo is pretty straight forward, normal open chord shapes and rhythm pattern. The ending pattern is a little more difficult. Move into Root 6 barre shapes to make the muted strokes much easier to execute. Heavily accent the first two full downstroke strums on the Am and G Major chord, then play the sixteenth fret hand muted stokes with a down-up, down-up pattern. Play the F Major Root 6 barre shape with all downstrokes. Count this measure carefully, but to get the true feel, refer to the instructional video or the original recording. the drums follow the guitars in the section, so all parts must be in sync to sound correct. The G Major at the end of the measure is only one strum. This progression: Am, G Major, F Major, Am, has been employed in many tunes. The entire progression to Bob Dylan's All Along The Watchtower (made extremely famous by Jimi Hendrix), is this progression, in a different key. Also, Don't Fear The Reaper by Blue Oyster Cult, in the same key as this song. A great exercise for the ear is to listen to songs and try to work out the progression away from your instrument. At least, make sure you can hear the changes in the song, even if you don't know what they are.
There's a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold
And she's buying a stairway to heaven.
When she gets there she knows, if the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for.
Ooh, ooh, and she's buying a stairway to heaven.
There's a sign on the wall but she wants to be sure
'Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings.
In a tree by the brook, there's a songbird who sings,
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven.
Ooh, it makes me wonder,
Ooh, it makes me wonder.
There's a feeling I get when I look to the west,
And my spirit is crying for leaving.
In my thoughts I have seen rings of smoke through the trees,
And the voices of those who stand looking.
Ooh, it makes me wonder,
Ooh, it really makes me wonder.
And it's whispered that soon if we all call the tune
Then the piper will lead us to reason.
And a new day will dawn for those who stand long
And the forests will echo with laughter.
If there's a bustle in your hedgerow, don't be alarmed now,
It's just a spring clean for the May queen.
Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run
There's still time to change the road you're on.
And it makes me wonder.
Your head is humming and it won't go, in case you don't know,
The piper's calling you to join him,
Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow, and did you know
Your stairway lies on the whispering wind.
And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul.
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold.
And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last.
When all is one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll.
And she's buying a stairway to heaven.
All the theory in the world will not allow you to create a masterpiece as this. It can aid in your writing, but it can't create. You can bet your life that Jimmy Page had no thought about the theory behind all of this when he wrote this tune. He relied purely on the sound and mood he was creating. This is the way most artists write. If it doesn't come from the heart, it won't be believable.
© 2014 Lorne Hemmerling