Play "Stairway to Heaven" the Right Way!

October 21, 2014

I know what you’re thinking: “I can already play that perfectly well, thank you very much!” And, of course, you can. You’ve got the intro and verse rhythm figures down pat, and can fly through Jimmy Page’s solo and outro fills with the greatest of ease. But there’s one quirky section of the song that routinely remains misunderstood.

Our ultimate “Where’s one?” entry demystifies once and for all the enigmatic, all-chordal instrumental interlude that occurs 5:34 into “Stairway to Heaven,” just before Page’s iconic guitar solo. It’s not the chords that are baffling—in fact, they’re quite simple. But what has for decades eluded listeners and players alike is the section’s brilliant rhythmic strategy.

The deception begins two bars before the interlude at 5:28 with the Am-G/B figure shown in Ex. 1. Here, Page arpeggiates each shape before he modulates to a D chord by preceding the downbeat of bar 2 with a double sixteenth-note pickup on the “and” of beat four. This leads us to believe that Page repeats the same rhythmic pickup and downbeat with Dsus2, D, and Dsus4 chords upon entering the next measure, which marks the beginning of the section in question. If this was the case, the repetition of the same chords would follow suit, and the entire interlude would be notated as shown in Ex. 2. This feels “right” (and it’s how I’ve always heard it), but requires some very awkward metric notation in order to sync up with the last two bars of Bonzo’s drumming leading into Page’s solo. Check it out and you’ll find no less than seven shifting time signatures--4/4 to 3/4 to 4/4 to 5/4 to 4/4 to 7/8 to 4/4—over the course of the interlude. Theoretically, it all “works,” but it’s all dead wrong.

But now, thanks to Alfred Music Publishing’s Platinum Album Editions series of Led Zeppelin songbooks, we can all finally get it right, and what’s really going on here is bound to blow many a mind. (It did mine in!) You see, it seems that the pickup into bar 2 of Ex. 1 was always meant to completely throw us off. Here’s what actually happens: Upon hitting that third D chord (doubled with an electric 12-string playing Dsus2), Page and company slightly increase the tempo and displace the same rhythmic pattern to the downbeat of the following measure to commence the interlude. Yes, that’s right--the majestic two-sixteenths-plus-dotted-quarter-note Dsus2-D-Dsus4 motif actually starts on beat one. This turns everything we thought was an upbeat into a downbeat, and vice-versa, and reveals that the entire interlude can be counted as eight bars of 4/4. Yoiks!

Ex. 3 lays out this revelation in all its 4/4 glory. It may take some time before you get used to hearing and playing it the right way, but once you get it, you’ll grok its total genius and want to spread the truth to anyone willing to listen. Rock on!

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