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“Stairway to Heaven” is a song by the English rock band Led Zeppelin, released in late 1971. It was composed by guitarist Jimmy Page and vocalist Robert Plant for the band’s untitled fourth studio album (often called Led Zeppelin IV). It is often referred to as one of the greatest rock songs of all time.
The song has three sections, each one progressively increasing in tempo and volume. The song begins in a slow tempo with acoustic instruments (guitar and recorders) before introducing electric instruments. The final section is an uptempo hard rock arrangement highlighted by Page’s intricate guitar solo accompanying Plant’s vocals that end with the plaintive a cappella line: “And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.”
“Stairway to Heaven” was voted number three in 2000 by VH1 on its list of the 100 Greatest Rock Songs, and was placed at number 31 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It was the most requested song on FM radio stations in the United States in the 1970s, despite never having been commercially released as a single there. In November 2007, through download sales promoting Led Zeppelin’s Mothership release, “Stairway to Heaven” hit number 37 on the UK Singles Chart.
The recording of “Stairway to Heaven” commenced in December 1970 at Island Records’ new Basing Street Studios in London. The song was completed by the addition of lyrics by Plant during the sessions for Led Zeppelin IV at Headley Grange, Hampshire, in 1971. Page then returned to Island Studios to record his guitar solo.
The song originated in 1970 when Jimmy Page and Robert Plant were spending time at Bron-Yr-Aur, a remote cottage in Wales, following Led Zeppelin’s fifth American concert tour. According to Page, he wrote the music “over a long period, the first part coming at Bron-Yr-Aur one night”. Page always kept a cassette recorder around, and the idea for “Stairway” came together from bits of taped music:
The first attempts at lyrics, written by Robert Plant next to an evening log fire at Headley Grange, were partly spontaneously improvised and Page claimed, “a huge percentage of the lyrics were written there and then”. Jimmy Page was strumming the chords and Robert Plant had a pencil and paper. The complete studio recording was released on Led Zeppelin IV in November 1971. The band’s record label, Atlantic Records was keen to issue this track as a single, but the band’s manager Peter Grant refused requests to do so in both 1972 and 1973. This led many people to buy the fourth album as if it were the single. In the US, Atlantic issued “Stairway to Heaven” as a 7″ promotional single in 1972.
“Stairway to Heaven” is described as progressive rock, folk rock and hard rock. The song consists of several distinct sections, beginning with a quiet introduction on a finger-picked six-string guitar and four recorders in a Renaissance music style (ending at 2:15) and gradually moving into a slow electric middle section (2:16–5:33), then a long guitar solo (5:34–6:44), before the faster hard rock final section (6:45 to 7:45), ending with a short vocals-only epilogue. Plant sings the opening, middle and epilogue sections in his mid vocal range, but sings the hard rock section in his higher range which borders on falsetto.
Written in the key of A minor, the song opens with an arpeggiated, finger-picked guitar chord progression with a chromatic descending bassline A-G♯-G-F♯-F. John Paul Jones contributed overdubbed wooden bass recorders in the opening section (he used a Mellotron and, later, a Yamaha CP70B Grand Piano and Yamaha GX1 to synthesise this arrangement in live performances) and a Hohner Electra-Piano electric piano in the middle section.
The sections build with more guitar layers, each complementary to the intro, with the drums entering at 4:18. The extended Jimmy Page guitar solo in the song’s final section was played for the recording on a 1959 Fender Telecaster given to him by Jeff Beck (an instrument he used extensively with the Yardbirds) plugged into a Supro amplifier, although in an interview he gave to Guitar World magazine, Page also claimed, “It could have been a Marshall, but I can’t remember”. Three different improvised solos were recorded, with Page agonising about which to keep. Page later revealed, “I did have the first phrase worked out, and then there was the link phrase. I did check them out beforehand before the tape ran.” The other guitar parts were played using a Harmony Sovereign H1260 acoustic guitar and a Fender Electric XII guitar (a 12-string guitar that was plugged directly to the soundboard); these can be heard on the left and right recording channels respectively. For live versions, Page switched to a Heritage Cherry Gibson EDS-1275 6/12 Doubleneck guitar. The final progression is a i-VII-VI (natural minor) progression (Am-G-F), a mainstay of rock music.
Another interesting aspect of the song is the timing of the lead-up to the famous guitar solo. While staying in 4/4 throughout this section, most of the accents shift to the eighth notes. This makes the rhythm figure challenging for some musicians, but adds a feeling of anticipation to the approaching guitar solo.
Jimmy Page has likened the song to a sonic orgasm.