The bridge section in Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin is maybe the most mis-played section in classic rock history. Through the evidence displayed on YouTube's myriad covers of Jimmy Page's masterpiece, to my anecdotal experiences, I can confidently say that this rhythm has confused many a musician. I can remember trying to teach it as a beginning instructor... it was not pretty.
In this video, we explore the difference between a downbeat and an upbeat, and how we sometimes can get confused between the two of them. Then we see how shifting our downbeat in Stairway results in the entire bridge section being played in 4/4.
Show this video to your drummer!
Please note, this transcription was computer generated and has not been checked for errors. However, I do hope you find it helpful. Be sure to check out The Ultimate Modal Poster!
What if I told you that most musicians have no idea how to play Stairway to Heaven then millions of fans across the planet fail and playing what is seemingly the most simple part of the song that even the most experienced musicians can't see the simple rhythmic truth hidden in plain view deluding themselves into believing it must be felt and not understood but you have a choice you take the blue pill the story ends you wake up in your bed and believe leave you can continue to just feel your way through this section.
You take the red pill you stay in Wonderland and I show you how confusing for for can really be for better for worse. I've spent about 20 years around guitar players and most of them have no problem playing this riff now significantly less of them can play the guitar solo.
But almost none of them are playing this part correctly.
This might be one of the simplest sounding parts of the entire song but a closer look will reveal why most musicians just choose to fudge this instead of actually figure it out. Now before I explain why and how the section is so often played incorrectly. I need to make sure you understand the difference between a downbeat and upbeat and how we might be able to get confused between the two of those a downbeat is just what you tap your foot to if you tap your foot to this drum beat you'll be tapping on the downbeat.
One two three, four one three the upbeat is what occurs in between the down, please it's with the high hat is playing.
And a bouncy syncopated field the hi-hat is totally dependent on the fact that it's surrounded by this low booming bass and a back beat on the snare without those other drums. My hi-hat section could easily be thought of as a downbeat one, two, three, four, one two, three, and this is how composers can trick us. I can play you something that might sound like for steady downbeats something you can tap your foot and count along too, but those aren't downbeat. Here in reality. Those chords are the upbeats to a song that I wrote about syncopated upbeats. You really have no way to know that though because you don't hear the drum beat, but all I have to do to flip your perception and make you hear it as an upbeat is to insert a Kick Drum in between every one of those notes add in a snare BackBeat and maybe some study eighth notes on top.
So the point here is that without context your brain is free to feel a downbeat as an upbeat and vice versa. And that's the problem with Stairway to Heaven the part right before the solo starts with these three strums.
And since there's no drum Groove here to dictate. What is our downbeat and our upbeat most of us here are downbeat as occurring on this strum right here.
That would mean that our downbeat syncs up with this from here and this drum as well. And also the other strums in the next measure the problem is if you try counting to four and tapping your foot with that as your downbeat, you're going to have a bad time take a listen as I count to a steady for while treating that Strom is my down deep.
You can hear my counting in my downbeat goes out of phase with the rest of the band and this creates a lot of confusion for musicians trying to perform this with other musicians. Don't take my word for it though. Just searching on YouTube for the most popular covers of the song and see how many variations there are of this section of people trying to work this out one way or the other and I don't necessarily blame people for getting this part wrong. It's really subtly and surprisingly confusing now, we could look at all of this as a grouping of odd time signatures and notating. Would look something like this at least now our pulses match with the song but is this really the way that it was intended to be written? If you bring this up to most musicians, you might get responses like hey, it was the 70s man. They would just feel and it but I really don't feel like that's giving the band enough credit. I think they knew exactly what they were doing and they also weren't composing math Rock. Yes. This could be odd time signatures Led Zeppelin did write an odd times in Kashmir. We have a 4-3 Polly meter in the song the ocean. We have some seven eight meter just to name a few but there's a very elegant and simple way of looking at this if we can just shift our perspective a bit. It what you know, you can't explain but you feel it.
You felt it your entire life that there's something wrong with Stairway to Heaven. You don't know what it is. But it's there like a splinter in your mind.
Do you know what I'm talking about?
The part right before the guitar solo. Do you want to know how it's played?
We can stay in time with the ban and count to study for just by placing our downbeat on this strum right here treating the entire grouping as one e and instead of and a 1 now. This is exactly what's performed on the actual recording for Beats after my D major We Begin this strumming pattern, but this is also exactly where most bands get it wrong instead of waiting for full beats. Most bands will just wait three and a half Beats. And begin the strumming pattern causing this drum to end up on a 1D, but if we start the beat right here instead, everything makes perfect sense and is easy to count if you're comfortable with syncopation.
Now I will admit that at first thinking of it and feeling it this way might be a little awkward kind of like crossing your arms on the wrong direction.
But if you can learn to think of it this way, it's far more comfortable than counting an odd time signature and it's far more accurate than just feeling your way through it. The takeaway Seer are that sometimes simple things can be very complex.
If you're looking at it with the wrong perspective a lot of times a piece of music or a section or a song becomes way easier to play once you learn to Group it or think about it in the right way.
Also, I think this highlights a really practical use of Music Theory me personally. I had always struggled with the song and always just kind of BS to my way through it teaching it became a giant pain and my own failure to understand and figure out this part made me dive deeper into it. And once I did that deep dive in I kind of felt like Jimmy Page played a trick on all of us. I know I'm not the first one to gripe about the section and I'm definitely not the first one to write it in for four, but I'm hoping that this video makes it a little bit easier for some band somewhere to perform this correctly on stage and avoid the petty scorn and Judgment of a music nerd like myself. So if you like this video you can thank all of my patreon subscribers for making it possible. Thanks for watching.
That's all I want.