The golden rule that Jimmy Page was determined to break on Stairway To Heaven

Guitarist Jimmy Page of English rock group Led Zeppelin plays a Gibson Les Paul guitar live on stage at the Empire Pool, Wembley, London, 23rd November 1971
(Image credit: Michael Putland/Getty Images)

Whilst some of the songs from Led Zeppelin’s classic fourth album came in frantic, capture-the-lightning bursts of creativity, the record’s most famous song was long-laboured over by Jimmy Page. 

Even at Bron-yr-Aur, the Welsh cottage where Page and Robert Plant worked on material ahead of recording sessions proper, the music for Stairway To Heaven was already well underway. Page had spent months slowly navigating his way through its minor chord splendour in his home studio in Pangbourne, working out its differing sections and laying down six and 12-string guitar parts on his eight-track. 

His vision for IV’s epic centrepiece was clear. “I wanted to try this whole idea musically,” Page told Classic Rock’s Barney Hoskyns, “this build towards a climax with John Bonham coming in at a later point… to give it that extra kick.” 

There was also another factor behind Page’s thinking for the song. As young session players in 60s London, Page and bandmate John Paul Jones had constantly been told that a track should never, under any circumstances, speed up. Well, Page thought to himself, why not? Here he had a song that felt like many musical pieces wrapped into one, and the idea it should be reverent to the old rules felt like an anathema. “Both Jimmy and I were quite aware of the way a track should unfold and the various levels it should go through,” agreed Jones. Still, Page stuck to his guns and the result was a piece of music which didn't just rip up the rulebook, but provided an intellectual template for what rock music could become as long as you were willing to challenge yourself.

Shortly after, the music for Stairway To Heaven found its final form and all that was left was for Robert Plant to finish the lyric. After a period of false starts, Plant eventually got the words down on the spot in front of his bandmates. “It was done very quickly,” he recalled. “It was a very fluid, unnaturally easy track.” 

Plant, of course, has never been the song’s biggest fan but in Stairway To Heaven, Led Zeppelin crafted a track that became bigger than them. Like it or not, something timeless had been laid down.

Niall Doherty

Niall Doherty is a writer and editor whose work can be found in Classic Rock, The Guardian, Music Week, FourFourTwo, on Apple Music and more. Formerly the Deputy Editor of Q magazine, he co-runs the music Substack letter The New Cue with fellow former Q colleagues Ted Kessler and Chris Catchpole. He is also Reviews Editor at Record Collector. Over the years, he's interviewed some of the world's biggest stars, including Elton John, Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys, Muse, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Depeche Mode, Robert Plant and more. Radiohead was only for eight minutes but he still counts it.