Shame that Tune – Songs NOT to play at the Guitar Store

guitar store guitar playingJust as every adult knows that it is inappropriate for one to clean one’s ears at a fancy dinner; every self-respecting guitarist knows there are certain disgusting activities which have for many years been strictly verboten in music stores:

  • Don’t try to play something you don’t know.
  • Don’t show the salesman how good your Pete Townshend imitation is.
  • Never, under any circumstances, play “Stairway to Heaven,” “Smoke on the Water,” “Layla” or “Eruption.”

Merely strumming a few chords of those songs—and a handful of other classics from the Sixties and Seventies—will elicit the ill will and disdain of every employee and customer of your favorite guitar emporium.

But what are the “Stairways” of today? What are the more recent additions to the forbidden list, the new tunes that make salespeople cringe, floor managers retch and cashiers run amok?

We took a quick survey of stores in some of our favorite guitar cities around the country and came up with an easy consensus: Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Come As You Are,” and Green Day’s “Longview.”

“They’re real simple to learn and they’re popular with the younger kids,” explains Kevin, a salesman at the Guitar Center outlet in Roseville, Michigan, a Detroit Suburb. “It’s like in the Seventies, when one of the first songs you’d learn would be “Smoke on the Water.” These have kind of replaced it.”

You can get away with playing this stuff, of course, few music stores really want to risk losing a customer just because they’re tired of hearing a particular grouping of three or four chords. But keep in mind that when it comes to wheeling and dealing for the lowest price, it might be best to remain in the salesperson’s good graces. Playing the wrong song might just cost you that incredible bargain.

How do most music stores deal with this terrible problem? Brian, the guitar guru at Manny’s Music in Manhattan, says “Sandman,” “Teen Spirit” and any “Greed Day” are most frequently butchered in the store, along with Stone Temple Pilots, “Vaseline” and Eric Johnson’s “Cliff Dover.”

We don’t mess around here; we tell ‘em ‘You can’t play that” Brian says. “We have fun with it. Sometimes they get pissed off. We try to it at a happy medium so we don’t lose a customer.” Brian says it’s been years since he actually heard “Stairway” in the store.

guitar playingJason of Drum City Guitar land in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, hears a lot of Nirvana, particularly “Teen Spirit.” “But just because they know how to play the chords doesn’t mean they know hot to play at the right tempo” he notes. That’s not always a bad thing, however. “The quicker they can rush through it, the better,” he says. Fortunately, drumcityguitarland—which does a high volume of guitar sales—is busy most of the day. “I have the luxury of being too busy to pay attention to every guitar riff being played,” Jason says.

Kevin of Guitar Center also considers bad playing the bane of his existence. “Usually, we’ll just kind of look at each other and cringe—the employees, that is—especially when somebody plays those songs wrong, ‘cause they’re real easy,” he says of the tepid renditions of “Enter Sandman” and “Teen Spirit” he hears ad nauseam. His best weapon to fend off the would-be Hammetts and Cobains is a joke, perhaps a simple comment like “Sorry, this is a non-Metallica section.”

Kevin also notes that he occasionally hears “Smoke on the Water,” but that most of his customers seem to be “pretty aware” that with this they’re traveling on well-worn ground.

Andy, of Bogner Sound and Music in Flint, Michigan, claims to have been one of the first to post a “No Stairway to Heaven’ “ sign, which he kept on the front counter of his store several years before Wayne’s World came out and made the “No Stairway” law as much of a piece of rock culture as Spinal Tap’s boast, “But these go to 11.” Now, Andy says, it’s a steady diet of “Sandman” and “Teen Spirit,” with the occasional bad rendition of Nirvana’s “In Bloom.”

We humiliate them as much as we can,” Andy says of offending customers. “Generally someone will walk over or we’ll stand around in a semi-circle until they stop, and we basically tell ‘em it’s time to get a life. Peer pressure being what it is, they normally chill out pretty quick.” By the way, Andy’s sign was stolen a few years ago, after Wayne’s World hit. “It was probably one of my competitors,” he growls.

Mike McCort and his staff at McCort’s Music in Berkley, Michigan, have noticed a pattern to their customers’ painfully predictable performances: “If their hair is below the ears, it’s ‘Enter Sandman.’ If it’s above the ears, it’s alternative,” he says. McCourt has also noticed the rise of a new generation of unpleasant store songs, courtesy of the ska-core sect: Sublime’s “What I Got,” Sugar Ray’s “Fly” and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ “The Impression That I Get” prominent among them. “It’s all that Top-10 radio stuff now,” McCourt says.

guitar centerAt Bizarre Guitar in the hard rock capitol of Phoenix, owner Bob Turner says of “Enter Sandman” and “Teen Spirit,” “I cut the strings as soon as they start playing them.” Turner also cringes when women walk into the store; ask to see a blue guitar and start strumming Jewel songs. “I’d rather see that guy in Scream holding a knife than see a girl asking for a blue guitar,” Turner says.

The St.Charles Guitar Exchange [Update: no longer in business] boasts of such all-star customers as Van Halen, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, the Who, ZZ Top and Pearl Jam—and plenty of lesser-known customers who want to play like them. According to their sales rep, “Crazy Train” is a big favorite, as is anything from Metallica albums. We don’t get ‘Stairway’ much, but enough to make me sick. We’ve got Ibanez seven string guitars, so you can always count on them trying to play a Korn song or two. Everybody does the famous ‘Smoke on the Water’ out of tune. And then there’s the “tuning song.” Nobody knows how to do it, but everybody just sits there and tunes for 10 minutes — how to tune your guitar while on crack cocaine. (update: Guitar exchange is no longer in biz- ref – Sorry about the grammar guys, we’re an open source site. You are welcome to submit an article if you so desire.


  1. Not only the clerks and cashiers cringe when they hear cliches played poorly, the customers do to.

    However, there is a name for people like Kevin, Andy and the others mentioned in the article, and that name is “A$$HOLE.” Rest assured, that if I’m a customer in your store, and I see a clerk “humiliating someone as much as possible” for the sin of playing poorly, they not only lost the sale from the poor player, they lost mine as well. I’ll ask to speak to the person in charge, and make sure they know it, too.

    Being polite doesn’t cost anything, even if you happen to have heard “Teen Spirit” played poorly 20 times today.

  2. This creates quite a dilema for us newbies. We are told to go to the guitar shop and play several guitars to find what feels good to us. But when we do we get shit on by the ‘pros’ that work there.

    How about this, don’t sell anything that costs under $1000 and we won’t bother you anymore. Nice way to spread the joy of music to those of us who never intended to be the next Eric Clapton, or maybe the one who could have been.

  3. These counter dudes mentioned in the article are the typical ignorant, arrogant,greasy little prickheads that work in any music store USA but especially Guitar Centers and here they are trying to humiliate a customer that’s just learning to play when they can’t even tie their own shoes. Just ask them a simple question like how many strings would I need to buy to restring a six string guitar?
    First they will start to turn red, then sweat will break out on their forehead, they will start fidgeting and then give you a look like a little kid that’s just starting to take a dump in their pants and say something like “well as long as it’s not a nylon string bass guitar and your not using a guitar strap then you would need to buy four unless it’s a twelve string but then you would have three guitars….

  4. These counter dudes mentioned in the article are the same ignorant, arrogant, greasy retards that work in any music store USA but especially Guitar Centers and here they are trying to humiliate a customer that’s just learning to play when they can’t even tie their own shoes. Just ask them a simple question like how many strings do I need to buy to restring a six string guitar? First they will turn red, break out in a sweat, start fidgeting and then give you a look like a little kid that’s just starting to take a dump in his pants then say something like “well as long as it’s not a nylon string bass and you’re not using a guitar strap then you will need to buy four unless it’s a twelve string but then you would have three guitars…..

  5. Also, don’t forget about “Sweet Child O’ Mine”. Every time someone grabs a Les Paul model in a guitar store, they play this song too… as if the model was invented by that song. I hate it!

  6. Wwwwwooooooowwwww you stupid people really have no sence of what humor is do you. The whole bunch of you are freakin retards (I feel bad comparing them to you actually). If you don’t like the way your being treated SPEND YOUR MONEY ELSEWHERE. god you people just don’t get it do you they work in the MUSIC industry. Find me one person in the music industry who has even one bit of respect for any one else. HELL find me one person in retail. I worked retail for along time and have come to hate all of you. Both the CUSTOMER and ASSOCIATES. SO S T F U ok get over your self your not that important to anyone. If you all died today i would piss on your grave tomorrow. AND IF YOU DON’T LIKE GUITAR CENTER SO MUCH THEN STAY THE FUCK OUT OF THERE YOU NOOB PIECE OF SHIT.

  7. yeah, and it’s not like the guys in the store all know what they are doing when it comes to guitar set ups . . . you know why they sell entry level cars and guitars; because someday, that person just may be somebody and you’ll still be a d ck ringing a register in a music store or writing some stupid a$$ article because you can’t really write; you just comment!!!

  8. I play parts of the “forbidden songs” to annoy oversensitive people who complain about such silly issues.

  9. As someone who works in music retail OUTSIDE the US, (Oz to be exact) That type of attitude is not as prevalent. Yes it happens, but its much more low key.

    As I work in an entry level-intermediate type shop (& music school) NO songs are banned as we live in a HIGH migrant area and we cater to lots of different nationalities/cultures, so we stock a lot of exotic instruments as well.

    My boss is a Christian also, so NO aspersions are cast on what people play in the shop to try out a guitar/bass/piano etc. We CAN’T afford to lose customers, so we HAVE to treat them like idiots, (cos many are clueless about the basics of instrument and gear usage) If we acted like you typical arrogant Americans, we’d be OUT of business!

    So the rule is: NO songs forbidden, no telling they are playing it wrong, the customer is always right!
    The LAST thing we want to do is DISCOURAGE new players, because we pissed on their playing and made them feel bad and/or self conscious!

    TAKE a leaf out of OUR book!

  10. Noobs that can’t play, hell that’s almost as bad as hack writers who must rely on spell check. I’m off to GC to give a concert, thinking about opening with stare weigh.

  11. @ Zonker: GLAD you don’t work in music retail!

    I made a $350 sale today of various goods to a Pastor from Samoa, cos I treated him and his religious position with RESPECT! (Even though I disagree with it!) THAT made me sell him more!

    No, it’s not in any one’s interest to bite the hand that feeds.

    ‘Hear my words, take heed’ – God of Thunder:KISS.

  12. Oh sh- i’m about to go to a guitar store to try out some 7 – strings, i’ve got no clue what to play. :O

  13. Here’s some good questions you can ask the salesperson at GC when you test drive a guitar and play forbidden songs ie: “Stairway To Heaven”, “Smoke On The water”, or “Layla” whilst telling you those songs aren’t allowed in the store before they boot you out by the seat of your pants:

    If Jimmy Page walked into your store, pulled down a Gibson Les Paul from the wall and played “Stairway To Heaven”, would you tell him he is not allowed to play that song and kick him out of the store?

    If Ritchie Blackmore walked into your store, pulled down a Fender Stratocaster and played “Smoke On The Water”, would you tell him he is not allowed to play that song and kicked him out of the Store?

    If Eric Clapton walked into your store, pulled down a GIbson SG from the wall and played “Layla”, would you tell him he is not allowed to play that song and kicked him out of the store too?

    Because if you do GC idiot then YOU are a disgraceful asshole.

    It would be interesting to hear his answers to those questions?

  14. Revisiting this article.. Many of these stores are now closed (mannys, bogners, exchange music). Perhaps not the best business strategy to gatekeep new musicians. Not really sure why these other places are still open. If you cant take joy in a new musician learning a song you are in the wrong business…. and proabably an ahole

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