Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones Once Called ‘Stairway to Heaven’ a Led Zeppelin “Sampler”

You can’t imagine Led Zeppelin’s legendary music career without “Stairway to Heaven.” It never landed on the Billboard charts, Robert Plant can’t stand singing it, and he once donated to a radio station that promised never to play “Stairway” again. John Paul Jones stands on the other end of the “Stairway to Heaven” spectrum from Plant, and he once said it was a “Led Zeppelin sampler” in the best possible way.

John Paul Jones performs with Led Zeppelin in 1975. "Stairway to Heaven" was a Led Zeppelin "sampler" -- in the best possible way -- to bassist and keyboard player John Paul Jones.
John Paul Jones performs with Led Zeppelin in 1975 | Michael Putland/Getty Images

“Stairway to Heaven” showcases Led Zeppelin at its finest

Zeppelin recorded scores of hit songs during its career, but “Stairway to Heaven” might be the one that showcases each member’s distinct talents.

Jones displayed his musical skills by playing five instruments on the track: Bass, keyboard, and three flutes. Plant’s vocals range from quietly contemplative to soaring aggression. Drummer John Bonham channeled his anger for the song, and Jimmy Page provided one of the great guitar solos of all time.

Jones once called “Stairway to Heaven” a “Led Zeppelin sampler,” basing his opinion on the song structure more than the musicianship.

“Stairway to Heaven” is a “Led Zeppelin sampler,” according to John Paul Jones

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“Stairway to Heaven” didn’t enter the Billboard hot 100 because the band refused to trim it to single length. Still, two songs from Led Zeppelin IV, “Rock and Roll” and “Black Dog,” reached No. 47 and No. 15, per Billboard. 

Page’s shimmering guitar intro and soaring solo for the finale bookend the song, and they’re probably the most recognizable parts. But John Paul Jones said the song was a Led Zeppelin sampler, in a good way, from start to finish.,

“It’s just kind of a Led Zeppelin sampler, isn’t it?” Jones said during a 2003 TV interview, per Far Out magazine. “It has everything we do in it somewhere. It starts off quietly with the acoustic instruments and then goes into a mellow-ish, almost jazzy vibe, with keyboard. And then the rock and roll starts, with solos.”

As Jones notes, “Stairway to Heaven” is divided into sections. It starts quietly with Page’s guitar accompanied by flutes. Bonham’s drums don’t come in until the song is more than halfway through, signaling the switch to what Jones calls the jazzy part, and then Page’s solo takes over for the final two minutes. If we’re putting it in Jones’ terms, it’s about as good of a Led Zeppelin sampler as you’ll find.

Fans love the song, even if Robert Plant doesn’t

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The first time Led Zeppelin included Plant’s lyrics in an album came on IV with the words to “Stairway to Heaven.” Plant refused to sing the song for years after Led Zeppelin broke up because he no longer identified with the lyrics. He thought “Kashmir” was the definitive Led Zeppelin song, not “Stairway to Heaven.”

Plant can degrade the song all he likes, but it’s clear fans have a different opinion. With the eight-minute epic as the as the most recognizable song on the album, The Recording Industry Association of America gave IV diamond record status. It has gone platinum 24 times, meaning it has sold 24 million copies.

And on Spotify, the song is by far Zeppelin’s most popular song with more than 726,000,000 streams. 

Plant shrugged off the song years ago. John Paul Jones called “Stairway to Heaven” a Led Zeppelin sampler of everything the band did well. It’s clear that the fans side with Jones.

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