How ‘November Rain’ Became One Of Rock’s Greatest Ballads

From acoustic demo to an epic promo video, the history of ‘November Rain’ traces the creation of one of rock’s greatest ballads.

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Guns N Roses
Photo: Michael Putland/Getty Images

You think “November Rain,” you think: a tiny white chapel, a hugely expensive video, a wailing guitar solo at the edge of a cliff. You think: impassioned vocals, one of the longest songs to hit the charts – and the most ambitious moment in Guns N’ Roses’ career. In short, you think: arguably the best rock ballad in history.

Though it took until September 1991 for the song to be released, on Use Your Illusion I, “November Rain” had by that point been in Axl Rose’s arsenal for almost a decade. Former Rose bandmate and LA Guns guitarist Tracii Guns has recalled that Axl began working on the song in 1983, while the recent super deluxe and Locked N’ Loaded editions of Appetite For Destruction have revealed that it was once considered for release on GNR’s incendiary debut album.

The November Rain video

Adding to its grandeur, “November Rain” received a video that cranked the Epic dial up to 11. Seeming more like a short movie than it did a music promo, the video was conceived as the middle part of a trilogy bookended by the videos for “Don’t Cry” and “Estranged.” Starring supermodel and Axl’s then-girlfriend, Stephanie Seymour, it followed on from where “Don’t Cry” left off: Seymour had saved Axl from suicide, and now the two were getting married.

Taking in the couple’s doomed wedding (with Slash’s guitar solo performed outside a church in the New Mexico desert), the band hanging at the Rainbow Bar And Grill on LA’s Sunset Strip, and a live performance of the song at The Ritz in New York, the video took for its inspiration a short story, “Without You,” written by journalist and author of the short-story collection The Language Of Fear, Del James.

With a budget totaling around $1 million, the “November Rain” video ranks among the most expensive music promos ever made. While it might not have had the same career-boosting impact of the “Welcome To The Jungle” video, at the time of its release, “November Rain” quickly became MTV’s most-requested video of all time – and, on 14 July, officially hit one billion views on YouTube. An integral part of the song’s history, the video has helped the song not just become one of Guns N’ Roses’ definitive moments, but arguably the greatest rock ballad in history.

Guns N' Roses - November Rain

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The November Rain piano demo

Captured at the 1986 Sound City sessions, during which the band worked on material considered for Appetite For Destruction, a 10-minute “November Rain” piano demo sees Axl laying down the basic framework of the song. Built on just piano and vocals, the demo is entirely recognizable as the “November Rain” that the world would come to know, from the stately piano intro to the gear-shifting outro – just without the strings or Slash’s coruscating guitar solo. The backing vocals are, however, present and correct, along with Axl’s fully committed lead, which edges towards the final version – arguably the most emotive singing of his entire career.

Guns N' Roses - November Rain (Audio / Piano Version / 1986 Sound City Session)

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The November Rain acoustic demo

“November Rain” was also tried out as a far shorter acoustic guitar demo, clocking in at five minutes. Apparently, tentative versions of this incarnation were performed at early GNR gigs. The 1986 Sound City demo version of this arrangement is driven by fingerpicked guitar and gentle percussion, while Axl finds his way around the song, sometimes repeating the “I just keep on walking” refrain. This version finds a gentle conclusion, but, comparing the two, it’s clear that “November Rain” was built for piano.

November Rain (Acoustic Version / 1986 Sound City Session)

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The Use Your Illusion I version

After five more years and painstaking recording sessions, “November Rain” finally saw the light of day on September 17, 1991, when it featured as the centerpiece to Use Your Illusion I. On February 18, 1992, “November Rain” was released as the album’s third and final single. It subsequently reached No.3 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and hit No.4 in the UK, making it the band’s highest-charting single since “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” It was also the longest song in history to reach the top 10 in the US and would sit in the Australian Top 10 for 22 weeks.

Clocking in at 8.58, the final version of “November Rain” took much the same shape as the earlier 1986 piano demo. But with the band’s parts worked to completion and a full string arrangement – orchestrated by Axl himself – bolstering the song, “November Rain” was finally ready. Axl’s impassioned delivery stands among the finest of his career, while the breakdown, which begins at 6.48 and quickly soars with Slash’s iconic solo at the 7.09 mark, elevated the song to truly epic proportions.

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  1. Matt Acord

    June 23, 2021 at 7:12 am

    I’m not sure your correct about it being the longest song in history to crack the Billboard top 100. Isn’t Freebird slightly longer? It reached 38 on Billboard.

    • Todd Burns

      August 5, 2021 at 6:51 pm

      Thanks for writing in, Matt! You’re right that there have been longer songs in the Billboard Top 100. According to Wikipedia, though, “November Rain” still holds the record for longest song to hit the top 10. We’ve updated the article to reflect this!

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