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Axing in Air

Rocking out the air guitar.

5:04 PM, Jul 11, 2011 • By SEAN HIGGINS
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The rocker was midway through a virtuoso guitar solo on the stage of the 9:30 Club in downtown DC when he tried a back-flip. Instead of landing on his feet he landed on his head, smacking it against the stage so hard the vibrations could be felt in the front rows.

Axing in Air

Like a true showbiz trooper, he shrugged it off immediately and went right back to his performance. Not a single note of the guitar solo was missed. Then again, he couldn’t miss a note. He wasn’t actually playing; he was competing in the regional U.S. Air Guitar Championships.

An air guitar competition may sound like a joke, but it was real enough to draw a boisterous crowd of several hundred people to Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club last month, usually a venue for punk and alternative rock bands. A total of 14 contestants pretend-shredded their invisible axes to metal and classic rock tunes for the right to represent D.C. in the national finals in Chicago this month and a chance to represent the United States at the annual international competition in Finland later this year.

Why Finland of all places? Because they thought of it first. As recounted in Alexandria Lipsitz’s highly entertaining 2006 documentary Air Guitar Nation, in 1996 some Finnish heavy metal promoters had an air contest as a joke only to discover a huge, enthusiastic audience for this brand of faux-rock.

At the Saturday championships it wasn’t hard to see why. Air guitaring is about as populist as entertainment gets. Rock and roll democratized music by boiling it down to three chords and a beat. Punk rock democratized it further by asserting that attitude and energy were as important, maybe even more important, than musical talent. Air guitaring pushes the envelope further still by saying that musical talent isn’t even necessary to be a star on stage. Heck, it might even be an impediment.

“There are plenty of great guitarists who cannot entertain,” explained Tommy Fretless, the winner of the D.C. championship. He argues that hitting every note perfectly doesn’t mean much if you basically have to loiter on stage to do it.

Fretless’s high energy performance involved jumps, splits, and utterly shameless playing to a raucous audience that responded in kind.

"I brought it to them tonight," Fretless said. "There is no pretending there."

Each of the 13 other competitors also brought high energy, goofy costumes, wacky names (G. Tso Money, Shreddie Boop, Mitt Umlaut, and Airgasm were favorites) and a well honed sense of showbiz shtick to the stage.

Merely miming the guitar chords was not enough to win. Several jumped from the amps to the stage or the audience. Numerous bloody knees were in evidence by the end of Saturday’s show as performers didn’t let the roughness of 9:30’s stage stop them from doing their James Brown moves. One fellow wore kneepads but wore them below his knees, an apparent bid to show just how rock and roll he was through self-abuse.

Competitors were judged on three categories: technical skill (that is, how convincingly they mime the act of guitar playing), stage presence, and “airness.” The latter quality is basically indefinable. “It is like pornography. You know it when you see it,” explained Bjorn Turoque, former U.S. world champion and master of ceremonies for the event.

The competition went in two rounds. First, the competitors got one minute to perform to a song of their choosing. That might not seem long, but, as Turoque explained, “It can seem like an eternity if they suck.”

In that one minute, the performer must pull out all of the stops to make an impression on the audience and the panel of three judges. The top competitors then go for a second round where they must all perform to a new song announced on the spot.

The competition was quite intense. One competitor froze at the end of his performance. “He missed a note and it threw him off,” Turoque said. Another one dived right into the audience.

The fans were passionate. “His fingers aren’t even touching the strings!” shouted the woman next to me at one point.

No one of the performers I talked to claimed more than a rudimentary knowledge of actually playing music. But for a few moments they could escape their daily lives and live out their dreams of being a rock star.

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