The Air Guitar

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Melissa Golden / AP

Eric Melin, stage name Mean Malin, of Lawrence, Kans., competes in the 2009 U.S. Air Guitar Championships in Washington

When the competitors in the 2010 U.S. Air Guitar Championships hit the stage at New York City's Irving Plaza on July 22, an audience of roughly 1,000 rabid fans will be treated to the most absurd display of Pete Townshend windmills, Keith Richards posturing and Iggy Pop stage diving they're ever likely to see. And whom do we have to thank for this brand of bizarrely awesome escapism? Finland, of course.

But God bless the Finns and their dogged attempts to figure out ridiculous ways to pass the time. Finland is home of the World Sauna Championships, the Wife Carrying World Championships, and the Cell Phone Throwing Championships. The World Air Guitar Championships, started in 1995 in the city of Oulu, are in line with Finland's long-standing tradition of oddball competitions. The premise is simple. Perform 60 seconds of your favorite epic rock-guitar jam as if you were playing an actual guitar, which, of course, you are not. Essentially, do what most of us do in the privacy of our own home when Thin Lizzy or Led Zeppelin come on, but do it on a stage in front of a club full of people. As can be expected, a rock-star-worthy helping of booze generally plays a very important role. Also, a healthy dose of exhibitionism and imagination doesn't hurt. "Everybody wants to be a rock star," says Cedric Devitt, co-commissioner of U.S. Air Guitar. "It's a form of escapism, a way to step out of your world."

Experts like Dan Crane — a veteran competitor and "Master of Airemonies" at this year's U.S. championships — often trace the art's origin back to one of the original, and real, rock-guitar gods: Jimi Hendrix. As a child, Hendrix couldn't afford a real ax, so he honed his technique on a broom. Devitt, on the other hand, cites the instrumentless practicing techniques of professional violinists as a potential influence, and it would be just plain rude not to pay respect where respect is due: so thank you, Bill and Ted, and thank you, Beavis and Butthead. There are also tales of competitions in high school gymnasiums and cafeterias (like hip-hop battles for geeky suburbanites) in the U.S. in the 1970s and organized events in Sweden in the early 1980s, but it wasn't until the Finns launched the world championships that the air guitar truly began to strike a chord. But while Finland and a slew of other countries were enjoying the perks of competitive air guitar — wild parties, "air groupies" and general rock-'n'-roll debauchery — the U.S. remained in the dark.

In 2002, Devitt, an Irishman living in New York, traveled to Finland to film an air-guitar reality-TV show for VH1. He competed in the championships, impressively taking fourth place, but VH1 pulled the plug on the show. Although discouraged, Devitt saw potential, and in 2003 he put on the first U.S. air-guitar competition above a strip club in Manhattan's financial district. "It is my gift to America," he says. The outsider event quickly gained momentum, growing from a strictly L.A. and New York affair to a 24-city national tour in 2008, and the 2006 documentary Air Guitar Nation chronicled its fiercely passionate and expansive collection of competitors and fans. "I can't explain what is so addictive about air guitar," says Crane. "It gives the opportunity for a certain person who never found an outlet in sports or rock 'n' roll to meet in the middle."

Even the most impassioned advocates and competitors will admit that air guitar is ridiculous. However, it does seem to satisfy a seemingly universal desire to live out a rock-star fantasy — the type of dream that video-game makers are currently taking advantage of with games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero — but it does so in a much more organic and pure way. "Instead of standing in front of a console, you are on a stage in front of 500 people," says Devitt. "The performance is fake, but the feeling is real. You'll never replicate that feeling on Rock Band."

The performance-art form has its detractors as well, particularly among guitarists who find it to be a mockery of their craft by people too lazy to learn the actual instrument, but Crane swears that they are missing the point and that air guitar is here to stay. "It is a celebration of the guitar," he says. There's also an element of work that needs to be put in. "Your performance needs to be 100% choreographed — winging it doesn't do it anymore," says Devitt. You want to choose music that speaks to you, while avoiding music that is going to anger your audience. In other words, Motorhead: good. Limp Bizkit: bad. But other than that, pleasing the judges who are looking for technique, stage presence and overall "airness" — a quality that can be possessed but not defined — is more about what you don't have than what you do. "You need a lack of inhibition, a lack of sobriety and a lack of dignity," says Crane.