Strumming like the wind

photo by Chuck Green
In all airness: Becoming a “successful” air guitarist is harder than it sounds.

Admit it, you’ve gotten all Risky Business in your skivvies and sung into your hairbrush/polished off an amazing drum solo on the dashboard/strummed an imaginary set of strings in the vicinity of your groin. You probably used to rock out when “Paradise City” came on MTV. Or hid in your room performing the solo to “Layla” — electric version, of course — in front of your mirror.

And all of the above without the encumbrance of an actual instrument.

If you answered yes to any of this (and even if you’d only really admit it under duress or to your priest), you’re probably an air guitarist.

Don’t worry — there’s a place for people like you. It’s called the Air Guitar World Championships.

“I love playing air guitar,” admits Walker Aderhold, organizer of Asheville’s first Regional Air Guitar Competition — the Southeast branch of the championship’s USA finalist rounds — which will double as a benefit for Parkinson’s Disease (see sidebar).

His confession goes deeper: “I’ve played air guitar with my friends at Widespread Panic shows, and it’s a lot of fun.”

Here’s how the contest works: You or your roadie carries your invisible ax to the stage. You strap on your (nonexistent) instrument and wail for exactly one minute — although it’s 60 seconds of such pure, unadulterated, spotlight-flooded guitar perfection it would make Eddie Van Halen run crying to his mommy. And then, if you win, you get to go to the national competition in Los Angeles. And if you win that, you go to world. And if you triumph over the competition there, you win, um, a guitar. A really expensive, non-air guitar, mind you.

Not that you ever have to, like, play it in public or anything.

Rules: yes; Dress Code: not so much

“People think it’s like karaoke,” says Aderhold. Think again: “It’s completely different. There’s no singing or lip-synching.”

There is an “aireoke” trend happening in bigger cities — weekly, unofficial, un-judged karaoke-like air-guitar events. But aireoke has nothing on the world championships.

For 10 years, air enthusiasts have flocked to regional venues to strum their stuff. The winners from each local event (including, this year, Austin, Boston, Chicago and New York — in fact, Asheville is the only small city participating) are flown off to L.A. to step up the action for a chance at the world finals — in glamorous Finland. Where, if you blow away the judges (who hold up Olympics-style scorecards), you win the aforementioned expensive guitar.

photo by Chuck Green
“Sonyk Rok” aka Miri Park

Plus, weirdly enough, you get a lot of publicity. Last year’s world champ, Miri “Sonyk Rok” Park, put in an appearance on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, where she performed her naughty-Catholic-schoolgirl routine to Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher.” Not neglecting, of course, her trademark plaid miniskirt, back bend and flash of white panties.

Hey, if you’re not actually playing a guitar, you have to have a gimmick, right?

“The costume [enhances] who you’re trying to be,” Aderhold explains. And who exactly is that? “A guitar god,” the organizer confirms.

But of course.

Past contestants have exhibited a particular fondness for “the old ’80s metal dudes,” he continues. Take New Zealand rocker Tarquin “The Tarkness” Keys’ psychedelic bellbottoms and black tangle of hair, or Elina “Tarrot Woman” Niiranen, a Finnish contestant who dresses in studded Goth finery.

And then there’s Belgian air guitarist Ron “Bucketbutt” Van den Branden, who competes in lots of duct tape and, yes, a bucket. “He’s taking off on [the elusive Primus-sprung guitarist] Buckethead,” Aderhold points out.

“Instead of Slash,” he suggests, “you could be Stash or Mash.”

“A very Zen-like place”

Apparently, the assumed name — the alter ego — is very important. But there’s something more: the airness.

“It’s the sense in which you’re no longer air-guitar-ing,” Miri Park told Conan O’Brien, explaining this crucial quality on which contestants are judged. “You’ve transcended all that and it’s an art form all on its own … it’s a very Zen-like place.”

Aderhold embellishes, “If people actually think you’re holding a guitar, then you have it. That’s getting your airness.”

So, besides the ubiquitous airness, what else does an air guitarist need to bring it at the championships? Not much, but a good imagination and a rocking song helps. And, if last year’s finalists are anything to go by, the heavier the music, the better.

“When you think about guitar, you think about the leather-clad guy out in front, gyrating and sticking his tongue out at the ladies,” Aderhold reports. “You’ve got Joe Satriani — he’s a guitar surfer.”

Not that all guitar gods are of the metal genre — but those of the Kiss, Great White and Quiet Riot persuasions are just so much more interesting to watch. I mean, Santana is way up there in guitar royalty, but he doesn’t do a whole lot live. To emulate his moves, you’d pretty much need just a pair of sunglasses — and how much airness can dark shades buy? Certainly not the abundance of airness possessed by Ireland’s Thomas Murray, who smashed his air Gibson onstage.

Like a Wayne’s World reprise

In the first round of competition, air guitarists finesse their way through 60 power-packed seconds of their song of choice. Then, the five top performers return for a second round, where they jam to a selection supplied by the judges. This is how the invisible wheat is separated from the invisible chaff: Any good actor can learn a one-minute imitation of a musician — but only a true air guitarist can rock an unpracticed song selection.

So how much rehearsal does it take to have that competitive edge? “Well, I’ve been practicing for 25 years,” Aderhold says with a laugh. “Didn’t you use to strum the tennis racquet along with Jimi Hendrix?”

Maybe, but you’ll never get me to admit it.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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