Arts Desk

What Makes a World-Class Air Guitar Champion?

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Sometimes, the best part of a face-melting guitar solo isn’t the riffs coming from the amp—it’s the over-the-top hijinks. It’s Chuck Berry's duckwalk, Jimi Hendrix lighting his Stratocaster on fire, Slash dropping a still-lit cigarette from his mouth into his leather pants.

This Saturday, at the U.S. Air Guitar Championship Semifinals at the 9:30 Club, nine competitors will aim to prove that you don't need musical talent (or even a six-string) to be a rock god. Arts Desk asked three of them—Dick Diesel (Jerrod Dewey), Shreddy Boop (Athena Kopsidas), and Doug "The Thunder" Stroock—what it takes to play an imaginary instrument at the professional level.

Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.

WCP: How similar is performing air guitar to playing a physical guitar? 

Shreddy Boop: I find physical guitars intimidating. Drums are actually my physical instrument of choice.

Dick Diesel: Air guitar is much different than playing a physical guitar—or "there" guitar, as we like to call it. If you go up on stage and act like you are strumming a "there" guitar, the crowd won't be able to see what you are doing. Air guitar requires big, exaggerated motions so everyone can see the movements. I think of it like pro wrestling. When Ric Flair sticks his thumb in Ricky Steamboat's eye, the fan sitting in the back row has to be able to see it happen. The same with air guitar.

Doug "The Thunder" Stroock: Totally separate ballgame, though there are small aspects of "there" guitar that go into playing air guitar effectively.  I don't play guitar at all, but I've held onto one a few times to give me a sense of how it works, which is at the basis of air guitar.  I think the people who really know how to play the guitar may actually be at a disadvantage, because they are a bit subconsciously tied to the physics of playing guitar.  Most air guitar moves violate the physics of what's possible when playing guitar—but they look great, and that's the key.

What famous guitar players do you study?

SB: I'm partial to Prince, Dave Grohl, Tom Morello, Eddie Van Halen. They're what I've known growing up.

DS: I've studied a lot of the top metal guitarists,- but my favorite is Angus Young—I love his energy on stage.  The fact that he jumps around as much as he does and can still play the guitar is pretty amazing.

DD: I used to...watch YouTube videos of '80s glam metal guitarists, anyone with flashy guitar moves. Steve Vai, C.C DeVille, Michael Angelo Batio, and those types of guys. After my first couple years performing, I learned real quick that most of those moves don't translate to the stage. Now, if I'm trying to study for a performance, I watch clips of other air guitarists. This year, I studied a lot of last year's World Champion, Mean Melin, and last year's United States Champion, Lt. Facemelter.

How do you pick a good air guitar song, and how do you practice?

SB: I choose songs I know really well, songs that have guitar parts I could sing to myself out loud. Then I listen to it in my head, even when the music's not around. I try not to overrehearse—it can compromise the integrity of an organic performance.

DD: It is important to pick a song that invokes some emotion within yourself. You need to be able to feel the song deep down in your bones. If you truly enjoy the song, then you'll be able to give a good performance. Also, I don't want a song with too many lyrics. I don't want a lead singer trying to upstage me. I practice three or four times a week during our competition season. Some people practice in front of a mirror, but I feel awkward looking at myself perform. I practice in front of my wife, because she has seen it all, so she's a really good critic for me.

DS: I look for something that fits my style and is exciting to both listen to and air guitar to. Some really exciting songs to listen to are really boring air guitar songs, and vice versa. I practice a lot, and practicing involves listening to music, listening to my cut, working out, practicing the actual routine, et cetera et cetera.  I'd say, during the season, I spend upwards of an hour to two hours a day practicing.

Is wardrobe important?

DS: In my opinion, absolutely. You want to build a character that you can play onstage, and wardrobe is a big part of that.  That said, I've seen people with awesome costumes and are terrible at air guitar. It can't be the only thing, but it can make a great routine an epic routine.

DD: Wardrobe isn't necessarily important, but it can be used to enhance your act. Some people can go onstage in shorts and a T-shirt and still blow the audience's socks off.  I didn't have a flashy outfit when I started, but after "Macho Man" Randy Savage died in 2011, I decided to make a costume as a tribute to him and my other childhood wrestling heroes. I decided to turn my air guitar persona into a character. Some people need that transformation. Your wardrobe can be a way to step out of your normal everyday self and become that character you've created for the stage.

SB: For me, wardrobe is key. It gives me permission to be a caricature of myself. I'm a teacher by day, so a costume keeps me from thinking, "What would a teacher do?" Instead, I think "What would Shreddy Boop do?" It turns out, she doesn't have many inhibitions.

The U.S. Air Guitar Championships Mid-Atlantic Semifinals are this Saturday, July 26, at the 9:30 Club. $20. Doors at 8 p.m.

Photo from Flickr/Creative Commons user Dan Budiac.

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