I arrived early to the Khaosan Comedy Club with aspirations of being an enthusiastic audience member when suddenly, out of the shadows, emerged a handsome stranger with a sinister grin and a fateful question: “Are you going to compete?”
Without much thought for what it all meant, my vocal chords abruptly committed to a “yes” (something they do often and with mixed results). There was no turning back. The game was on. I had to make a mental transition from spectator mode to slayer mode. As my eyes combed the room, I could see that the competition featured an impressive motley crew of contenders including a faux Frenchman who made it rain baguettes and tennis balls on the entire audience (there was only one injury. None fatal).
After a nerve crushing first round, my advancement to the second round was met with shock and a free drink. But how was I going to impress the judges a second time with something completely different? I studied my fellow contenders, listened to the judges’ critiques, and ultimately decided to give the people what they wanted: Air Guitar moonwalk.
A Brief History of Air Guitar
Fans mimicking the showmanship of their favorite musicians is as timeless as Rock n Roll. Guitar virtuosos like Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, Lita Ford, and Prince visually took guitar performance to the next level by integrating energetic, sexually charged, and even comedic dance elements with extravagant costumes and dramatic solo compositions. Who could resist such finesse? Air guitar emerged as a “thing” in pop culture around the 1980s as lip sync and mimic battles of all kinds sprang up throughout the United States. When John McKenna and Michael Moffitt published The Complete Air Guitar Handbook in 1983, the art form was solidified.
Ten years later as the punky-rocky fun of the 80s was nearly obliterated from our collective consciousness and replaced by all the bad things, a group of Finnish students came together to figure out how to restore world peace. Their solution: Air Guitar; because if you’re holding an Air Guitar, you’re not holding a gun. Out of this simple, yet worthwhile intention sprang the Air Guitar World Championship:
“The purpose of the Air Guitar World Championships is to promote world peace. According to the ideology of the competition, wars would end, climate change stop and all bad things disappear, if all the people in the world played the Air Guitar.”
-Air Guitar World Championships
In 1996, the first competition was held at the Oulu Music Video Festival in Finland. Promoters and audiences were so enthralled by contestants that Air Guitar became a permanent part of the festival and quickly grew into an international phenomenon. Today countries all over the world compete for a chance to make air, not war, and claim the title of Air Guitar World Champion.
What Air Guitar Can Teach Us About World Peace
Air Guitar may look easy, but let me tell ya: it's a challenge. First of all, It feels goofy as hell, so if you're gonna do it, you have to commit. Even though playing air guitar may feel ridiculous, nothing looks more ridiculous than a half-assed air guitar performance.
1. The Guitar. Once I got on stage and realized that I had nothing in my hands, it became suddenly clear to me that I was about to have to import some real skill into the competition. Have you ever held a guitar? If you have, then you know that a guitar has a specific size, weight, and shape. Judges watch for how true to life one's air guitar playing appears which means that while performing, you have to be mindful of the invisible object you're holding. This is the first chance to get over yourself and yield completely to the moment. Once that music starts, you're the spectacle in the room and everyone is watching to see what you're gonna do. What kind of guitar is it? Acoustic? Electric? 6 string? 12 string? Teeny Tiny travel guitar? All these things should be worked out before you get on stage because the more you know your instrument, the more your instrument knows what to do.
2. Musicianship. You may not actually be making sound come from your air guitar, but the rules of musicianship still apply. If you're playing a right-handed guitar, the chords are a function of the left hand and the strumming is a function of the right hand (or the teeth, or the toes, or whatever you choose in the moment). If the music goes up the scale, your chord hand should go up the neck of the guitar and so on. The strum hand should also be consistent with the rhythm of the music. After all, you're not pretending to play air guitar. You're playing air guitar. One contestant wowed the judges simply as a function of his technical skills. He didn't dance around a lot. His costume was pretty basic, but he played his air guitar with the meticulous precision of the likes of Carlos Santana and received consistently positive reviews.
4. Song Choice. If you have the ability to choose a song, choose one that you know and love. The more passion and accuracy you can put into the performance, the more you stand to impress the judges. I didn't know either of the songs I performed, but if I had, I may have felt a little less silly because I'd know where the breaks were and I could enjoy the music and vibe a little better.
5. Costume. Air guitar is a showman's sport. The costume isn't necessarily the most important element, but it helps. Many air guitarists create characters and perform their songs as their characters, much like the actual rock stars who transform into alter egos on stage. Makeup, wigs, and special props can help make a character that judges and audiences will remember.
6. Style. Researching videos of air guitarists, it seems that those who take home the gold tend to have that certain something that puts them over the edge. Appropriate facial expressions, interactions with audience members, special uses of secret skills: whatever works.
7. Have Fun. It's hard to be sad while playing air guitar. After the initial jitters, you're just acting up on stage in front of new friends. You get a whole minute. Milk every second.
I'm a very shy, introverted person who doesn't want to make a scene or appear foolish. In an effort to overcome myself, I do things that make a scene and appear foolish. The greatest thing about taking these kinds of risks in an environment created to enable such outrageous silliness is that everyone in the room is on the side of your most unruly inner child. The culture of Air Guitar is created by grown kids who just want to be silly, put away all the serious stuff that we really don't need, and give completely of themselves for the best reason: world peace.
Moments following the Air Guitar Championship, a group of us shared a bottle of champagne with Thailand’s first ever Air Guitar Champion, Pule “Ryan” Mapacpac, a comedian from the Philippines. When I woke up that morning, I had no idea that by the evening, I would be recognized by all the people of Khaosan Comedy Club as Thailand's second greatest air guitarist of all time. I wouldn’t be going to Finland to compete for the world title, but with the realization of my 2nd place winnings, I would be considering a return to Thailand in 2020 to challenge the throne.
Eternal thanks to the folks at Khaosan Comedy Club for creating such a welcoming and inclusive place to play: Jacob Conger for bringing Air Guitar to Thailand, Jonathan Samson for hosting with the mosting, the contestants, the audience, and Steve. Thanks Steve.
© Cathryn D. Blue, 2019. All Rights Reserved
Photos courtesy of the Khaosan Comedy Club