Air Guitar Hero

Are Air-Guitar Events the Next Karaoke Kraze?


Published by: Scottsdale Times, September 2008

It’s Guitar Hero Thursday at Lagerfield’s Sports Bar, just outside Paradise Valley Mall in northeast Phoenix, and the young man strapping on the wireless plastic guitar controller has selected “Free Bird” as his first song.

Although DJ Bob Henderson has heard the tune “too many times to count” since starting up the weekly event a few months ago for Valley karaoke providers Starz Entertainment, he says he still gets a kick out of watching some 21-year-old run through the Lynyrd Skynyrd song on the popular music-based video game Guitar Hero.

“It’s kind of fun to hear these young kids play all these old songs you remember,” says Henderson, who’s been in the mobile entertainment business for longer than most of the video-game addicts who frequent the Guitar Hero nights have been alive. “We get a lot of older people, too, who know the songs, but not necessarily the game!”

A relatively new phenomenon, bar events built around music-video games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band have become worthy challengers to karaoke nights. Henderson himself runs two a week – he also hosts Mondays at the Stadium Club in Chandler – and Starz recently added a Tuesday night challenge at Cactus Jack’s in Ahwatukee. Cadillac Ranch at Tempe Marketplace recently hosted a six-week Guitar Hero contest, and in August, the Hard Rock Café was the site of the 14th stop on a 15-city championship in support of Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, the latest special edition in the video-game franchise.

For the audience, Henderson says there’s even more entertainment than seeing whether an inebriated singer can hit all the high notes in karaoke. While players in Guitar Hero aren’t actually making the music by punching the five multi-colored buttons on the guitar fretboard, it’s easy to mess up the pre-recorded sounds: hitting the buttons too late or in the wrong sequence will drop the notes the audience is expecting to hear. In that sense, a skilled Guitar Hero champ can appear to be truly playing an instrument.

“Sometimes it does seem like they’re really playing,” he says. “But it’s a lot like karaoke. At some point in the night, just about everyone wants to give it a try.”

Well, not quite everyone.

Julian Vican doesn’t play Guitar Hero. “I’ve tried it, but I’m not really into it,” says the 23-year-old hardcore metal fan from Phoenix, set to begin graduate school this fall as a film major at USC.

Vican’s passion is air guitar, the age-old rock-fan calisthenics Guitar Hero would seem to have replaced. After all, with the game, you’re actually holding a physical guitar and affecting the way the music is played.

But Vican, like the thousands of air guitarists worldwide who compete in the international Air Guitar World Championship each summer, considers air guitar a kind of performance art that can’t be compared to the PS3 and Xbox game.

“You’re bringing something invisible to life, really,” he says. “And there’s a lot of acting involved.”

Vican’s act – in which the heavy-set performer, as his alter-ego “Hardcore Henry,” dons a mosh-pit-ready outfit complete with tattoo-imprinted sleeves and performs gymnastics not seen in his weight class since John Belushi – won him first place honors this July in the Phoenix regionals of the U.S. Air Guitar Championships, a spin-off of the international competition that garnered Vican an expense-paid trip to San Francisco for the finals in early August.

Vican lost in the national finals (the winner of that contest, a San Francisco man who goes by the nickname Hot Lixx Hulahan, went on to win the world championship in Oulu, Finland on August 22nd). But watching the country’s most serious imaginary guitar shredders in action only heightened his appreciation of the genre.

“The guys who win, you can tell they really have it down and that they’ve really thought out their performance,” Vican says.

“It’s not a joke to them. And it’s not a game.”

Transcendent Airness

Kriston Rucker says he and his friend Cedric Devitt started the U.S. championships in 2003 after trekking to Finland to see the international competition and being shocked that none of the competitors were from the U.S., widely regarded as the birthplace of rock ‘n roll.

“They had been doing the World Championship for seven years already, but there were no Americans,” says Rucker, who lives in New York.

Rucker and Devitt were also surprised to learn that an activity most American teens confined to the privacy of their bedrooms was regarded as legitimate performance art by Europeans.

“One of the more mysterious qualities performers are judged on is ‘airness,’” says Rucker, who adds in technical merit and stage presence as other crucial factors.

“Airness is the extent to which the performance transcends the imitation of another art form and becomes an art form in and of itself. So you forget that it’s supposed to be like some other kind of art and see it as its own thing.”

Indeed, some Europeans place air guitar right up there with ballet and interpretive dance. In the earnest 2007 documentary Air Guitar Nation, recently released on DVD, Britain’s Zac Monro, who won the contest two years in a row, calls it “the last pure art form.”

“It’s abstract,” Monro says. “It only really exists by what surrounds it and its effect on what surrounds it. It’s kind of intangible. You can steal a mobile phone or a car,” he adds, “but you can’t steal someone’s ‘invisible.’”

As for the touchy air guitar versus Guitar Hero debate, Rucker insists the interest in games like it and Rock Band have actually had a positive synergistic effect on air guitar.

“I think both those games and what we’re doing benefit from a similar cultural phenomena,” he says. “There’s been a new love affair with glam-metal-hard rock guitar stuff – a performance style that’s a little bit more flamboyant and goofy. Kind of a return to ‘80s rock and hair metal. And I think both the games and air guitar benefit from that coming back into vogue. Grunge kind of rebelled against all that. But I think the pendulum’s swinging the other way now.”

Lack of Airspace

Sometimes Julian Vican wishes his art form was as respected as it is in Oulu, and that there were places to perform besides the annual air guitar championships.

“There’s no place you can really go on a monthly basis and do this,” he laments. “It’s not like karaoke.”

Or Guitar Hero, for that matter. Rucker says he and the other organizers of the U.S. Air Guitar Championships (largely made up of former contest participants) would like to see their obsession one day become as prevalent across the country as Guitar Hero nights.

“We talk about starting kind of a farm system, getting some sort of air-guitar nights going, so that it’s a little more frequent,” he says. “But the people who are really good at this, they spend the whole year planning what their song’s gonna be, what their costume and persona is gonna be. Then they get that one time a year to really shine.”

Vican admits there’s a part of him that likes it that way.

“I don’t know if it’ll ever get to be like a regular bar event – and quite honestly, I’m not sure if it should,” he says. “I think it’s kind of fun the way it is.

“You practice all year in your room, and then once a year this big event comes to town and everybody lets loose. Somehow, I think that’s how air guitar should remain.”


Photos courtesy the U.S. Air Guitar Championships

Julian Vican, as his alter ego "Hardcore Henry," won first place this July in the Phoenix regionals of the U.S. Air Guitar Championships,

Air rockers, including Arizona champion Julian Vican (far left), rock out on stage together following a whirlwind air-guitar competition for the top performer in Arizona

Japanese champion Dainoji spices up his international competition with a bit of disco and his mother's tiger knit sweater.

Hot Lixx Hullahan sits on the shoulders of international competitors of the World Championship of Air Guitar in Finland, 2008.