The Riff Raffers
The rock star struts across the stage, flicking back his long hair and pouting to the cheering audience. A roadie runs up to him and gingerly hands him a guitar. The rock star straps it on and gives a poised stroke of the wrist. He strums into a song while a group of adoring groupies screams from the sidelines. As the tempo rises his fingers become a blur on the fret board and his facial expressions vary from fury to exhilaration to complete concentration, punctuated by the occasional pelvic thrust and consummated by a dramatic high arm salute as he ends his epic 1-minute solo. By now the crowd has worked itself into a frenzy and one of the groupies has fainted. This could be any rock concert, except it is not. There is no guitar and this is no rock star.
The Air Guitar World Championship started as a joke in 1996, a frivolous sideshow to a music festival in the northern town of Oulu in Finland. Organizers did not realize however that they had accidentally struck a chord, so to speak, with every rock fan’s fantasy to play like Hendrix. Soon the joke became the main event and now national air guitar champions from 17 countries gather at this Baltic sea port 500 miles north of Helsinki to pick, twang, lip synch, and gyrate. They smash imaginary guitars and burn pretend Fenders in re-enactments of every famous rock moment imaginable. These would-be rock gods “surrender to the music” as the American Champion Hott Lixx Hulahan proved one year by breaking his thumb and heroically carrying on. He obviously did not want to disappoint his fans.
As can be expected in a Scandinavian country, the silliness has a serious side and rules are strict. Under no circumstance must contestants play another imaginary instrument, such as drums or piano. Other band members are not allowed on stage but roadies and groupies are permitted as kind of props to enhance that all important rock star allure. Each rock fantasist must play two 1-minute rounds. The first a tune of their own choosing and the second a last-minute request by the four-person jury to test the air guitarist’s skill in improvisation. A six-point score system much like figure ice skating is used to sort the wheat from the chaff. There are three criteria. Technical merit takes into account how close to the real deal the performer is simulating. They watch his or her fingers for fretwork, chord playing, and technical moves. The second criteria are stage presence. Does the participant have the aura of a rock star or should he return to playing solo in front of his bedroom mirror? Is there rock star charisma in those moves or has stage fright made him forget his notes? And finally there is what they call “airness”—the overall artfulness of the contestant. Does this performance move beyond mere simulation and into an intangible realm of epic head banging greatness?
Participation is free and winners walk away with that rare thing, a real guitar which is actually a local handmade instrument called a Flying Finn. However, to reach the championships you must pass the regional heats that take place in an ever increasing number of countries. Look out for the poster. Air Guitar is coming to a town near you.
When to Go: Aug. Check website for exact dates.
$$ Scandic Oulu, Saaristonkatu 490100 Oulu ( 358/8/543-1000; www.scandichotels.com). $$ Holiday Inn Oulu, Kirkkokatu 3 90100 Oulu ( 358/8/883-9111; www.restel.fi).