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Simulated strumming returns to Finland for Air Guitar World Championships

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Nanami "Seven Seas" Nagura, the air guitar world champion for 2014 and 2018, competes in the 2019 Air Guitar World Championships in Oulu, Finland. The competition returns to the live stage Friday after being postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021. Photo courtesy of Juuso Haarala
Nanami "Seven Seas" Nagura, the air guitar world champion for 2014 and 2018, competes in the 2019 Air Guitar World Championships in Oulu, Finland. The competition returns to the live stage Friday after being postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021. Photo courtesy of Juuso Haarala

Aug. 26 (UPI) -- The top faux-musicians in the world are gathered in Oulu, Finland, Friday to complete in one of the globe's most unusual musical performance competitions: the Air Guitar World Championships.

The annual event, which makes its return to the live stage this year after the COVID-19 pandemic led to cancellation in 2020 and a special virtual event in 2021, will feature the national champions from multiple countries facing off against a group of "Dark Horse" air guitarists chosen in a special Thursday night contest as well as the reigning champion, Rob "The Marquis" Messel.

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Messel, representing the United States, was named the winner of the 2019 world championships, his third appearance in the international contest, which features each participant pretending to play an invisible guitar while dancing along to the song of their choice.

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"You're on stage, people are watching you and you've got nothing between you and them," Messel told the University of Portland's The Beacon newspaper after his 2019 win. "You have no drum set or mic stand even to stand behind or lean on, it's just you."

World peace

The Air Guitar World Championship was held for the first time in 1996, as part of the Oulu August Festival. The stated purpose of the unusual competition is to "promote world peace."

"According to the competition ideology, wars will end, climate change will stop and all bad things will vanish when all the people in the world play the air guitar," the competition's website states. "That's why everyone is invited at the end of the competition to play the air guitar all at once to save the world."

Organizers said air guitar is an ideal medium to promote peaceful coexistence, as it is a form of expression that is open to all.

"Air guitar can be grasped regardless of gender, age, ethnic background, sexual orientation and social status. Air guitar playing is equal," they wrote.

Past competitors said the peaceful message of the event is reflected in how the participants support and encourage one another while off-stage.

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"They housed the first air guitar championships out of the belief that if everybody would just pick up an air guitar and put down the guns, then the climate would change, war would end, and all good things would happen if everybody would just party and have some fun," Matt "Airistotle" Burns, the world champion for 2016 and 2017, told NPR.

Technical skills and 'airness'

Justin "Nordic Thunder" Howard, the 2012 air guitar world champion who was named "champion of champions" in the virtual 2021 event, serves as a judge in this year's competition. Howard said he already knew how to play a real guitar -- known to air guitarists as a "there-guitar" -- when he learned about air guitar competitions.

"It is ridiculous. It is as silly and absurd as it sounds," Howard told WBUR radio's Here & Now. "In fact, that's why I wanted to start being an air guitarist to begin with, because I saw that this thing existed and I'm like, 'That is the stupidest thing ever. I want to be the best in the world at that.'"

Howard and his fellow judges will be ranking each competitor in categories including technical merit. Howard said that while the competitors are merely pretending to play the guitar, there are technical aspects to the performance.

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"High notes on a guitar are played very low on the neck of the guitar itself. So if you're trying to emulate the actual sounds that a there-guitar makes, you're going to play those high notes further down on the neck or the low notes further up on the neck. Those are the things that you want to take into consideration when looking for something technical," he said.

The other categories of judging are stage presence -- the ability to entrance a crowd -- and "airness." US Air Guitar, the organization that runs the national championship in the United States, says airness is "the most difficult to define yet often the most decisive of all" the categories.

"Airness is defined as the extent to which a performance transcends the imitation of a real guitar and becomes an art form in and of itself," US Air Guitar's website states.

The Air Guitar World Championships begins at 8 p.m. local time -- 1 p.m. Eastern Time -- in Oulu, Finland. The competition will be livestreamed on the contest's official website.

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