Why 'air guitar' is the new karaoke

Craig Billmeier steps onto the darkened stage, takes a seat, and looks out at the 500-plus sweaty, screaming, rock-hungry fans, yearning to watch him do what he does best. Decked out in a leather-on-leather ensemble, aviator sunglasses, and a sombrero, Mr. Billmeier will have 60 seconds to put on a performance so exhilarating, so face-meltingly awesome, it will elevate him to the likes of Hendrix, Van Halen, and Slash. There's only one thing missing: a guitar. What separates Billmeier from these legends is that he mimics the act of playing.

Better known as "Hot Lixx Hulahan," Billmeier, an employee at an assisted-living community by day, is the 2006 US National Air Guitar Champion, a title he won last week during a three-hour, no-holds-barred "air-off" held in New York City's Bowery Ballroom. Defeating regional champs from across the nation, Billmeier's on-stage theatrics (which included turning over tables and performing Metallica's "Enter Sandman" from atop a balcony railing), earned him a trip to Finland to compete for the world title, not to mention eternal rock glory and more air groupies – yes, air groupies – than you can shake a guitar at.

"This is something you do in private, and then all of a sudden to be applauded for it is awesome," says Billmeier. "After I won this, my friend in Germany said, 'Oh, I heard on CNN Europe that you won a competition.' That's just ridiculous."

In recent years, the air guitar has become a cult phenomenon, sparking air-eoke tournaments in cities across the nation. The first documentary devoted to the subject, "Air Guitar Nation: The Movie," a hit at April's Tribeca Film Festival, comes on the heels of the release of "Guitar Hero," a PlayStation II video game that lets airphiles transform virtual characters into music celebrities via a controller shaped like – you guessed it – a guitar. Undoubtedly, the most impressive offshoot of the air-guitar craze is the invention of the Virtual Air Guitar, a computerized pair of gloves developed by students at the Helsinki University of Technology that monitors a player's hand movements and pumps accompanying electric guitar riffs through an amp.

In a world of label-manufactured music and brand-name musicians, the ability to create an authentic concert experience literally from nothing but passion may capture the heart and soul of rock 'n' roll in a way that many legitimate musicians never do.

For many in the air-guitar circuit, the art of playing what's not there is anything but ridiculous. (Amanda Griffiths, a student at the University of Salford in Manchester, England, takes it so seriously that she's currently pursuing the degree as the world's only air guitar PhD.) Those who make it to the national level are a hybrid of performance artist and invisible guitar legend. They're judged on technical merit, showmanship, and airness ("the extent to which the performance exceeds the act of imitation and becomes an expression of art unto itself," according to the US National Air Guitar Championship website).

"The key is tapping into what the audience is seeking, and what they're seeking is rock," says Dan "Bjorn Turoque" Crane, the country's first professional air-guitar player and author of the upcoming book, "To Air is Human." "They've come to watch a stadium rock show by a world-class guitarist and, in 60 seconds, you have to be able to synthesize everything you know about rock 'n' roll, every concert you ever went to, every head-bang you ever did – you have to boil that down and release that on the audience."

Merely releasing it isn't enough. To win the title of His or Her Airness, competitors have to be controlled, in sync with the music, dressed for the part, and have to convince the audience that the show couldn't be better even if real instruments or musical talent were present. Eye-catching tricks never hurt either. During the competition, a shirtless man with the word "AIR" shaven into his chest hair crushes a beer can with his back, a man dressed in fur-lined bikini briefs and Viking boots is chained and dragged to the stage by an entourage of air roadies, and a guy who goes by the name of Count Rockula moonwalks his way through a punk version of Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal."

The attraction, says 2003 world champion David "C-Diddy" Jung, stems from the inner rocker in all of us. "Air guitar is ultimately an elaborate form of tapping your feet," he says. "It's about aligning your soul with the music and manifesting it physically."

In the immortal words of AC/DC, "For those about to rock, we salute you" – with or without a guitar.

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