Guitar heroes

At a Kansas ballpark, a motley crew of amateur rock stars find out what it takes to break into the ranks of Guinness World Records.

The jolting riffs of Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water" wash around the shallow bowl of Community America Ballpark – home of the minor-league T-Bones – and spill out into the western fringe of this city of fountains and stockyards.

Never mind the sound of one hand clapping. Behold one hand times 1,683 in a joyous megajam, a communal rendering of those familiar chords in (almost) perfect time by an assembly of guitarists bent on making history.

It's not overpowering – too few amps. But it is a singular auditory experience, a multilayered wall of sound.

"I'll be talking about this for years," says Brian Smith, a Les Paul-slinger from Lee's Summit, Mo., whose muttonchops evoke a vintage Neil Young.

No need to moon over strutting rock legends. In this twist on stadium rock, the crowd wields the axes, packing the outfield with acoustics and small-amp solid-bodies; battered, sticker-covered six-strings, Strats, and Flying Vs.

On stage to direct and accompany: organizers and the house band from KYYS, a local rock station that's gunning for a little publicity, kudos for Kansas – and a slot in Guinness World Records.

This spring Tanna Guthrie, a KYYS deejay, heard that a London attempt had been canceled. "We thought if we could get 2,000 guitars," she says, "the record could stand for a long time."

Local guitarists are joined here by strummers from afar. New Zealand is represented. So is Germany. John Cardona, an EMS administrator from Hanford, Calif., read about the event in Guitar World magazine.

"I thought it'd be kind of cool to see Kansas, anyway," he says. "So I asked my wife what she thought about me playing in another time zone. She thought that was a good idea."

Mr. Cardona asks other guitarists to sign his blue Fender. He plans to hang it on his wall to trigger stories about this feat.

The human urge to own a title, or a share in one, certainly predates Guinness's half-century publishing run. But the London-based organization has locked up the record-keeper's role. It pulls in some 50,000 letters of intent each year, says Stuart Claxton, head of research in the US.

Americans generate the most record bids, he says, and notch 1,500 to 2,000 new records a year. India has a long history of chasing records. China has come on in recent years (longest wall, sure, but now also longest motorcycle ride while standing on the seat and not touching the handlebars – 3 1/2 miles).

Some people make a fetish of the quest. New York-born Ashrita Furman has scored more than 100 quirky firsts over the years – in underwater juggling, for example. Oddities, a staple, could be a growing category.

"We've always had our fair share," says Mr. Claxton. "But [today] there's more variety. [For Guinness] it's about keeping up to speed and being aware that fields of record-breaking are constantly evolving."

Some observers sniff at the silliness of essentially making a sport out of anything. Others say it suits both the species and the times. People want to invent ways to stand out, says Richard Giulianotti, a sociologist at Durham University in England who studies sports and culture. "[Our] activities are constantly audited and ranked," writes Professor Giulianotti in an e-mail. "That competitive logic seems to be seeping into more of our popular culture and recreational time, probably at the expense of play in its genuine, experimental, 'playful' sense."

The mood here is overwhelmingly playful. A leather-clad man with a Johnny Depp-style braided beard swaggers past with a teen in a Viking helmet. A kid in a black top hat crushes out AC/DC's "Hells Bells." A Dixie chick plays "Sweet Home Alabama."

There are sober stories. Tom Allison wants to set a world record in the six months doctors have told him he has to live. Mike Bruch carries the red Gibson given to him by the widow of an old friend, Ronnie Emmart, killed in a car accident in the summer of 1977 after teaching Bruch to play.

"Ronnie was a good kid," and probably bound for rock's big time, says Mr. Bruch, a mail carrier from Beagle, Kan. "He was patient, and he was fast."

For some here, it's all business. Bill Skaggs, a councilman and Kansas City mayor pro tem, has come here as one of a handful of adjudicators who'll comb through registrant lists, observe the proceedings, and submit paperwork to Guinness.

A tall, dependable-looking heartlander from the Missouri side of the river, Mr. Skaggs comes with credentials. He judged a largest-cookie Guinness attempt (successful) 15 years ago. Skaggs, who came here from church this morning, says he had been to a black-tie museum opening the previous night.

"This is something different," he says, swiveling his head as an Elvis impersonator walks past in gold lamé and a cluster of youths tunes up with a few chords of a White Stripes song. All wear numbers stuck on their shirts.

The number that counts: 1,322, set in Vancouver in 1994. Guinness would have sent a uniformed team here to judge the attempt, but the cost to the station would've been about $5,000.

"Everyone gets a free shirt," says Jennifer Morton, marketing promotions director at KYYS, with a laugh. "That's already 2,000 shirts I'm paying for."

Guinness's approach: Trust but verify, says Claxton, who once set eyes on a 4,000-lb. lollipop. There's no big check for winners, he notes, only documented bragging rights. He has never come across a fraudulent attempt.

"Our position from the start is completely receptive and open to anyone who wants to have a go at a record," he says.

Requirements for verification vary, but generally include the testimony of upstanding citizens and photo or video evidence. A core team of 12 Guinness researchers in London cross-checks before making the final call.

By early afternoon the musicians on this field have been herded together, teased about a change – "We're doing 'Stairway to Heaven!' " – and led through a raucous five-minute jam.

Backers erupt in the stands. "Our dads are record-breakers," reads one banner, held high. The guitarists wave their axes like "Braveheart" extras. It's over to Claxton's crew now. But as far as Kansas City is concerned, this one's in the book – at least for now.

"As soon as someone else sees that these guys have the record," says Skaggs, "they'll probably try for 2,500."

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