The world’s best air guitarist is a drummer in real life.
“I became a drummer because I couldn’t play guitar,” said Eric Melin, a Lawrence resident, who was crowned Air Guitar World Champion last year. “I tried to play guitar, but that didn’t work out. Drumming came naturally. But I always wanted to be up front with a guitar, rocking out and being the focus of attention.”
He figured out another way to get that kind of attention in 2009, which was a pivotal year in his music life.
That was the year Melin (pronounced meh-LEEN) first watched “Air Guitar Nation,” a 2006 documentary about the inaugural U.S. Air Guitar Championships. The film inspired Melin to compete in the first-ever U.S. Air Guitar regional in Kansas City. He won that competition, in June 2009 at RecordBar, then advanced to the nationals later that summer in Washington, D.C., where he was ousted in the second round.
Later that year, Melin’s band, the Dead Girls, won an online competition to open for Kiss at the Sprint Center in December 2009. Kiss, coincidentally, was the first band he practiced air guitar to as a kid, bouncing off the bed, floor and walls of his boyhood bedroom.
“I could have died the next day,” Melin said. “Opening for Kiss was all I needed out of my rock ’n’ roll career. Kiss made me want to play music. They were known for their theatrics and I glommed on to that immediately and it never left me.”
This could be another big year for the drummer who is now famous for whipping a big crowd into a frenzy by feigning theatrical guitar in 60-second bursts. As reigning champ, Melin gets an automatic shot at defending his title in the 2014 Air Guitar World Championships, Aug. 27-30 in Oulu, Finland.
But before that, he will take some credit for getting some spotlight for Kansas City, which will host the 12th annual U.S. Air Guitar Championships in August. “The nationals are usually held on the coasts in huge cities,” he said. “But after I won, Kansas City got a lot of attention and all the rabid air-guitar fans here lobbied to have the nationals in Kansas City. And it worked.”
If you think air guitar is just rock ’n’ roll mime, its practitioners will tell you it’s not about being a mere mimic. It’s about being an “airist,” part technician, part entertainer and part visionary — someone who takes the concept of faux guitar to another level.
‘Bring out the big moves’
What’s the key to award-winning air guitar? It depends upon whom you ask.
Nielsen Nacis of Shawnee, who performs air guitar under the name Thunderball, has been competing since 2011. He said it’s about more than executing a note-for-note performance. It’s also about the presentation, the costumes, the theatrics.
“You want to look like you’re performing the song, but in a dramatic fashion,” he said. “Moving your fingers the same way as if you were playing the notes from a real guitar on an air guitar is pretty boring. It’s like figure skating. You don’t win Olympic gold medals unless you bring out the big moves.”
Beth Olson of Olathe, who performs under the name CindAirella, said it takes “an intense love of rock, a willingness to practice and very little shame.”
“The fundamentals of award-winning air guitar are a great song, a cool concept and a tenacious attitude,” said JoJo Longbottom of Lawrence, a guitarist in the Dead Girls whose air guitar alter ego is Air Jesus. “Don’t let people make you think there is no skill involved — there is. But before you can harness the skill, you need to harness the love.”
You also have to abide by the rules of air guitar, which are strict and straightforward:
• Each performance is played to 1 minute of a song.
• The 60 seconds can start anywhere in the song.
• The instrument must be invisible and be a guitar; air drums not allowed.
• Air roadies are allowed but must leave the stage before the performance. Backup bands (air or real) are not allowed.
Each U.S. Air Guitar contest comprises two rounds:
• Round 1
(freestyle): Each competitor performs to a song of their choice.
• Round 2
(compulsory): Top competitors from Round 1 perform surprise song.
A panel of judges rates performers on a scale of 4.0 to 6.0. Performers are judged on three criteria:
• Technical merit
: How close does the performer’s fretwork correspond to the recorded music?
• Stage presence:
How the performer engages the crowd. • Airness:
From the list of criteria at U.S. Air Guitar’s website: “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.”
“Airness is undefined,” said Melin, who invokes Justice Potter Stewart’s line about obscenity: “You know it when you see it.”
But it takes a high-octane combination of all three to become a champ.
“If all you do is stick to what a real guitar is capable of,” Melin said, “you’re going to have the most boring routine.”
Melin, who performs as Mean Melin, said it took him a couple of years to refine his air guitar routine and get it to a competitive level.
“The first year, I didn’t realize how big it was,” he said. “I wasn’t prepared for a sold-out crowd in the 930 Club in Washington, D.C., that paid $25 each, all screaming their heads off for people who weren’t playing instruments. After that, I went home and studied YouTube videos to get better.”
Song selection is a critical element of competition. Melin said he learned early that familiarity doesn’t necessarily guarantee an award-winning performance.
“The second year I competed I did ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ and I got my lowest score ever in the nationals. It was probably because I edited a 6-minute song down to 60 seconds,” he said.
There are plenty of theories about what makes a good or go-to song.
“I don’t have a top three,” said Kirby Minor of Kansas City, who performs as Freddy Fingers. “I study the metal, thrash and shredding variety. Lately, I’ve been honing my skills with Deathklok, the band in the Adult Swim series ‘Metalocalypse.’ ”
Cameron Joel Hawk, lead singer and guitarist for the Dead Girls, said his top three songs complement his air-guitar alter-ego, Pork Sword: “ ‘Caught with the Meat in Your Mouth’ by Dead Boys; ‘Three Little Pigs’ by Green Jello; and ‘March of the Pigs’ by Nine Inch Nails.”
“ ‘Over The Mountain’ by Ozzy (Osbourne) and ‘Outta My Way’ by Damone were my best showings in competition,” Nacis said. “If had to pick a third, it would probably have to be ‘I Believe In a Thing Called Love’ by the Darkness. I’ve never used it in competition, but I find any reason possible to air guitar to it in front of people.”
For last year’s competition, Melin decided to take another tack, one that would enhance his “airness.”
“I thought an easy way to get an edge was, rather than edit a song and come up with the moves to go with it, which is what everyone does, I’d come up with some moves no one has ever seen and write a song to fit the moves,” he said. “So I had a friend who’s a guitar player write a song.”
That song allowed Melin to execute two maneuvers, one that included backmasking, in which a sound is recorded backward on a track meant to be played forward.
“I’ve been obsessed with it since I was a kid,” Melin said. “I wanted a moment in a song where it stops and starts to play backwards, at which point I reverse and do air guitar backwards. I’ve been thinking about it for years but couldn’t find a song to fit it to. I even found a way to make it look like my hair was going backwards.”
The other move wasn’t as unusual, he said, but his version was more convincing.
“It’s taking the air guitar and throwing it around your shoulder and catching it on the other side,” he said. “I’ve seen it before, but it didn’t really work because the song didn’t support it. So we built something into the song to accompany that moment so it would be convincing and everyone could tell what it was. And it worked.”
It didn’t get Melin the 2013 U.S. Air Guitar Championship. He lost by one-tenth of a point to Jason Farnan of San Diego, who performs as Lt. Facemelter. But Melin was persuaded to go to Norway anyway and compete in the Darkhorse Competition that precedes the International Championship. So he bought a $2,300 plane ticket to Oulu, won the Darkhorse round and ended up in the world championships.
Friday night, the RecordBar, 1020 Westport Road, will be the host of the Kansas City qualifier of the 2014 U.S. Air Guitar competition. The top two finishers will advance to a semifinal. The top two or three finishers from each semifinal will advance to the championships in Kansas City.
The popularity of air guitar has grown in Kansas City since Melin first competed five years ago.
“I think three or four people had signed up that year,” he said. “About 10 ended up showing up to see what it was about and have some fun. The crowd was probably 60 people or so. At last year’s qualifier, there were 225 people in the place. And this year, we already have 20 (air guitarists) signed up.”
They’ve signed up for a variety of reasons and with a variety of intentions.
“I have made a lot of friends through air guitar, and I do it for the enjoyment, not the competition,” said Whitney Young of Lawrence, who performs as Glory Wholesome. “I think the most fundamental part of air guitar, in general, is not taking it too seriously.
“People sometimes scoff at the very idea. I see comments on articles written about air guitar: ‘Learn to play a real instrument.’ I can’t believe these people call themselves adults. We are just trying to have some fun.”
Great air guitar, said Stack, “comes down to the airist and song combining into one magnificent blob of ‘What the heck is going on here?’ and ‘This is awesome; I want it to never stop.’ ”
There’s plenty of tongue in the air-guitar cheek, from the pseudonyms and costumes to the histrionics of “airness.” For Melin, it’s an addiction that goes back to the days when he was bouncing around his room, one that paid off last summer.
“My priority since I started was to keep getting better and win a national championship,” he said. “ I fell short of that, but I ended up with a world championship instead.”
The Kansas City qualifier for the 2014 U.S. Air Guitar competition is 9 p.m. Friday at the RecordBar, 1020 Westport Road. Admission to the 18-and-older event is $8.