Discovering Air Guitar in D.C. | The Washington Center

Discovering Air Guitar in D.C.

When Rick first invited me to the Air Guitar USA Championships, I was a little flabbergasted. I'm exposing my naiveté here, but I didn't know that air guitar existed, or that it was competitive. My first question was: why pay to watch someone pretend to play guitar when I could see someone actually play guitar? That night, I got the answer - turns out there's a lot more to pretending to play guitar than moving your fingers and making funny noises. If only someone told me that before I started listening to music in the bath.



So yeah, I tagged along with Ricky to an air guitar competition. I would've gladly paid $20 for a ticket, but I didn't have to. Our mutual friend Alyse wrote a story about the event for her internship site, and as a courtesy the organizers sent some tickets her way. She was out of town, so as a courtesy, she sent the tickets Rick's way, and obviously he wasn't gonna go alone so, as a courtesy, he sent a ticket my way.


We arrived at 8:30 p.m.


It was a place on U Street called The Black Cat. I'd never been there before because I'm not 21, so they don't usually let me go down U Street. It was cool. Not too big, had a thick counter-culture buzz going on, a little burger joint on the ground floor with some busted arcade games and a jukebox and a back bar room I wasn't allowed into because I'm not 21. Upstairs was the stage, sound booth, a bar along each wall and some tables at the back.


We took a table cause my ankles were hurting.


As people started filing in, I was struck by the demographical composition of the audience. Oh man, did you just read that? Demographical composition... you can imagine what I'm like at these things:

"Hey, Rick, check out the demographical composition in here! Wowza!"

"Ethan, someone's gonna dunk you in a urinal again."

"I'm not in high school anymore, okay, buddy? I can handle myself."

*Man approaches, locks eyes with me, takes my $12 burger, eats it. I say nothing.*


But seriously, I was expecting leather jackets, black skinny jeans and a boozy, smoky sea of metal zippers, piercings, nose rings, tattoos and cut-off shirts. What I got was something else. Don't get me wrong, there were some characters that fit that description - but most of the especially outrageously dressed audience members vanished at some point before the show got going and reappeared on stage as contestants. I should've seen that coming. Like the woman in the hot pink hair with plastic diamonds on her heels. Or the woman with the fairy princess wings. Or the guy in the bedazzled suit-jacket and striped parachute pants.


Around 9:30 p.m., the show got started. The MC was a long-time air guitarist who wasn't competing this year because, as he told it, he was sick of losing to the national runner-up, who was here this evening and would be a real treat. Disclaimer: this blog would be much better if I had taken notes and could recall any of the contestants' names... but I didn't so I can't. Sorry. I was busy getting my socks air-rocked off my feet.


He was a funny dude, the MC. He cracked a lot of jokes and wore a tie-dye bandana around his head that dangled down past his Adam's apple. The way he talked about the world of air guitar, you got the impression that it was an incredibly tight-knit community; a little niche hobby that brings all these random people together to party and have fun a couple times a year - it was clear that he loved it. They all loved it.


He'd introduce a contestant and talk a bit about how he saw this guy kill it back in San Francisco last year, or about how this woman flew all the way from Australia to compete here, or about how so-and-so just came to watch a couple years ago and decided to give it a shot and now he's one of the best in the country. I was really thrown. Did you know this world existed? Because I didn't. But I'm incredibly happy that it does.


The best contestant, hands-down my favorite, was pushing 55 years old. I can only describe him as exactly the type of character Bill Murray would play in an epic movie about an air guitarist that, I don't know, finds the meaning of life in an imaginary cord progression. Or, better yet, maybe one morning he hears a knock on his door and opens it to find a kid sitting at an air keyboard, and this kid starts jamming out, and it's the most beautiful thing Bill's ever heard, and a tear falls from his eye, and they form the world's first air duo and take over the entire universe.


Anyway, what I learned was this: showmanship doesn't have to be just one aspect of a musical performance. It can be the entire performance. That's what air guitar is, essentially. But even more than that, it's a community of people who love doing what they do and don't care who sees. Before I went, I thought the whole thing sounded ridiculous. Now, I've joined the rank of air guitar fans. Next time I'm in Austin, or New York, or D.C., I'll be keeping my eyes peeled for another competition. I encourage you to do the same.


See you next week!


Read Ethan's previous blog posts

Experience a Day in the Life of an Intern at The Washington Center

Learn More