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Who needs a guitar to be a rock star?

Matt Feldstein, a.k.a Cold Steel Renegade at the SF Regional Championships.

When it comes to making it big at anything, you’ve got to do some hard work. Behind every rock star, there are thousands of hours of practice, touring and rocking out. Of course, to rock out, you don’t actually need to know how to play an instrument – at least not at the San Francisco Regional Air Guitar Championships. There, rock gods are judged on their stage presence, technical merit, and something called “airness.”

To find out what that is, just take a listen to this story from KALW’s Christopher Connelly, who was there to witness it all firsthand.

And a note to our listeners – the following story contains mature subject matter.

CHRISTOPHER CONNELLY: By day, Matt Feldstein is a social worker in San Francisco. But at night, he becomes a rock god. Kind of.

MATT FELDSTEIN a.k.a. COLD STEEL: Hi everybody, I'm Cold Steel Renegade, the current San Francisco Regional Air Guitar Champion.

For the last few years, Cold Steel has pulled on the spandex, dropped his inhibitions, and joined fellow wannabes ripping imaginary axes. The competition is real, even if the guitars are not.

COLD STEEL: Some people don't understand what it is. In fact, my mom used to think I was going out to play actual guitar. She's all, "Matty, you're going out and playing, he's going to be playing guitar tonight." I'm like "Actually no, uh, I'm going to be pretending to play guitar." It takes a little while to sink in, but she got it after she saw the video. She's seen some videos and she's fully behind me.

If you, like Cold Steel’s mom, aren’t familiar with air guitar, it’s pretty simple – you get on stage and you pretend to play guitar. But for former U.S. air guitar champions like Dan Crane, a.k.a. Bjorn Türoque, it’s so much more than that.

DAN CRANE a.k.a. BJORN TÜROQUE: It's about sex, it's about drugs, it's about rock and roll. It's about wanting to be a rock star, but not having the talent or the ability to play an instrument. And just wanting that moment on stage in front of a huge crowd where they're just in the palm of your hand and you are melting their face.

Türoque took second place in the 2005 world championships. In a video of that night, he’s resplendent in a pleather vest and pants with blue tassels, ripping power chords so furiously and with such precision that you almost, kind of, if you squint just a little, see a real guitar.

Türoque’s body is taut as he throws his whole wiry frame into the act, his left hand gripping the imaginary neck like a claw, fingers flailing and hammering the frets. His right hand forces scream after shredded scream out of the abused air strings. He windmills his right arm, simultaneously jumping, high-kicking, half-falling, and pelvis thrusting to punctuate the snarling, face-melting wails of Sweet’s “Set Me Free.”

TÜROQUE: You get to become a rock god. Which is, when I was a kid, you know, I grew up in the suburbs and I had all these posters of rock gods on my walls and I thought, “One day, I'm gonna be one of those guys.” I have played in bands for many years and always thought that I would make it as a musician. I didn't. But I've actually made a name for myself as an air guitarist. I was just out signing some woman's breast. Her left breast, actually. And that was what I was hoping to do as a kid: One day sign a woman's left breast. It was nice.

It all started back around 1931, according to the Smithsonian Institution, when a couple of metal heads named George Beauchamp and Adolph Rickenbacker first used an electromagnetic pickup to amplify a guitar. By the early 40s, Les Paul had that thing singing, and while he ripped, his friends who didn’t know how to actually play stood around and pretended. And so, air guitar was born. Or, at least, something like that.

But it wasn’t until 1996, when a bunch of Finnish guys – from Finland – decided to make a contest out of it. Today, regionals take place all around the world, and the best of the best battle it out in Oulu, Finland, every summer.

COLD STEEL: My first year I did AC/DC, “Safe in New York City.”

Again, San Francisco regional air guitar champion Cold Steel Renegade.

COLD STEEL: It's a perfect air guitar song. It's got kind of a dance groove to it, but it's also got a blistering kind of a face-melter. A couple of them, actually.

That’s what air guitarists call a solo that rocks.

COLD STEEL: Just a solo that tears ass and you can just really rip into it and the crowd loves that.

Once you’ve got a song, you need a routine.

COLD STEEL: I like to move around a lot. Yeah. And kind of tweak my feet in awkward positions a lot and kind of dance around. Also, facial expressions are a big part of my show, which is huge. If you're gonna play air guitar you might as well take advantage of your [laughs]... just contorting your face really.

Then, there’s wardrobe. Cold Steel goes with cockroach killers, spandex, no shirt, and long hair let loose.

COLD STEEL: Yeah, the outfit is generally speaking pretty revealing. It's pretty pretty Spartan, I'd say. [laughs]

The key to his outfit is a pair of homemade Astroturf armbands.

COLD STEEL: Kind of like so. That's my trademark, the Astroturf. I had reflective tape on them last year. That's also a signature of mine, the turf. I love it.

Now, he’s ready to shred. Here’s how the competition works: There are two rounds. In the first round, performers get 60 seconds to perform a prepared routine to their choice of music. The three-judge panel grades their performance on a four to six point scale and then the scores are averaged, just like the Olympics.

TÜROQUE: In air guitar, we're looking for three things.

Bjorn Türoque is one of the judges.

TÜROQUE: We're looking for technical merit, which doesn't mean that you're playing the right notes on a guitar, it means you're playing the right notes on an air guitar. It's totally different kind of thing. The second thing we are looking for is stage presence, charisma, you know, face melting. Do you go out on the crowd and it's like suddenly they are at the arena, they get their air lighter in their hand and just wave it in the air?

The last one is a little more elusive. It’s called “airness,” and it’s what air guitar is really all about.

TÜROQUE: And that is when an air guitar performance exceeds the imitation of guitar playing and becomes an art form in and of itself. It's that holy “beep” moment when you're like, "Wow, holy boop, that guy's not playing a guitar? I didn't even notice because it was so awesome."

The top shredders move on to the next round, where they have to improvise for 60 seconds. That’s where it really gets ridiculous. By then the three-beer minimum for everyone in the house has usually been met, with the expected sloppy results.

COLD STEEL: That's kind of the true test of an air guitarist is the second round. You're pretty much improvising, you get one chance to hear the song and then ... then you're on stage for sixty seconds just trying to do your thing.

Cold Steel Renegade did his thing. He took first place, winning by just a tenth of a point. The show over, the conquering hero and his fellow competitors put away their imaginary axes and called it a night. But they didn’t necessarily go home alone. According to former national champ Bjorn Türoque, air guitarists, just like real guitarists, have groupies.

TÜROQUE: Yes, there are air groupies, and they're invisible. Frequently, they're referred to as air mattresses. I don't really approve of that term. But it's what they say. And I've got air syphilis [laughs]. Or as it's sometimes called, Ghon-air-rea. I think that's actually a pretty good stage name.

In San Francisco, I’m Christopher Connelly, for Crosscurrents.

After winning the San Francisco regional, Cold Steel Renegade went on to compete in Chicago for the national championship, which took place last weekend. That event was won by Justin Howard – also known as Nordic Thunder – who killed it with a rendition of "Dragonchaser” by At Vance. Nordic Thunder moved on to Oulu, Finland, for the Air Guitar World Championships, placing second behind Aline "Devil's Niece" Westphal from Germany.

This story originally aired on July 28, 2011.


Chris Connelly is a reporter with the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.