Air Guitar Elevated to Performance Art — Yes, Really

Dreamcatcher at the US Air Guitar 2011 Denver Qualifier.
Dreamcatcher at the US Air Guitar 2011 Denver Qualifier.
Dave Ingraham

When this scribe was a blossoming wee headbanger in the late 1980s and early ’90s, air guitar was what we did instead of dance when we went to clubs underage. It was the tribal ritual for the terminally uncool — those of us without any sense of rhythm and next-to-no chance of getting laid. But it was okay, because we had each other to cling to and listen to our Kiss, Maiden and Metallica albums together. 

For that reason, it’s more than a little weird to see what we did due to a lack of any ability to move our bodies elevated to the level of performance art. But that’s precisely what has happened. 

On Friday, competitors from all over Denver's metro area will compete in the 2016 U.S. Air Guitar Championships, Denver Qualifiers. The winner of that will move on to the Regional Finals in Kansas City, and the winners from the country’s regionals will compete in the national finals in Austin during the summer. The winner of that will represent the United States in the World Championships, taking place in Finland in August.

There are parallels between competitive air guitar and a drag show: Both involve a mime along with a beloved song. The art is in the performance, not the technical ability. It’s a show, nothing more, and that’s okay. It’s serious stuff, despite the tongue-in-cheek nature of the event itself. By definition, the winner has to be more over-the-top, exuberant and elaborate that anyone else. 

The drag comparison is apt, too, because the MC (or “Master of Airomonies," seriously) at Friday’s contest will be former Denver champ John Humphrey, who performs as a woman named Diane Cletus. Humphrey says that his signature move is simply keeping his skirt on, and according to the man himself, Diane is the ex-wife of the male persona that he previously performed as. It’s all very flamboyant, considering the testosterone-fueled overtones of the air-guitar world.

“I think that air guitar lends itself to nerdy guys like myself, but it’s been great to branch out into other characters, and I think that women are just as competition-worthy as men,” Humphrey says.

There are women out there doing it, like Bettie B. Goode, real name Taryn Kapronica, from New Jersey. Our hometown heroes, besides Humphrey, have names like Dreamcatcher (Ryan Alva Layman) and Big Rig (Randall Layman). Those guys happen to be identical twins, by the way, and Ryan will be a judge on Friday.

“I saw my first show in 2009,” Humphrey says. “Ryan competed in that show, and I was blown away. I decided that I had to do this the following year, so I’ve been competing every year that we’ve had it in Denver since then.”

Humphrey, who likes to perform to Joan Jett and Tammy Wynette songs, says that his most glorious moment was his debut performance as a woman, winning the 2012 Denver-area championships with his shirt off.

When it comes to his most embarrassing moment, Humphrey finds it a little harder to pick just one.

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“The second time I ever competed, I was judged by an ex-Black Flag drummer while I was wearing a Black Flag patch,” he says. “His name was Bill Stevenson. He gave me the lowest score of my career and chewed me up and spat me out. It was gratifying and also horrifying. Maybe he thought I was pandering.”

As the MC on Friday, Humphrey is hoping to see some new blood at the event, as it’s been a couple of years since the last Denver event. The visual-arts teacher (he doesn’t want to say which school he teaches at) is keen to see new talent competing.

“I think people would be surprised by how much fun it is,” he says. “It’s like an alternate art form. One of our English grand air-guitar masters, a guy named Zac Monro, said that it can be elevated to performance art, and that’s certainly what we’re shooting for on Friday night.”

The U.S. Air Guitar 2016 Denver Qualifier takes place at 9 p.m. on Friday, May 27, at the Lion's Lair; 2022 E. Colfax Ave., Denver; 303-320-9200; $15 entry fee.

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