HQ Is Hosting the US Air Guitar 2022 Regional Championships

A contestant "plays" at the 2020 Denver competion.
A contestant "plays" at the 2020 Denver competion. Jenna Moll Reyes / Boon Eye Photos
There's no way you can hold a gun when you're holding an air guitar, which means air guitar can usher in an era of world peace. At least that’s the logic that birthed the Air Guitar World Championships, an annual competition between the planet’s most virtuosic air guitarists, where contestants representing their countries congregate in the Finnish Arctic Circle to crown a champion.

Their motto? “Make air, not war.”

The U.S. Air Guitar Championships are one of the qualifying tournaments for the world event, where shredders from across American cities compete for their place on national and international stages. This Saturday, June 4, HQ will host the Regional Championships, which will determine who from the area will go on to the next stage.

The three criteria for judging any guitar competition — from Oulu, Finland, down to Boise, Idaho — begins with stage presence. This is where creativity and character come in. Denver Air Guitar Master of Airimonies, John Humphrey, says, “Whether you're likable or not, there's a lot of similarities between air guitar and professional wrestling. You can be an unlikable character and ooze stage presence and be interesting. You can be whoever you want. You've just got to get the audience interested in your shtick.”

The second criterion is technical prowess. The folks that have technical prowess sometimes are actual musicians, but that’s not usually the case, according to Humphrey. He says, “I tend to think that if you're really good at the guitar, that can be a detriment, because they have a hard time setting all their music knowledge and theory aside and actually playing the air guitar. Air guitar is very different. ... Nobody actually cares if you know the notes, but it should at least look like you've like heard this song before.”

The last quality — the most elusive one — is “airness.” Humphrey says people often liken that to pornography: “I know it when I see it.”

“For me, ‘airness’ is really what I look for, which is something that I've never seen before," he says. "It’s kind of the je ne sais quoi of air guitar — where you kind of forget that you're seeing somebody play their guitar, and it becomes something unto itself, like performance art. It means that somebody has something really special that they want to communicate with this particularly weird medium, and you don't see that every competition.”

Humphrey finds himself especially qualified to judge performance art: “I went to art school, so I feel like I'm allowed to be very pretentious about air guitar, because I paid a lot of money to get a BFA.”

Contestants are judged on a scale of 4.0 to 6.0 by each judge, with a perfect score from the three judges being 666 (because of course it is). It’s no coincidence that this is the same scoring system that professional figure skating uses — which, according to Humphrey, makes the system “legit.”

In an air guitar competition, there are two rounds, and no round lasts for more than sixty seconds, because “a person shouldn’t be forced to play air guitar in public for more than sixty seconds,” says Humphrey. The first round is the freestyle round, where each contestant chooses a song to perform. Then the five highest scores go to round two, which is the compulsory round. Nobody knows what the song's going to be ahead of time, except for the person who's hosting the event. The host announces the song, and the contestants are forced to improvise.

Denver has a rich history of air guitar, producing some of the medium's most iconic characters in the country. For instance, the 2006 movie Air Guitar Nation follows the story of Denver-born Dan "Björn Türoque" Crane, who was one of the top contestants in early U.S. Air Guitar competitions. The movie won awards at SXSW and was selected for the Tribeca Film Festival. Humphrey says Crane has a weird love-hate relationship with Denver and talks a lot of trash about it.

Also from Denver is the Magic Cyclops, who is infamous for a few things. First, he’s come in second place in more air guitar competitions than anyone else in the world. Second, he has 11,000 air guitars, second to only a collector in Belgium, who owns five more than him. Third, he rocketed glittery chaff out his bum on American Idol. Magic Cyclops would eventually pass the Denver Master of Airimonies torch on to Humphrey.

Humphrey’s wife, Rachel Sinclair (who by destiny was born with “air” in her name), is also an icon, being a three-time Denver champ and being the only woman to break the top five last year at Nationals and get on ESPN (ESPN 8: The Ocho, that is). “We were sandwiched in between the cow pie-throwing contest and the mullet contest, which felt like appropriate recruiting for viewership,” says Humphrey.

While there is no guarantee it will be on the Ocho this year, the national championship will happen in July, in a city not yet selected. However, first, Denver crowns its own champion to represent at the Nationals and perhaps the Worlds, this Saturday at HQ.

The US Air Guitar 2022 Regional Championships takes place Saturday, June 4, at HQ, 60 S Broadway, 7 p.m. Tickets are $15.
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