By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
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By Alice Laussade
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Like many before him, Jeff Morrison lives out his rock star fantasies in the privacy of his own home, playing with an imaginary guitar while pretending to be Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton or just about any other guitar hero. Unlike most, however, Morrison doesn't worry about what his friends think—and doesn't mind making an ass of himself in front of a crowd.
The Denton native has been playing air guitar in public for years now; and the fact is, he isn't ashamed of it in the least.
"I first started air guitaring when I was 4 months old," Morrison says with a semi-straight face. "As long as your song and your airness are there, it doesn't matter how old you are."
The 23-year-old computer engineer is ready to make his third appearance at the U.S. Regionals of something called The National Air Guitar Championships. If he wins, Morrison will make it to the National Finals; and if he wins there, he will be sent to Finland to compete for the title of World Champion Air Guitarist.
"Last year, I spent about a month preparing—but that might have been my downfall," laughs Morrison, who goes by the stage name Johnny Van Fretmaster.
Morrison thinks he saw an ad for the air guitar contest in a local paper, but he isn't sure. He does remember swallowing a few bottles of liquid courage before his first performance in 2007. But he claims to have toned it down a bit last year.
"I was not quite as inebriated the last time," Morrison says sheepishly.
Morrison will be one of possibly 20 men and women who show up at The Loft this week to compete in the regional qualifying event for the championship. And, according to the founder of U.S. Air Guitar, what started out as a tongue-in-cheek lark has turned into a marginally profitable venture.
"We didn't know how quickly it would take off," says USAG co-founder Kriston Rucker, a product-naming specialist from New York City. "Thankfully, it did rather quickly."
Now entering its seventh year, the event has been gaining fans and contestants each go-round. Rucker says that after witnessing the European Championships a decade ago, he knew that his home country deserved representation.
"Some friends and I went to Finland to see the World Air Guitar Championships, and we could not believe the United States was not represented," Rucker says. "We got the right to do it here in the States and soon found out that if it's set up right, it can be ridiculously entertaining."
One look at the organization's Web site and it's pretty clear just how widespread this geek-fest has become. Real guitarists may scoff, but the energy and commitment these folks bring to faking guitar is either contagious or criminally insane—or both. Each contestant's song (along with an outfit) is painstakingly chosen. Moves are choreographed. Props are planted on the stage or in the audience.
For better or worse, air guitar is the rock version of Dungeons and Dragons.
"Air guitar is a weird kind of theater," Rucker says. "It's not like a regular concert or a cover band or not even karaoke. It's a combination of American Idol and Spinal Tap, with a bit of professional wrestling thrown in."
Although every year produces more contestants and bigger audiences, Rucker says the volume of hate mail has increased accordingly. Not surprising, Rucker says he doesn't even mind that.
"Part of what I like about it is the love-it-or-hate-it aspect of air guitar," Rucker says. "What I can tell you about the hateful letters and e-mails I get is that the most common element is that the grammar is always atrocious. "
Rucker says he understands that a bit of the mockery is from real guitar players just poking fun. But some of the comments left on the Web site are venomous in the extreme.
"People who are upset by what we do have some really weird, irrational paranoia that somehow their music is threatened by air guitar," Rucker says. "All we're doing is providing 60 seconds of musical theater."
Local boy Morrison is happy to take part in the Dallas component of this theater—and he doesn't understand why real guitarists take umbrage at his folly. That's because Morrison plays real guitar as well, and he knows that ignoring instincts is possibly a key to air guitar success.
"If you really play guitar, you're probably too worried about making it look right," Morrison says. "It takes a lot of concentration to ignore the things you've already learned."
Last year's National and World Air Guitar Champion, Craig Billmeier, is also a real guitarist. Also known by his air guitar alias, Hott Lixx Houlahan, Billmeier is a 35-year-old studio engineer from Altameda, California, who went from a drunken dare in 2006 to playing in front of audiences in New York and then Finland.
"Even though I was completely unprepared, I ended up winning my first competition," Billmeier says. "You know you can only take this kind of stuff so seriously, but once I won the nationals, I thought, 'Why not take it seriously?'"
Supported by his friends and family, Billmeier knew that playing air guitar was just a goof. But that was part of its appeal, he says. Plus, this particular goof ended up paying off.
"Look, I can totally understand how silly all of this sounds, but it's really great fun," he says. " And it's taken me to places that I never thought I'd go."
Billmeier choreographed an over-the-top stage routine that took him overseas in '06 and '07, but didn't result in his winning the World Championship until last year. Most air guitarists claim that it is the combination of song and stagecraft that propels a contestant to victory.
And though Billmeier knew he had the moves, he still needed a great song to bring him ultimate victory. Hott Lixx Houlahan chose "Car Crash" by DFW's own Toadies. Now, Billmeier will be hosting the Dallas contest.
"Next thing I know, these guys are presenting me with a box of air and I'm touring the country, making appearances and MCing events," he says.
Now that Billmeier is part of the USAG staff, he no longer has to worry about defending his crown. That leaves the U.S. and World Championships up for grabs. And Morrison, of course, is more than ready to fill those voids.
"This year is going to be it for me," Morrison predicts. "I've picked out my song that I'm keeping under wraps, and I'm going for the Hendrix look this year."
But the final word on the event has to come from Theron Rodriguez, production manager at The Loft, where the area's regional qualifier will be hosted this year.
"We booked that?" he replies, bemused. "Oh well, I've done worse. You know, a show is a show."