A Night of Competitive Air Guitar in D.C.

Photo by Matt Roth

Looking into the eyes of 47-year-old Lance “The Shred” Kasten, it is apparent that the sheer enjoyment and ridiculousness of competitive air guitar is more than just a night out with the boys.

The Shred appeared drained after a grueling tie against Chris “Sanjar The Destroyer” Paxton in May’s U.S. Air Guitar regional competition at the 9:30 Club, in Washington.

The two will return to duke it out and settle the score with each other and with other air guitarists from around the country at the National U.S. Air Guitar Championships, Friday, Aug. 7 at 8 p.m. at the 9:30 Club.

Yet, The Shred’s concern and emotions didn’t rest with his glory. It was with his fellow air guitarists in a brotherhood of sorts.

“Somebody’s heart was going to be broken there,” said the Washington, D.C., native in the 9:30 Club balcony greenroom. His attention quickly turned to Sanjar.

“I’m so proud of this guy right here, man,” he said, pointing to Sanjar resting on a in disbelief. “Last year he was a mediocre air guitar player and he brought it on, man.”

And that respect and bond, said Dan “Bjorn Turoque” Crane of New York, is what makes the competitions of playing nothing so great.

“We are the outsiders. We are the dorks,” he said. “We are the losers that could not really learn how to play a real instrument, and now we have air guitar, and for many of us, it saved our life.”

Paxton, 27, of Chicago, was equally blown away by The Shred’s performance, partially due to some idol worship.

“I looked up to him since I learned about air guitar. I watched the documentary and he was on there, and his interview on the documentary is so pure. He just loves air guitar, and he doesn’t care about anything else. He just wants to play, and he’s such an inspiration.”

As soon as Paxton met Shred last year, he had no choice but to like his future competitor.

“He said, ‘My name is The Shred and we’re best friends.'”

Kolb “Vlad DM Wailer” Ettenger, 23, of College Park, made it to the second round in the Washington regional with an awe-inspiring and butt-crack-baring performance. Vlad isn’t as much for the competitions as he is for some quality time with the boys.

“What it’s about is it’s like a fraternity and getting to hang out with a bunch of people,” he said. “As you could imagine, a bunch of people who like to dress down, put on tight pants and jump around on stage for a minute just for fun and pleasure are generally a good bunch of dudes, and females as well.”

While in the greenroom, the competitors talked about the prior performance — who killed, who failed — shot the breeze and supported each other as the crowd did.

“It gets kind of locker room talkish,” said Ettenger, who wore a skin-tight, vintage red Adidas track suit.

The down time before one gets to do his 60-second performance helps create the myths and legends that help build energy for the air guitarists, he said.

“It makes us even more excited about people playing invisible instruments.”

Hot air

Wes Hays, an “air traffic controller” for U.S. Air Guitar, said egos do not get in the way of a good show.

“It’s called a competition, but it’s unique where it’s the one competition where backstage there is no cutthroat mentality,” he said. “It’s simply a bunch of guys and a few women having a good time.”

While these “musicians” are in touring mode, relationships happen with air girlfriends, or even the occasional hook-up with an air groupie.


“It is interesting though that air guitarists have groupies,” said Craig “Hott Lixx Hulahan” Billmeier of Oakland, Calif., the current world and U.S. Air Guitar champion. “I’ve come to experience that, as long as you’re on the stage doing something they wouldn’t do themselves, there will be people who will respect, appreciate and do you for that.”

Washington has earned a reputation for its camaraderie and its faithful fans and is regarded as a first-class air guitar city, Kasten said.

“D.C. even surprised U.S. Air Guitar to begin with, as radical as it was that first year,” in 2007.

The 9:30 Club, which holds 1,200 people, regularly draws large crowds and sell-outs, said Paul “Fender Splendor” Alexander, of Columbia Heights, who will compete in the national championship.

“People in D.C. love air guitar,” the 23-year-old said.

That was evident during the D.C. regional in May, where U.S. Air Guitar history occurred. Not only did The Shred and Sanjar bring incredible performances that warranted not just one, but two “air offs,” but the audience could not make up its mind, either, when the judges turned the decision over to it.

After much debate, confusion and screams of approval, the judges decided to send both Sanjar and Shred to the finals.

The Master of Airemonies that night, Bjorn, fears for his safety in the national competition after the frenzy the Washington crowd displayed three months ago.

“It’s going to be a massively intense final,” the U.S. Air Guitar Hall-of-Famer said. “I’m a little scared. I’m afraid the building might burn down.”

Air standards

Contestants perform to a 60-second song clip of their choice in round one. If they make it to round two, a song will be selected that all competitors must perform.Judging is done by a three-person panel and scores are given on a 4.0 to 6.0 scale, similar to Olympic figure skating.

Contestants are judged on technical performance, stage presence and an intangible value called “airness.”

Scores from both rounds are added to determine the winner.

If you go

What: U.S. Air Guitar Championship

When: Friday, Aug. 7, 8 p.m.

Where: 9:30 Club, 815 V St., NW, Washington, D.C.

Tickets: $20; Call 1-800-955-5566 or go to http://www.930.com.


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