Update at 3:40 p.m. ET[The Air Guitar World Championship has crowned its winner. Scroll to the end of the story to find out who won.]
Great rock guitarists need great nicknames. There’s Slash, Slowhand and The Edge.
Meet a new one: Airistotle. No, that’s not a misspelling. The nom de rock belongs to Matt Burns, a waiter and world-class competitive air guitarist living in New York City. He decided to try air-rocking almost a decade ago when he saw the documentary Air Guitar Nation.
“I was like, ‘That is the silliest, dumbest, most beautiful, amazing thing I’ve ever seen,’ ” Burns says. “I signed up for the next competition that I could.”
It turned out that Burns had a knack for it. His résumé includes four national air guitar championships and three runner-up finishes in the world finals.
Last year, Airistotle won his first Air Guitar World Championship. The 2017 world finals are Friday in Finland, and Burns is there, performing Me First and the Gimme Gimmes’ version of “I Will Survive.”
So what does it take to be an elite air guitarist?
“You do not have to be in good shape for this,” Burns says, “which is a huge plus.” Stretching is a good idea, though, and Burns says he’s dabbled in Zumba (the exercise dance program) because its “over-the-top moving” translates well to air guitar. And it helped that Burns had some experience on stage. He’s a self-described “theater kid” and says he has also performed stand-up comedy.
But his creative niche is air guitar. Competitors generally use the same routine for a year, then create a new one in time for the start of a new air guitar season.
Burns’ creative process involves a couple of months of listening to pop-punk songs — he grew up with Green Day and Sum 41, he says — and narrowing it down to a song he likes. Then he crystallizes his performance routines with the help of a few friends.
“We’ll all just have a bunch of beers,” Burns says. “We basically just try to make each other laugh.”
Then, with the basics of his routine fleshed out, Burns practices at his favorite rehearsal spot: the New York City subway.
“The train platforms kind of feel like a stage,” Burns says. “So I kind of pretend that I’m on the world stage there, and that’s when I kind of scale up all my moves.”
This year’s competition includes finalists from Japan, Australia, Korea, Europe and Canada — with names like The Jinja Assassin, Mom Jeans Jeanie and Ehrwolf. But the air guitar community is tightly knit, and Burns says they often work together to perfect their routines — which makes sense. “They housed the first air guitar championships out of the belief that if everybody would just pick up an air guitar and put down the guns, then the climate would change, war would end, and all good things would happen if everybody would just party and have some fun,” Burns says.
Burns and other competitors are trying to hit all three categories their routines are judged on. First is technical merit: Air guitarists have to look like they’re actually playing a guitar. Stage presence is second.
The third and most nebulous category is “airness.” Burns calls it an air guitarist’s je ne sais quoi — the moment, he says, “when what you’re doing transcends the act of imitation and becomes an art form in and of itself.”
If Burns makes all of this sound easy, it’s the same way that professional “real” guitarists can make face-melting solos seem easy.
Air guitar is “ridiculous,” Burns says, but creatively stimulating. “Like, how can I entertain somebody with nothing for 60 seconds?”
If Burns can again take top honors at the world finals, he’ll win a trophy and a guitar, custom-made by a Finnish luthier.
What happens when the world’s best air guitarist picks up a real, six-string guitar?
“I started learning to play the guitar after I got involved with air guitar,” Burns says. “And I’m not very good. I’m not very good at all.”
UPDATE: Airistotle did it again. He remains the world air guitar champ. Two on the five-judge scoring panel deemed his performance perfect, and he handily won the competition. Check out all the performances here.
Jacob Pinter is a producer at Morning Edition. Tyler Hill, a news assistant at Morning Edition, contributed to this story.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
All right, Ailsa, it’s Friday. It’s almost the weekend. I mean, I feel like we should just turn up some music.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Yes. I am so ready for this.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GREENE: Now, this song is really important because it put Matt Burns in a class of his own.
MATT BURNS: I’m the reigning world air guitar champion. And I am in Finland right now to defend my world title.
CHANG: The Air Guitar World Championships get underway today. And to be clear, there are no guitars in sight in this competition. Matt Burns, who goes by the stage name Airistotle – get it, Airistotle? – says…
GREENE: I see what you did there.
CHANG: …Judges score each performance in three categories.
BURNS: They’re looking for technical merit, which is how much it looks like you’re playing an actual guitar, stage presence, and finally and by far the most important is airness.
BURNS: Airness is almost impossible to define. It’s just kind of like the je ne sais quoi. What you’re doing transcends the act of imitation and becomes an art form in and of itself.
CHANG: The je ne sais quoi, David.
CHANG: Matt Burns says he was inspired after seeing a documentary called “Air Guitar Nation.”
BURNS: And I was like, that is the silliest, dumbest, most beautiful, amazing thing I’ve ever seen. And I signed up for the next competition that I could.
GREENE: Yeah. Burns says he starts preparing for competition months in advance. He has to find just the right song, and then he workshops it.
BURNS: I usually go to a buddy of mine’s house, and we’ll all just have a bunch of beers. And they kind of like help coach me. They’re like, dude, if your knee’s not higher, Japan’s going to win the championship this year.
CHANG: And if youre thinking about trying your hand at air guitar, well, Matt Burns offers these tips.
BURNS: You do not have to be in good shape for this, which is a huge plus. And stretching does help because it is like a physical thing. I used to take Zumba classes to help get me ready for the season. I think Zumba and air guitar have a lot in common because its such over-the-top movements that the two go hand-in-hand.
GREENE: Well, there’s your newest ad for Zumba. If you need to air guitar, take Zumba. That was world champion air guitarist Airistotle, also known as Matt Burns. He defends his title later today at the final of the Air Guitar World Championships in Finland. And here is what he will be shredding.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “I WILL SURVIVE”)
ME FIRST AND THE GIMME GIMMES: (Singing) I will survive. Oh, as long as I know how to love, I know I’ll stay alive. I’ve got all my life to live, and I’ve got all my love to give. And I’ll survive. I will survive. Hey, hey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.