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St. Louis has birthed its share of musical luminaries over the years, from the early rock and R&B of Chuck Berry and Tina Turner to the blue-eyed soul of Michael McDonald and hip-hop of Nelly and Chingy. But there is one genre that no St. Louis performer has yet to conquer. This town has yet to produce a musical celebrity who — literally — plays nothing.
Kriston Rucker, cofounder of US Air Guitar, wants to change that.
"Every city in the country should have an event and be represented in USAG," says Rucker. "You never know — maybe the next national or world champ is from St. Louis."
Over the past decade Rucker has been responsible for elevating what used to be an embarrassing guilty pleasure done only behind closed doors into a respected art/performance sport. As the official air-guitar association of the United States, USAG hosts dozens of annual competitions nationwide, sizing up America's best faux Fender strummers to determine who will represent the country at the Air Guitar World Championships in Finland.
The Finns started it as a joke side event for a music festival in the 1990s, and, to their surprise, the audience and participants loved it. Now with a mission to promote world peace through air guitar (seriously!), the world championships welcome contenders from some twenty countries.
"Years ago, a friend and I heard about the Air Guitar World Championships, so we went to Finland to find out what the deal was," Rucker explains. "It was great fun and pretty bizarre, but we were shocked to discover that the United States wasn't represented. We just thought this was one international event that the USA could viably claim as something we should dominate."
Although many coastal and Midwestern cities — including St. Louis' cross-state rival, Kansas City — have become centers of air-guitar activity and notoriety, the Gateway City has never been called upon to showcase its imaginary hot licks and musical "O" face — until now. On Friday, June 28, the Firebird plays host to a qualifying round to determine this year's US Air Guitar champ.
Robert McClimans, the talent buyer for the Firebird, thinks the event could be epic. Sort of like the '67 Monterey Pop Festival when Jimi Hendrix famously lit his Stratocaster on fire, or the time back in 1964 when Pete Townshend first smashed a guitar onstage. McClimans already envisions a St. Louis air-guitar legend in the making.
"A year ago, I would have been like, 'That's stupid. Who'd come see this?'" McClimans says of the event. "But now, I think people will be into it. St. Louis has shown a remarkable ability to show up to everything over the past few years."
And what if a performer from the Firebird goes on to become the US Air Guitar champion?
McClimans has an idea: "We should parade them down Market Street like we do the Cardinals."
What kind of person decides to enter an air-guitar competition? Who chooses to demonstrate their childhood fantasy of being a — capital letters — Rock God by publicly shredding air to Black Sabbath, Bon Jovi, Van Halen and the like?
"You've got to be kind of half-crazy," Rucker says.
"Or be a person who turns their shame filter off," suggests Eric Melin.
Melin should know. A Kansas City resident, he has been a fixture on the air-guitar map since 2009, winning multiple US Air Guitar regional titles as "Mean Melin."
"It's living out rock-star dreams on a low-budget level," Melin says. "The same type of people compete, and you get the same kind of crowd as at a rock show."
Melin, a marketing and communications manager at a social-media monitoring firm, is no stranger to rock-star dreams. He has played drums in noteworthy bands Ultimate Fakebook and the Dead Girls, appeared on VH1's The World Series of Pop Culture and shared the stage with groups such as Motion City Soundtrack.
In fact, Ultimate Fakebook is the line that connected Melin with McClimans at the Firebird.
"My band had a few reunion shows, and Robert [McClimans] booked us to play St. Louis," Melin remembers. "We got there, and it was the most amazing show ever, with 150 people headbanging and playing air guitar."
But McClimans later discovered a different side to Melin.
"I was looking at YouTube and somehow found 'Mean Melin, three-time air-guitar champion.' I was like, 'What the fuck is this?' I didn't really know the scope of air guitar. It's a big deal," McClimans says.
Though Melin has already tasted the rock-star life, he's using air guitar as a chance to finally take center stage.
"I'm a drummer, always sitting down in the back. And that sucks," Melin says. "I want to be the guy in the center, but I can't sing. So I do air guitar."
Jason Farnan had a different approach when it came to joining the air-guitar community. Based in San Diego and going by the name "Lt. Facemelter" at USAG events, Farnan is a three-time regional champ who began his air-guitar career with a shrug.
"Like many air guitarists competing today, I watched the hit documentary Air Guitar Nation and thought, 'Holy hell, I need to go to one of these shows,'" Farnan recalls. " When I went to buy a ticket, I noticed that for an additional $2, you could compete. I thought, 'What's the worst that could happen?' And five years later, I'm more heavily involved than ever."