Participating in air-guitar competitions means creating and embracing a stage persona. Contestants develop larger-than-life characters with back-stories, costumes and distinctive moves — similar to those in professional wrestling.

"If American wrestling didn't exist and someone said, 'What if grown men wore leotards and pretended to fight?' it would sound ridiculous," Rucker of the USAG says. "But no one gives it a thought now."

That's exactly what's so enticing to Justin Howard, the 2012 Air Guitar World Champion who goes by the stage name "Nordic Thunder."

Illustration by Dan Zettwoch

"Creating your air-guitar character is an opportunity to be anything you want, whether that's an '80s hair-metal, spandex-wearing Mötley Crüe-playing rock star or a sweet Southern belle who is possessed by the Devil, and the only way she can communicate with the world is through her air guitar," Howard says. "No matter what character you decide to take on as your alter ego, just let your freak flag fly and become that person onstage!"

Setting up the performance itself requires some serious consideration and storytelling ability.

"Your one-minute competition song is like a three-act play. You're telling a story with your whole body," Melin says. "There's a lot more you can do with an air guitar that you can't do with a real one — throw it up, catch it, impale yourself with it."

Steven Fuller hopes St. Louis will rocket his budding air-guitar addiction to the next level. The 33-year-old dad showcased his first public air guitar this past February at an "aireoke" event in his hometown of Kansas City.

The song he chose — "Welcome to the Jungle" by Guns N' Roses — left him physically exhausted but hooked.

"The whole time you have to be holding this thing that is not there," explains Fuller. "But still you are flexing your arms for five minutes like you are carrying around a seven- to ten-pound instrument. I'm in shape, but it's a workout."

Earlier this month Fuller entered his first USAG competition. He didn't make it past the first round.

"I'm short, and I don't think I could be seen all that well," reflects the five-foot-seven-inch Fuller, who performs as a well-dressed axman named "The Dapper Dwarf." "I didn't rally up the crowd as much as I could have."

So it was back to the living room where Fuller practices his air guitar after his kids go to bed. (His wife, Elizabeth, a ballerina who stands stands more than six feet tall, has also taken up the hobby. She performs as a character named "Dirty Bird.")

Last week Fuller drove to Iowa to compete in a USAG qualifier in Des Moines. The six-hour round trip proved encouraging. He placed third, missing a chance to move onto a USAG regional competition by one-tenth of a point.

Air guitarists at USAG events perform a 60-second set in front of a three-judge panel that ranks them based on their invisible fretwork, stage presence and "airness," defined as "the extent to which a performance transcends the imitation of a real guitar and becomes an art form in and of itself." Fuller believes he has command of the first two criteria. He plans to reach maximum "airness" this Friday at the Firebird.

So, too, do all those who'll compete against him.

"Qualifier shows are like punk basement shows — smaller, crazier and less structured," says Melin, who will come to town to emcee the competition. "If you just come to see the show and not enough competitors have signed up, you may be dragged up to perform.

"We've had injuries — broken toes and blood on the stage," Melin continues. "We're just not allowed to light things on fire anymore, which hurts for me because I'd been working on my smoking air-guitar routine."

The winner can expect the competition to become more intense at the semifinals and nationals.

"The competitive atmosphere of nationals is hot damn crazy sauce. You're surrounded by top-tier air-guitar talent, and any given competitor can take home the crown," says Farnan, a graphic and Web designer in his non-air-guitar life. "The crowd is likely three times bigger than the qualifier you came from. You have to completely win [over] a crowd full of strangers, and that's the most difficult task to conquer."

After a few years of being scrutinized and scorned, the country's air-guitar culture has become more accepted not only as entertainment, but also as a skill.

"People, on the surface, see it as a bunch of weirdos running around playing invisible instruments. Which it is, but it is also absolutely an art form," defends Howard. "The brave souls who step out on the stage are creating something from nothing. In that minute, there is something magical that happens between the air guitarist and the audience — an energy traded back and forth."

The best performers are those who are willing to push the envelope.

"You get things like sitar. Or a person did dueling banjos," Rucker says. "You get all sorts of stuff."

For McClimans at the Firebird, he'll be happy with just a few '80s hair-band songs and some theatrics.

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