The phrase “air guitar” evokes the image of pre-teens jamming out in their rooms to hard rock or heavy metal, banging their head without a care. Go up another level with “Competitive Air Guitar,” and heads are tilted in confusion at such a thought. Most who are aware of the competitive side of this hobby think it’s something just below karaoke in the spectrum of dive bar activities. But it does exist, and it is a sport populated by wildly passionate performers and fans across the world. It’s not quite something for the masses, but the off kilter and culturally obtuse see more than just a person wildly playing an imaginary guitar. Through it, they can find inspiration, hope and perhaps even revival of their faith in humanity — all while rocking out to Iron Maiden or Judas Priest.
Justin “Nordic Thunder” Howard Moved to Chicago from Wyoming and has elevated himself within the sport. He holds the Chicago Air Guitar Championship title for 2006, ’08, ’10 and ’11. He won the World Championship in 2012, has performed all across the globe, led seminars and workshops dealing with the sport, and has most recently appeared in a national-television ad campaign for Dr. Pepper. CCP’s Luke Crumley was able to catch the elusive air musician in between performances.
Criminal Class Press: What got you into this?
Justin “Nordic Thunder” Howard: In 2004 I was playing the air guitar at a friend’s house, just messing around, and I turned weird and pulled something. Turns out I ended up tearing my meniscus and would have to have surgery later that year. But as I was walking around on my crutches and saw a flyer for an air-guitar competition outside of a bar, I remember thinking that this was the most ridiculous thing ever and being pissed that I couldn’t do it ’cause of my knee. That was the first I ever heard of it as a sport. Then, in 2006, I saw an ad in the “Red Eye” for an upcoming competition and said, ‘Dude, I’m gonna do this.’ And I’ve been doing it ever since.
CCP: What was competing like for you at first? What did you think of it?
JH: Well, in the beginning, I’d watch clips on the internet, and I’d seen that documentary, “Air Guitar Nation,” but I was holding onto the idea that the whole thing was just so ridiculous that it was awesome. It was crazy and cool, and I wanted to be the guy who was the best at this ridiculous, weird, cool thing. ‘I’m gonna win — I’m gonna win Chicago; I’m gonna win U.S., and I’m gonna win the world.’ That was how I was thinking. I won Chicago in ’06, but I lost bad at the U.S. Finals. Then, in ’07, I didn’t even win Chicago, which was probably the best thing that could have happened to me as a professional air guitarist. It humbled me — changed my attitude — you know. I was all up on my high horse and it brought me down and told me, ‘No, dude, you’re not the best at this. There’s people who are way better than you.’ So, in ’08, I came in with this different attitude, like I was going to try ’n’ win but also just have fun with it. That year I won Chicago but ruptured a disk in my back and herniated two others at the U.S. Finals in San Francisco, which led me to take off all of ’09.
But that was the year I started to really see the community. I started to understand how all these weirdos and people like me were just out there doing their thing — no one was judging anyone. Everybody was just having a great time and lifting everyone else up, so to speak.
CCP: And when you came back in 2010?
JH: By this time, I just wanted to win Chicago, so I could get to the U.S. Finals and hang out with all these weirdos and just have a good time again. Then, in 2011, I won the U.S. Finals in front of a sold- out crowd at the Metro in Chicago, which allowed me to go to the World Finals in Finland. The first time I ever left the country — I mean for anything — was to go to Finland and play the air guitar. And that was where I discovered this whole other side of it.
CCP: What changed for you then?
JH: Well, all along you’re told that air guitaring is a promotion of world peace, in its own right. And being in Finland, seeing over 20 countries represented, no one speaks the same language; and we’re all like-minded and there to have fun with this goofy thing. It really just hit me. There was no hate or fear — everyone left their own country’s political beliefs at the door, and people just got along. I’d never been a part of something like that, and it was all very powerful.
That brought me to this past year, where I played a festival in Poland for over 700,000 people. I was on a two-week tour in Finland, acting as a judge. And got to go to Wolfsburg, Germany to play in front of a panel of scientists and professors studying a psychological response to performing tasks, called ‘flow.’ They were tying air guitaring into it and how when someone’s on stage performing, they just check into a different state of mind.
This all led me to a new awakening, by seeing all these different kinds of people and the joy that air guitaring was bringing them. Seeing something so silly and so stupid have such a joyous effect on people, I believe, has been the vessel for what I think is my life’s purpose.
CCP: What is your prominence in the sport currently?
JH: Well, aside from being the 2012 world champion, I found myself in a Dr. Pepper ad, which was all very weird and cool and really just sort of … happened. I got an e-mail from a representative asking if I would be interested in being a spokesperson for Dr. Pepper. And I just sent an e-mail back, saying, ‘Is this a joke?’ It was all so crazy, but they got right back to me, stating it was real and … well, that happened. Between that national ad campaign and being the world champ, I feel very lucky in that I’m the face of everyone who comes to compete. I know their ideology and purpose behind what they’re doing; and I want to put my best foot forward in my current standing. So aside from judging on tours and appearing at festivals, I got to go to Harold Washington College and talk about life and what air guitar-ing has done to elevate mine. Then I got to perform for a little while for these college students. I also do workshops with kids — elementary level — trying to help them bring out their creative side and lose some of the inhibitions our culture puts on them. Just teach them to be themselves and go after what they want to go after no matter how silly or stupid it might seem to everyone else.
CCP: What sacrifice(s) do you feel you’ve made for this?
JH: Really it would be my physical well being. I’ve messed up my back and my knee, as I already talked about, but I have zero regard for my own personal well being when I’m up there. I’ll slide across the stage every time I perform, and I’ve started tearing open the skin on my knees. Time after time and year after year, I keep tearing it open until now it’s really nothing but scar tissue — but that’s about it. I actually feel air guitaring has strengthened every other part of my life.
CCP: And what do you see for yourself now? Where do you go from here?
JH: Well, competing has taken a back seat to the connection I get. It shows me that there are people who still want to do and be good in this world; and I’m part of a small group of people who are doing that through this crazy thing. As obscure as this world may be to everyone else, it makes me feel like I’m part of something huge. But my career as a competitor is coming to an end. I’ll defend my title but outside of that, what more can I do? I feel I’ve achieved all there is from that side of it. But I want to remain active within the scene, in some capacity.
But more than that my life’s goal has spiraled off of this — wanting to do good and contribute something positive to the world. To interact with human beings and pull something from them, or let them see the positive that lives within them, and help them to lift that higher. I want to go into forgotten neighborhoods in Chicago — the ones you’re told to be afraid of or never hear about unless something bad is going on there. I want to start some sort of center where people are not forced to come, but they can if they choose, and they can see a different side of life — whether it’s music, art or writing, or whatever — help them bring out their creativity and shed some of the walls this world makes us build up. Give them a place to be who they want to be and not what their neighborhood dictates them to be.