Three Levels of Analysis: Air Guitar

Thus far, my research on air guitar has three subjects of analysis:

  • competitive air guitar: formalized air guitar competitions both past and present, beginning in the 1980s, regulated through various institutional and organizational bodies, connected to other kinds of music competitions (example: the 2014 Boston Air Guitar Qualifier)
  • informal air guitar: individual air guitar practice at concerts or in private dwellings, does not serve a competitive purpose, typically informal and spontaneous (example: a person air guitaring at a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert)
  • metaphorical air guitar: the use of air guitar as a metaphor for emptiness, silliness, inauthenticity, or transcendence, connected to some of the ideologies of air guitarists and ideologies imposed on them by outsiders (example: criticisms of the Red Hot Chili Peppers for not playing their instruments and “air guitaring” during the Super Bowl)

All three of these layers inform one another, and an analysis of air guitar must take into account the present and historical dimensions of all three. For example, in contemporary competitions, many performers first encounter air guitar in the “informal air guitar” mode, where they learn the gestural movements (or what I might call “gestural vocabularies”) of the air guitar. They then might convert these gestural vocabularies into a routine for a competitive air guitar context, which might derive its potency and meaning, in part, from the metaphorical constructions of air guitar.


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