Organology of Virtual Instruments: On the Changing Size of Air Guitars

The size of an air guitar is in flux.

For over 20 years, the official Air Guitar World Championships organization has hosted international air guitar competitions. During this time, the scale of these events has rapidly changed–from a marginal event existing alongside the Oulu music video festival to a cultural force (and source of tourism) in its own right. During this time, the spectacle of imaginary guitar playing has led to more online and in-person viewers each year. At the 20th Anniversary, one of the organizers told me they had 6,000 in-person spectators and 6,000 livestreamers, with an additional large amount of people consuming clips on YouTube after the event.

In the footage that exists of the early competitions, the crowds are significantly smaller and the stage is much more confined. People can see the facial expressions of performers. They can see the sweat on performers. They can throw beer on the performers and vice versa. The judges sit at small tables in front of the stage.

In modern day competitions, the performers have a much larger stage to work with. The judges are placed in an elevated booth nearly 20 feet from the stage. The crowds are sizable. The performers must perform in ways legible to people in the front row and home viewers. Having been to the competition in Finland twice now, I’ve heard competitors remark that certain routines that work well in small venues simply don’t translate to the big international competition stage.

Screen Shot 2017-02-13 at 3.44.30 PM.pngWhat I’d like to suggest about this trajectory is that: air guitars have gotten much bigger in the competition. You can see old competition routines, in which air guitars are relatively close to the size of real guitars. In later competitions, they’re much bigger. People must move their arms more expansively to pantomime larger guitars, simply in order to have their guitars be seen by all the viewers.

For example, take a look at this image of C-Diddy in 2003 (above), delivering what would go down as one of the most famous (and successful) competition routines. Look at the size of the air guitar. It’s quite small and close to the body. This is C-Diddy playing guitar in a somewhat “resting” pose (in other words, not doing a theatrical move). Now look at the image below of the Devil’s Niece in 2011.

Screen Shot 2017-02-13 at 3.47.54 PM.pngThe size of the guitar appears much bigger, in some sense following in proportion with the stage. Her gestures clearly translate on the screen and in the liver performance. Her gestures are more demonstrative.

Obviously, a more extensive analysis would be needed to confirm my hypothesis. And a more precise analysis might reveal nuances related to the size of the air guitar relative to body type or style of performance.

But an organology (the study and classification of musical instruments) of this “virtual instrument” might prove interesting, particularly because it confounds so many ideologies in organological research. What are the materials of the instrument? How are the organs of the body related to the organology of the instrument? How do different countries and “schools of air guitar” play it differently? How are these instruments preserved (archive of the body)? What is their relationship to other instruments (both real and imaginary)?



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