The spotlight lit up Erik Peterson as he stepped onto the stage at Dreamcatcher at Viejas dressed in a plaid kilt accessorized with shaggy fur wristbands and a plastic Viking helmet with fake blond braids. The crowd was silent as he slowly raised his right arm, his index finger pointed upwards to signal the start of the music.

When the first note jumped out of the speaker, Peterson became Tone Loki, leaping all over the stage, playing invisible solos and imaginary licks on his nonexistent guitar.

Peterson had driven from Albuquerque to compete in the San Diego leg of the U.S. Air Guitar National Championships. Contestants paid $20 for the chance to pretend to play along with a favorite rock or metal tune edited down to 60 seconds. The winner bags $400 and the chance to go on to compete against 23 other air-guitar champions at the August 8 nationals in San Francisco.

Some might scoff at the idea of pretending to jam to “Welcome to the Jungle” in front of a crowd of 200, but the night’s lineup of air guitarists was dead serious about their “airness.”

Three judges score the performances and throw out snappy burns and put-downs as critique — something like an R-rated Gong Show.

Backstage, the air guitarists were treated better than most touring bands. There were cases of iced-down beer, bottles of Cuervo tequila, and trays of cheeses and other snacks.

All of the free-flowing beer had George “Madness” Hunter a little concerned. During introductions, Madness raised a giant, muscular arm and began to ask a question. “Last year somebody spilled some beer on the stage and left a big puddle, and it ruined my kicks.…”

The organizers assured him his kicks would be okay. “It’s a big stage. It’s rock ’n’ roll.”

Madness drove down from San Gabriel to air guitar to Quiet Riot’s instrumental “Battle Axe.” His costume was classic ’80s rocker: a long wig, tight-fitting sleeveless shirt, and crotch-bulging acid-wash jeans. Along with a couple of big kicks, Madness mixed in some pirouettes — which cost him points with the judges.

Along with Madness and Tone Loki, the majority of the night’s performers were out-of-towners taking advantage of San Diego’s low sign-up numbers. The Crusher cruised down from Costa Mesa, Gobo flew in from San Francisco, and L.A.’s Therocknessfuckingmonster, a former national champion, arrived with the promoters aboard their giant tour bus.

Dan “the Man” Adams took the prize for longest travel distance. The Ohio resident hit the road to tour as an air guitarist, driving solo from town to town in his hybrid car.

“I work for a school district, and I got a two-month unpaid leave of absence to do this,” says Adams. “In Detroit I placed third, then fifth in Cleveland, seventh in Chicago.”

At Viejas he was carried onstage on a hand truck decked out in a glittery Mylar suit, looking like a disco-y Hannibal Lecter. He pointed to the roof, and a 60-second edit of Quiet Riot’s “Mental Health” rocked the house. Dan performed the song as if he owned it, but it wasn’t enough for the judges.

Three of the four local competitors made it to the finals. The San Diegan failing to advance was Count Cougar Slayer, aka X1FM producer Andrew Wehrung.

Tierrasanta’s Yoko Airo had this to say: “Anyone can get up there and pretend to strum, but it’s really the moves that make it air guitar. It’s known as ‘airness’ — that whole feeling of your head thrashing and the fretwork. You have kicks and jumps. I didn’t have that kind of confidence to perform those things — I was one of those strummers. I started practicing, and people started telling me I was getting pretty good at it. I have some groupies out there.”

While most of her competition was hanging out backstage drinking beer, Airo — Karin Roelke, pharmaceutical saleswoman — had her headphones on, one leg bouncing nervously to the sound of her edited-for-performance version of AC/DC’s “T.N.T.”

“I basically consulted with people that grew up during that era,” says Roelke. “A lot of people are closet air guitarists, but they don’t want to admit it. Everyone who grew up during the Van Halen days, AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses — everyone has an air guitar. So I would practice in front of them, and they would give me pointers. It’s really a collaboration of closet air guitarists, and I’m the embodiment of them.”

Roelke points to her knees. “There’s injuries involved. I took all the skin off my knees. I thought I could do a knee slide in my house on my wooden floors, and that didn’t work out very well.” Many of the competitors had scabs on their knees from home-practice sliding sessions.

Onstage, with Angus Young blasting through the P.A., Roelke tore off her conservative business suit to reveal a denim skirt, fishnet stockings, and studded wristbands. Airo’s airness would land her in the finals.

Bonita’s Joseph Balan, aka J-Prime, is a junior high math teacher by day and an actor by night. While he mostly listens to hip-hop, he thought air guitaring to Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s intricate fretting would set him apart from the hard-rock competitors. That and some thrashed-out Russian dancing earned him a spot in the finals.

The air-guitar underdog was Mary Jane, who dances to Slipknot, Hatebreed, and Marilyn Manson at Little Darlings in Lemon Grove. Despite her dancing career, she sat backstage pounding beer, nervous about playing her invisible axe and describing the butterflies as the embarrassed feeling of “being caught on the toilet.”

She sauntered out and her dancer instinct took over. She whipped her blonde mane around to a Mudvayne tune and worked a make-believe stripper pole. When the scores were tallied, the Crusher and Gobo would take on locals J-Prime, Yoko Airo, and Mary Jane.

Gobo called in sick to work to compete at this event after failing to advance to the San Francisco city finals two nights before.

“I was totally ripped off,” says Todd Nakagawa, aka Gobo. “I missed second round by .3 points because I did not have a costume, and that’s what pisses me off. I take this totally seriously. This is f***ing dead serious. It’s a f***ing art form, but a lot of people have turned it into a freak show who need some costume or gimmick. Yeah, you need to get the crowd going, but it’s a frickin’ art form. Hey, the Finns know that, the Europeans know that, and even in the documentary [Air Guitar Nation, 2006] they mocked America because they think we don’t take it seriously. But there are a bunch of us that do.

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