Two years ago, Houston Press visited the U.S. Air Guitar Championships local qualifier. We were enthralled with the competition’s technical acuity and over-the-top performances. Last year, this writer competed in the event, under the guise of “Guitardo Rivera,” a Latino journalist with a punk rock fetish and a penchant for going bare-chested. I came up empty as Al Capone’s vault, but had a lot of fun.
This year, with the Houston qualifier only days away, we decided to ask someone who has had success getting rare air what it takes to win. His name is Randy Garza, but he’s known in air guitar circles as “El Airiachi.” He’ll be the “Master of Airemonies” when the event returns this Friday to Avant Garden. Because he won’t be directly competing against that night’s hopefuls (he’s already advanced to semi-final action), he agreed to share some air guitar secrets.
The first step is entering the contest, of course. Garza deferred to event organizer Lisa Dejoie-Lowe on this one. She said the meet still needs entrants. Anyone interested can sign up using Eventbrite or simply show up with $20 on the night of the event and choose a 60-second audio clip of guitar greatness from his or her archives. These “wild card” entries can sign up around 6:30 p.m., before the event begins.
If the field stays smallish, it could mean big things for the prospective winner. Advancing means a trip to Kansas City for July’s semi-finals. Advancing there gets air shredders to nationals in Washington, D.C. Moving out of that bracket sends winners to Oulu, Finland, for the world championships.
Of course, travel is a good perk, but Dejoie-Lowe said there’s more to the event than that.
“I have so much fun meeting people and enjoying the comedy and people who can laugh at themselves,” she admitted. “The entire organization is fun, everyone is accepted, come as you are, or as whoever you want to be for 60 seconds.”
Since 2010, Garza has wanted to be El Airiachi for these moments. He’s otherwise a mild-mannered radiologic technologist for Memorial Hermann Medical Center. He’s enjoyed a 23-year career in medicine, but has been a music fan much longer than that.
“I've been into music my whole life, been in several bands, garage bands, but have always played air guitar since I was young, and my mother used to say many years ago, 'Someday there will be a competition and you will win,'” he shared.
His mother was right. Garza began competing in 2008, but it took two years of different personas to find the one that boosted him to wins that sent him to semi-finals action across the country. He can now morph into El Airiachi with the strum of an air note. A more complete view of this metamorphosis can be seen in the Ice Water Productions documentary included in this piece, but his advice begins with finding the right character and sticking with it.
"When you create your persona, I think it must be something that defines you as the person you are, the things you like, the things you enjoy and something that is going to make you get into your character and be your character. Costumes, make-up — all of that will help. El Airiachi is not my first persona; it took several of them before I found my own," he said. "You want to have your persona down pat and let the audience and the judges believe you're that person, not who you are normally. Let them feel it and feel your airness."
Next – pick the right music. Competitors are asked to select a 60-second sound clip for first-round action (round two songs are chosen by the event organizers). Garza said the first song he ever chose was Scorpions’ “No One Like You.” He’s summoned Ozzy, Dio, Rainbow, even early-’80s metal band Steeler for his performances. Again, El Airiachi says to find music that fits you and allow it to work its magic in your performance.
And in every way, shape and form, air guitar is a performance. There are judges. It’s okay to pander to them, if you know a little about who they are. Dejoie-Lowe gave us the scoop on 2017’s panel.
“This year we have returning judge Ken Webster Jr. from KPRC 950 AM and his show, Pursuit of Happiness. I love his energy and how spirited he is. He can laugh at himself and enjoy himself and make any event fun. We also have Dan LaFever from California. ‘Tiger Claw,’ as he is called in the Air Guitar world, is a pro when it comes to air guitar. He has performed, judged and sponsored air guitar shows and has made it to semi-finals, and was on the Nationals stage last year,” she said.
The group is rounded out by a bona fide Houston music legend, someone who helped develop the musical palate of listeners and fans of radio stations like Rock 101 KLOL and KRBE.
“And we have the legendary ‘Goddess of Rock,’ Dayna Steele. I wanted to ask her last year but my fear of rejection stopped it. This year, I decided I would ask. So I sent her an e-mail and she responded that she thought it sounded like fun! I was so stoked! I listened to and envied her for years, but never had the pleasure of actually meeting her. Dayna is in the Texas Music Hall of Fame.”
Steele is also an author, politician and Houston’s “First Lady of Rock.” El Airiachi understands it could be daunting to perform for such a person.
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“We are so happy to have her and she's seen a lot in all of her years,” he said. “I think it's important to be a rock star. Be professional on that stage, give a performance, not just a comedy act. Let her see and feel the rock that you possess and before you walk onstage take a breath, take a breath and say to yourself, “I am air guitar — hear me rock.”
Really, how could you go wrong with advice like that? It’s the kind of advice that took Dejoie-Lowe from Air Guitar observer to event organizer in two short years. It’s advice that has allowed Garza to meet and perform for people from everywhere.
“For me the single aspect that is the most fun is the spirit of competition, the camaraderie of all the competitors. Everybody wants to win and everybody cheers everyone on,” said Garza, whose ultimate goal is to represent Houston, Texas, U.S.A. at a world championship in Finland. “My motto has been there are no strangers in air guitar, just friends you haven't met.”