In late 2012, I embarked on the biggest creative challenge of my life. Ten months later, I would be crowned the World Champion of Air Guitar.
What I learned from my own experience has now become a template for all of my creative ad, marketing, and social strategy from here on out.
I didn't know it then, but my strategy to win the Air Guitar World Championships had been percolating since 2009. After seeing the documentary “Air Guitar Nation” on Netflix, I decided to enter my first US Air Guitar competition. I headed to YouTube and found a thriving community online. Absurdly funny and entertaining videos from US Air Guitar competitions all over the country were at my fingertips. I catalogued the good, the bad, and the ugly. I tried to dissect why certain songs and movements elicited huge crowd response and great scores from the celebrity judges. Is this your first step towards creativity?
This is the part of the process that people think of first when it comes to marketing and creativity, but it's really just another cog in the machine. I started from the beginning. Why is air guitar fun for me and how can that translate to an audience? I was raised on guitar-driven rock n’ roll, and I’ve been air guitaring to it since I was a kid. (Mainly because I can’t dance, so what else is there to do?) I have scores of favorite air guitar standbys, just like most people who gravitate towards the same songs when they go karaoking. I started brainstorming a list of my favorite air guitar moves (pick slide, pelvic thrust, high kick, fast strum, headbang), inspired by my favorite air guitar songs.
I edited together two Megadeth songs from my favorite air guitar album of all time, “Peace Sells … But Who’s Buying?” This aggro-metal sound informed my air guitar character, who is basically a heightened version of my angry youth. In real life, I’m always smiling, which meant that Mean Melin (my air guitar nom de plume) would have to be always scowling. I was hoping that my intensity – which came from a very personal feeling about the music – would rub off on a crowd.
In the world of competitive air guitar, you have one minute to bring the audience from zero to eleven, all with the aid of only your invisible axe. You are literally and figuratively making something out of nothing, so that minute better be packed with astonishing moves, timed perfectly to the song. If you stand in one spot and mimic what it would look like to play a real guitar, you will bore them to tears. Air guitar is performance art. The air guitar is merely pretending to play the guitar – it’s a very different instrument, and it should be freed from the shackles of what a “there” guitar can actually do. It's always good to get philosophical and back far away from your challenge to get a good look at what you're doing. Do you do that during your brainstorming phase?
Epiphanies don’t happen overnight. I mean, sometimes they do, but they are a result of hard work, targeted knowledge of your category, and experience.
For the next four years, I honed my competitive air guitar skills on the road, forging friendships with the amazingly creative, passionate, talented air guitar community. I learned valuable skills and lessons to hone in on that most coveted of all air-guitar judging criteria—“airness.”
This is what I formulated:
THOU SHALT … pick a song you love with every fiber of your being.
THOU SHALT … develop a character that is a heightened version of yourself.
THOU SHALT … adhere to the three-beer minimum.
THOU SHALT … practice with a mirror or a friend.
THOU SHALT … leave your shame at the dressing room door.
THOU SHALT … look at the crowd, not at your hand
THOU SHALT … go beyond the limitations of a real guitar.
THOU SHALT … lose yourself in the music, the moment; you better never let it go.
THOU SHALT … support your fellow performers.
THOU SHALT … go big. And, when you thought you couldn’t … GO BIGGER!
THOU SHALT … achieve airness.
Again: These commandments are not assumptions. As lighthearted as they may be, they are close to you can get to best practices in the completely subjective world of competitive air guitar judging. What best practices and hard lessons have you learned through trial and error?
In every process, there's a llightbulb moment. After four straight years, the highest ranking I achieved was fourth in the U.S. Having created five competitive routines and countless number of improvised second-round routines, I felt like I had exhausted all of my creative options. I vowed to give it one more year, and then I would retire to the great gig in the sky with all of my air roadies and my prized air guitar collection.
For all of my lofty creative ambitions in the absurd world of air guitar, there was one big problem staring me in the face: Finding a song to match all the ideas in my head was impossible.
And then it hit me. I was looking at the problem through one lens—the traditional view of competitive air guitar. (Believe it or not, there is one!) My friend and co-worker Stefan Mumaw (who wrote the book “Creative Boot Camp”) says, “Creativity is nothing more than problem-solving with relevance and novelty.” Boy, is he ever right.
The solution to my problem was clear: reverse engineering. There isn’t a song out there that musically matches up with the air guitar moves that I had in my head, so ... why not write one? Reverse engineering the process—putting the creation of the movement before the music—solves that problem.
The relevance and novelty are in the ideas themselves: I wanted to throw the air guitar around the back of my shoulder and catch it around the front in one quick movement. The right drum break in the song, the right downward spiral on the guitar, and the right sound effect would sell that. The other signature move was backwards air guitar. For this to work, the song would have to slow to a stop and begin playing backwards, at which point I would reverse the movement I had just performed.
So I called my friend Doug, an amazing shredder, and over the next four months, we collaborated online. I hummed guitar riffs into my phone based on moves I wanted to pull off live, and gave Doug direction on the kinds of solos I wanted to air guitar. He made countless demos with a drum machine, and we went into a friend’s garage studio and recorded our opus, with me drumming. (I play the real drums.)
I did a test run out of competition during halftime at US Air Guitar shows in Kansas City and St. Louis, before winning the New York Semifinal weeks later, which qualified me for Nationals. Each time, we refined the parts that weren’t working. I asked for second and third opinions, having two more friends help me edit and add more sound effects. Each iteration of the song helped “sell” the movement more effectively. By the time I reached Oulu, Finland, to compete in the Air Guitar World Championships, I was relaxed and comfortable. The routine was burned into my head because of all the hard work that went into creating it!
Marketing and social media campaigns are no different. Let your passion carry you through the creative process (equally important), while problem-solving guides you at every step. Without research, trial and error, experience and some critical thinking about the problem, the solution may never present itself.
Good creative is more than “raw talent.” It’s talent and strategy. Give yourself time. Epiphanies rarely happen by chance. The opportunity grows with experience and keeping your eyes open.
Even in something as inherently absurd as air guitar, you still have to create a plan and execute it.