Riding the 5:30 p.m. subway to Queens, Richard Anderson strums his abdomen. His head is bopping, his feet are tapping, his face is slightly scrunched, all while appearing oblivious to the surrounding passengers slipping him the side-eye, both left and right.
Anderson, 34, as usual, is passing the time with one of his favorite hobbies: air guitar. It's a nearly daily activity for him on his way home from work at the Metropolitan Opera.
"There's probably something very odd about a bearded guy in glasses and business casual work clothes pretending to play guitar on the subway, but it's far from the oddest thing you see on the train," says Anderson, who moved from Philadelphia to New York six years ago.
Anderson will return to the City of Brotherly Love on Friday, June 29, in a quest to take his strumming to the stage at the U.S. Air Guitar Regional Championships at Johnny Brenda's.
At the competition, Anderson — who competes under the persona Spudboy, inspired by his favorite band, Devo — plans to rock out to a medley of five Devo songs. He'll receive a full 60 seconds to give it all he's got in front of a panel of five judges who score each performance on a scale of 4 to 6.
Scoring criteria are broken down into three categories: Technical merit (does it look like the person is playing a real guitar?), stage presence (do they excite the audience and the judges?), and "airness."
"Airness is that moment when some fool prancing around on stage transcends the silliness to create a moment of musical madness and pure rock and roll," says Charles "Rockstache" Williamson, an avid air guitarist who will play host at the competiton. "Airness is when you realize you are yelling your head off after watching a performance by someone who wasn't playing a guitar."
As host, Williamson will not compete, but he plans to open the event with a performance to Joan Jett's "Bad Reputation." He'll also rip the air with some surprise tunes that cater to Philadelphia football fans.
Competitors will take to the stage in two rounds. During the first, they'll perform to a song of their choosing. Those who score in the top five will advance to the second round, in which they'll be required to deliver an improvisational performance to a mystery song.
"Having a love of rock and roll is a good place to start," says Nicole "Mom Jeans Jeanie" Sevcik, who, after taking first place in last year's regional competition in Philadelphia, went on to win the national competition in Washington. "You really start appreciating guitar solos and how complex they can be. I've studied videos of famous guitarists, watching their body language and picking up some signature moves to practice via pantomime."
Other key advice includes making sure the player doesn't forget to put on some rock-star facial expressions. It's also important to remember that the higher notes are on the neck of the guitar closer to the strumming hand, and the lower notes are closer to the fret hand. And being creative is crucial. Every winning air guitarist must learn to play to the crowd and to the judges, appearing like the greatest rock star in the world.
As Anderson says, an air guitartist's onstage identity is all part of the theatrics that makes for a good competitor.
"Much like wrestling, air guitar is about putting on a show for people, so it attracts and inspires larger-than-life characters and performance," says Anderson. "I know most of my fellow air guitarists by stage name more than by real name and sometimes don't even recognize them out of costume."
Like most performers, Sevcik takes on a different persona when hitting the stage, helping to boost her rating in the stage presence category. She came up with her Mom Jeans Jeanie character while shopping at a thrift store not long after giving birth to her son. While singing David Bowie's "The Jean Genie" to herself, she came across a rack of clothes that reminded her of Saturday Night Live's 2003 Mom Jeans sketch. Her title-winning name was born.
"I'd be a character that just walked out of that fake commercial, from Your Town, USA, complete with hand sanitizer and fruit snacks and ready to melt your face with rock and roll," says Sevcik.
Sevcik will not get to defend her crown this year. She's pregnant and won't be competing.
Winners of Friday's competition will go straight to the national championships at Rough Trade in Brooklyn on Aug. 4. The U.S. champion will then fly to Oulu, Finland, to compete for the world title at the World Air Guitar Championships.
"In terms of rewards, we're not in this for the money," says Williamson. "Although Nordic Thunder did get a Dr. Pepper commercial out of his world championship win, so that's pretty neat."
There's still time to sign up. Advance registration can be completed online at usairguitar.com under the Regionals Philadelphia listing. Competitors can also sign up on the day of the show and choose from among 50 one-minute tracks to perform. Walk-on competitors will go first, or immediately after signing up, if they register at the show.
"There's a special magic in performing a routine with no instruments that has always appealed to my rebellious side," Williamson says of how he got into air guitar on a competitive level. "In my daily life, I try to be the utmost professional in my career — cool, calm, collected. Once I'm on stage, however, I go bonkers — passionate, loud, flailing, and leaping. Is it a fantasy? Yes, but it's also real life."