Air Guitar Hero

Photo by Ted SoquiGordon Hintz can't play guitar or sing worth a damn, but the 29-year-old numbers-cruncher for the Long Beach Department of Financial Management was destined to rock.

Standing in front of his full-length bedroom mirror, bare feet planted so firmly into the tan carpet that the fibers curl around his toes, he becomes Krye Tuff, air-guitar god. Headphones hold a short ebony wig in place, black spandex clings to his legs, a snug red and black striped shirt is unbuttoned low enough to reveal his navel. His lips are scrunched into a wicked sneer. Positioning one hand near his studded belt buckle—where the guitar's strings would be—and bending the other toward his shoulder where the neck would be, everything is in place. He reaches down and hits the play button on the CD player, and the reigning West Coast Air Guitar Champion does what he does best.

As the 60-second song plays, the 6-foot-1-inch, 210-pound Tuff jumps around the room in a frenzy, narrowly missing his desk in a series of exuberant kicks. He drops to his knees. He licks his fingers and the song ends. Sweating, Tuff stretches, restarts the CD, and does it all over again.

He did this an hour a day, every day, leading up to last summer's Air Guitar National Championships, held June 28 at the Roxy Theatre in West Hollywood, where contestants fought for the regional crown. On that evening, Tuff took the West Coast title and the right to go up against East Coast champ David "C-Diddy" Jung for a trophy, a real electric guitar and the chance to represent the United States at the eighth annual Air Guitar World Championships at the Oulu Music Video Festival in Finland in August.

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Judges at LA's three-hour competition, including Nina Gordon of Veruca Salt, Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, and Roy Trakin of HITS magazine, evaluated the air-guitar aficionados on their 60-second performances using the scoring system for international figure skating (from 4.0 to 6.0). They graded on originality, charisma, feeling, technical ability, artistic merit and "airness." In round one, competitors soloed to their chosen songs; round two gave the top five contestants a chance to improvise on a mystery song.

Hintz choreographed his own routine carefully, paying special attention to such common stage moves as jumps, knee slides and splits. "I thought to totally wing it would be a horrible idea," he said. "I figured in the one minute of the song there were three crescendos—different spots I would be in: running during a chord, spinning and licking my fingers, and going to my knees and grinding out some chords."

He practiced scrunching up his face with all the concentration of a lead guitarist during a particularly difficult solo and made sure to learn the correct hand and finger positions. "It was important to stay true to a guitar-style form," he said. "I realized I had to train my hands to stay true. You don't want to break the laws of physics by having the neck [of the guitar] bend."

He borrowed the song and his moniker from glam rock gods Poison. "I chose the rock anthem 'Talk Dirty to Me' to get the crowd involvement," he said. "Krye Tuff is a nod to those with glam rock knowledge—the die-hards. I wanted to wear my glam-rock roots on my sleeve."

A native of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where his father is the mayor, Hintz learned to appreciate the fine art of air guitar while coming of age in a small town. So when a friend e-mailed him about the LA event a week before the competition, he signed up without a second thought. "Some part of it was destiny," he said. "I had no problem paying the $25 entrance fee. I felt I had something to contribute."

Hintz believes his passion for the craft won him the regionals. "My goal was to step it up a notch in terms of rock & roll. It was to be a greatest hits of air guitar. I wanted to embody rock & roll, to sacrifice my body for the art."

Thousands of young Americans—most of them men, and most of them in bedrooms, dorm rooms and in the festival-seats of arena shows—gladly sacrifice their bodies for the art. Two men gave them a stage: Hollywood producers and writers Cedric Devitt and Kriston Rucker brought the National Air Guitar Championships to the United States. Looking for a new TV show, they traveled to Finland in 2002 to see the spectacle for themselves. Devitt entered the contest and came away with fourth place against contestants from Australia, Austria, Belgium, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Norway and Finland.

Convinced that the United States needed such a competition, and perhaps even a reality program depicting what Devitt describes as "a no-talent search across America looking for America's greatest air axemen," they brought the contest to California.

"It was a question of patriotism, even national pride," Devitt said. "Americans invented air guitar. I knew there were a lot of great air guitarists out there. They needed a voice."

Well, not so much a voice, of course.

And, as it turns out, not even much of a stage. The final-round duel between Tuff and East Coast champ C-Diddy never really came off. Call it a communication breakdown. As event coordinators played a song by the White Stripes, Tuff began to perform. When he saw that C-Diddy wasn't performing, Tuff stopped, awaiting further instructions. The song stopped and started again. C-Diddy quickly began to perform alone, leaving Tuff confused. He believes that cost him the title.

"The air-guitar people apologized and said they told the judges that C-Diddy didn't engage," Tuff says. "I think it cost me the trip to Finland. I was on my home turf. The audience was chanting my name. I had a few more licks and kicks to do even though I was sweaty."

But now the cheers have faded, and his wig is covered by a thin layer of dust. Hintz looks back on the night with mixed feelings. "It's definitely been a blessing and a curse. It's given some attention to my craft. Air-guitar fans had been waiting for the day that air guitar would have its due. But you also find yourself [performing] at weddings and at parties, and people introduce you to others and say, 'Let's hear a little something.'"

In the meantime, Hintz waits patiently for fame. "My phone lines are open," he said. "I have ideas. I think Krye Tuff has lots to offer the entertainment world. I'm the West Coast champ, I live in LA and it's 2003. The stars are aligned. It appears that the time is now for air guitar. When I look out the window from my cubicle, I sometimes think Krye Tuff should be let out, and someone should give him the opportunity."

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