How Eric Melin Became the Air Guitar World Champion

Eric Melin
Eric Melin, aka Mean Melin. (From a YouTube video posted by World Air Guitar)Over the weekend, Eric Melin (pronounced muh-leen) became the reigning world champion of air guitar. He has a sense of humor about this development in his life. He laughs as he explains how it happened and is well aware how silly an art form it is, but for him it is an art form.

"The quote I always tell people is, 'We're not pretending to play the guitar. We're not playing an invisible guitar. We're playing air guitar,'" he told us after flying back home to Lawrence, Kan., from the air guitar world championships in Finland. "It's a very different instrument. It's like performance art."

"Guitar players all the time are like, 'Why don't these idiots just learn how to play the guitar?' That's 100 percent missing the point. And also showing you have no sense of humor whatsoever."
-Eric Melin
This year, after five years of honing his craft, Eric, or Mean Melin as he goes by onstage, finally ascended to the pinnacle of this completely blissful artform, which, he explains, is probably "the purest expression of rock music fandom." That ascension didn't come easy.

"If I was to write an air guitar movie about an underdog who took home the world crown, I couldn't have scripted it any better," he said. "It's just insane."

Just a couple weeks ago, Melin thought his air guitar days were over. He competed in the national championship tournament in Los Angeles and lost. But he didn't just lose. He came in second to the national champion, Lt. Facemelter, by the thinnest possible margin: one-tenth of one point. It was a real heartbreaker.

But the air guitar competitive field isn't filled with Karate Kid-like villains and rivals. It's filled with fellow artists, who encourage each other. So it's no surprise Facemelter, and last year's world champion, Justin "Nordic Thunder" Howard, encouraged Melin to enter a dark horse tournament, which would secure him a spot at the world championships. He won.

"If it weren't for the encouragement of the guy who beat me in the U.S., and the reigning world champion, who I would then be going to compete against, I probably wouldn't be there," Melin said. "So the two guys who had the most to lose by me going were the two guys who encouraged me to go."

Winning the dark horse tournament got him in, but he still had to cover the cost of his own ticket. So he started selling T-shirts at $20 a pop to his fans. Besides being the world's greatest air guitarist, Melin is also the drummer for a real band called The Dead Girls, and used to be the drummer for a now-defunct band that still has very adoring fans, called Ultimate Fakebook. He's also a movie critic with his own website, scene-stealers.com. And he's a trivia fanatic who not only used to host a very popular bar trivia night where he wrote ALL the questions, but he was once on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. And he was on a VH1 show called The World Series of Pop Culture.

Melin has developed a certain following and has grown into a kind of local celebrity in the Lawrence and Kansas City area, and a lot of it is because of the unbridled enthusiasm he shows for everything he does. Probably nowhere is that enthusiasm more obvious than in standing on a stage in Finland without a guitar. Fortunately his fans helped get him there, with T-shirt sales raising about $700 before the trip, or about a third the cost of his airline ticket.

When he got to Finland, Melin was ready to rock. He had a secret weapon. He had done something no other competitor at the championships had done. He had recorded his own song specifically to fit the air guitar routine he had in mind.

"I have been doing the same song all year," he told us. "I did it in New York, LA, the Dark Horse, and the World Championship. It is an original composition that me and my friend Doug Minner wrote. It's me on the drums and Doug on the guitar. And we wrote the song to fit the air guitar routine."

Before we go any further, here's how these things work. In the first round of an air guitar tournament, contestants perform to a 60-second selection of their own choosing. In the second round, tournament organizers pull out a secret 60-second clip they've prepared for contestants. So in the second round everyone's performing to the same song. The selections range from obscure to super popular, but according to Melin it's usually a good idea to get away from songs everyone knows. They just come with too much baggage.

Each contestant is scored in each round on a scale of 4.0 to 6.0, similar to the old figure skating scoring. At the end, the two scores each contestant has earned are tallied and a winner is decided.

The significance of Melin's decision to record an original piece of music in order to 100 percent nail his opening round probably can't be overstated. This was a gamechanger.

The 60-second piece of music starts with your standard guitar heroics. It's hard and fast with starts and stops, and it has room for some serious headbanging. About halfway through, it slows down, spins backwards, and comes back deeper and heavier than it was before. It ends in a crescendo of high-pitched harmonized riffs that sound like something that would be exceedingly fun if you added it to Guitar Hero. But all the music followed from Eric's vision for the routine. Here's how he describes it.

"My routine was constructed like a three-act play," he said. "The first one was the moment I throw my guitar around my back and catch it. And I usually hear some cheers and claps when I do that. The second moment is when I play the riff forwards, then I stop the record, mime putting on a pair of DJ headphones, play it backwards, then do the same motions, and bang my head backwards. That's the one that everybody's like, 'Oh s---!,' and they start cheering on. Then at the end I just have a big halftime Pantera-esque guitar thing that ends in this orgasmic high-pitched solo and that's kind of considered the third part of it. So it was designed that way, and it's so much fun to see it work."

If you haven't already seen it, here's the video.


The crowd loved it, and so did the judges, and so did the other air guitarists.

"One of my fellow competitors came up to me and said, 'What I really like about the way you play air guitar is that your left hand wraps around the neck in a way that I can visualize the neck actually being there. You've got this grip, this invisible grip, and it makes me see the guitar,'" Melin said. "I think the moment when you are watching someone rock out on the air guitar, and you forget that they're not actually playing a live instrument. That's the moment that air guitar becomes transcendent. Then it becomes its own interpretive dance, so to speak, its own artform."

Melin still seemed a little dazed by his own accomplishments when we spoke with him. Thanks to the seemingly endless supply of ironic appreciation for a world championship in air guitar, Melin is currently experiencing the highest level of celebrity he's ever known. Keith Olbermann mentioned him on ESPN2 (albeit with a certain incredulousness), and later apologized for mispronouncing his name. It's all the more unexpected because Melin says he had resigned himself to the end of his air guitar career.

"This year, because I did this song, and because I'd been thinking about this conceptually for five years — about writing a song to fit the routine instead of the routine to fit the song — I told myself that this is it," he said. "So in the U.S. when I came in second, I had already made up my mind that I was done this year.

"It was as good as I could do. I had created a song, and I went as far as I could with it. So the fact that I won the World Championship extends my air guitar life through another year. And as soon as I got home, I got a message from Doug saying, 'So, what are we going to write next year?'"

It's been a fun ride for Melin, but he says he still encounters a stream of critics who just want to tear down all the fun everyone is having with air guitar. And he just doesn't get where all the negativity comes from.

"Guitar players all the time are like, 'Why don't these idiots just learn how to play the guitar?' And that's missing the point," he said. "Why don't you ask the person on So You Think You Can Dance why they don't learn to perform a song? They're dancing and interpreting that song. And dance as an art form has been around for hundreds of thousands of years. Well guess what? Air guitar is the same thing. We're interpreting the song. We're just not doing it in a way that everybody else has seen for hundreds of years. So asking why we're not playing the guitar [laughs] is completely 100 percent missing the point. And also showing you have no sense of humor whatsoever."

It was an eye-opening experience, then, to come together with the rest of the world's top air guitar talent and see how it's experienced in other countries. And to see how it brings together people with such disparate backgrounds.

"In the U.S. it's all kind of ironic humor, but in Europe, it's stripped of its irony, and it becomes its own thing," Melin said. "And that gleeful, kind of blissful feeling you get from watching somebody totally in the moment just lose their s--- — that is what they say can equal world peace."

Are those lofty ambitions for a bunch of guys pretending to play guitar? Probably. But if you're worried about that, then you're probably not having as much fun as an air guitar world champion.
I write about movies for Zimbio.com, which means I spend way too much time thinking about the geekiest possible ways to approach the cineplex. I'm also hopelessly addicted to audio books. Follow me: Google
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