AIR: Invisible Instruments (Air guitars etc.)

By Jo Phillips

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Two days ago on 28th August, Russian music enthusiast Kareel Blumenkrants become a world champion after wowing an audience in Finland with his supreme performance skills. A rock performance that would make Slash and Jimmy Page proud in equal measure. He did have a slight advantage over those guitar legends considering that his musical tool was suitably lighter and more versatile for the wilder moments of a rock set where acrobatics are involved. It’s worth mentioning that his guitar was in fact weightless and importantly imaginary. Whilst the competition that, stage name “Your Daddy”, was performing at was the Air Guitar World Championships. Despite it still being under-the-radar tournament, it has managed to survive for twenty editions and has a larger worldwide influence than Baseball or American Football, stretching 20 countries from Australia to the UK . It’s survival is down to sponsors and a unified message of peace, possibly referencing the “free love” purpose of late 60’s rock. The question is how seriously should we take invisible instruments? Does the existence of it’s own contest warrant some respect or should we remind ourselves that midget throwing is also a recognized occasion?

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Unfortunately for self-respecting members of it’s craft, invisible instruments have a reputation of being the punchlines of comedy routines. This began with Rowan Atkinson’s drum-set routine – a hilarious watch. The British comedian plays a cleaner that stumbles upon an invisible set of drums and percussion and using memory begins to blindly perform a beat. However, unlike other comical sketches or YouTube stupidity – and there’s plenty of that, Atkinson demonstrates that to perform the ridiculed art form actually requires incredibly accurate timing and tireless hours of practice. The same goes for Lee Evans approach to invisible instruments in a performance known as the Lee Evans trio. Thus, credit should be given to those who can perform this feat with such tenacity. Furthermore, Bradley Cooper’s astonishing mime of Neil Young’s Down By The River on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon was so unbelievably accurate , that instead of tickling funny bones – which was probably it’s originally intended purpose – it provoked awe and gasps. Admittedly though, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure – which features two teenagers striking a short riff when they feel accomplished, doesn’t help it’s cause too well but expresses the core of it’s intentions. To be fun.

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The internet is bombarded with clips of perfomers at the Air Guitar World Championships and within a few seconds of watching them you’ll notice the overwhelming feeling of happiness connecting the air guitarist to the audience. The performers eccentric names and nods to pretentious rock egos alone express a sense of playfulness as oppose to strict discipline of a child pianist or the head-bowed introverted-ness of some acoustic guitarists, e.g Michael “Operation Rock A Pussy” Lovely, Aline “The Devil’s Niece” Westphal and Gabi “The Hoxton Creeper” Matzeu.Therefore, it’s best to call it controlled/measured fun. It’s also worth noting that their pseudonym also bear resemblance to wrestling tags and that somehow that rehearsed entertainment passes as a thrilling sport. Are they really that different?

The candidates that make to the World Championships they don’t all quite have the same level of accuracy, care for detailed miming and convincing guitar playing skills as the aforementioned actor Bradley Cooper and this criteria also applies to the two previous winners of the contest; Nanami “Seven Seas” Nagura and Kareel “Your Daddy” Blumenkrants. The former incorporates samurai sword fighting, elastic bending and a Japanese footprint to her performance. Whilst the latter smells his own hairy armpits and adverts to Star Wars.

This is slightly confusing when you want to take the art seriously because it’s seems to have less defined rules and becomes more a dance movement that contains moments of impulsiveness sponteanity than an impression. However, looking at the guidelines for scoring , Nagura and Blumenkrants just seem to favour the “stage presence” and “presentation” over “technical merit”. Attempting to a unique personality to a craft that could be limited. It’s a little looser than the figure skating critique – of which the contest shares it’s 6.0 scoring system with.

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Other Instruments

The air guitar is the king of the invisible instrument world and is the only one to have a recognized competition. This is down to the distinctive movements that a guitarist incorporates and the way they excitedly move around the stage. Yet air drums could be catching up. You’d be lying if you claim that you haven’t performed the drum bridge in Phil Collins’ In The Air Tonight but German artist Demian Kappenstein takes it too a new level with his YouTube Clip “Solo for No Drum”. In this video, he performs complex drum movement – which gives away that he’s actually plays the “real” drums normally – in the invisible space of air. He also appears to change the style from Caribbean steel carnival with bongos to a standard rock set up. Another inventive way to use a choir to beatbox the sound of drums behind a sitting imitator like in the case of this recorded school performance. In both cases the drumsticks are still present but a quick search on YouTube for “Invisible drums” shows that some reverse this reasoning by keeping the drum kit and removing the drumsticks to a spectrum of success. There is also an interesting clip of an air drum competition in small club worth watching because when it shows performers simultaneously attempting imitation, you can see how not everybody is born with timing –  footage of the real drummer projected behind helps this judgement.

Wind instruments such as the trumpet and the saxophone are approached differently. As a saxophonist or trumpeter would typically stand still with little motion other than their embouchure, it wouldn’t be an entertaining watch to see them tackling invisibility. In one YouTube Clip a man in a bar impersonates a saxophonic sound with his voice but what’s more impressive is a clip that seems to reverse the rules of karaoke. Instead of singing over an instrument track that needs the missing vocal accompaniment, this performer used the microphone to amplify his faultless impersonation of a trumpet.

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Even the maligned practice of imaginary instruments has it’s own evolutionary scale. At the website Airstory, they suggest that the birth of air guitar or it’s first televised appearance was around 1957. Bill Reed of Canadian vocal quartet The Diamonds performed this action during the song Words Of Love. However, it could be said that Joe Cocker’s passionate embrace of his air guitar during Woodstock in 1969 was more significant in bringing this into popular culture. Crowds at least 5 rows back could have been persuaded into thinking that he had an actual instrument in his grip.

Flash forward to 2015 and now invisible instruments (including the air violin, air drums and air piano) have become technologically advanced. Instead of learning to how to play an actual instrument or memorizing the chords to perfection, you can just wave your arms in the air and make the sound you’d like. Amazon is littered with toys for this fun purpose. Here are two unbiased examples that don’t bring us any commission:

Aerodrum: Advertised as the “the best drum kit you’ve never seen”, this piece of technology has fantastic marketing potential. Drum kits are notoriously loud and ruin the harmony between neighbours but due to the fact that an Aerodrum is invisible and just makes the sound of drums when hands are moved in the right direction means that noise only needs to transmit into headphones. Whilst many affordable London bedrooms nowadays can’t fit the real version, an Aerodrum only requires the space of a human, a chair, a small high speed camera to detect the drummer’s movements and a laptop- the place that holds the sound samples and high hat variations. You can see a convincing demonstration at YouTube that deserves teleshopping airtime.








Tim Soo’s Invisible Instruments: The project of Pennsylvanian entrepreneur Tim Soo (who mostly works on medical projects for Blueprint Health LLC) is one for the indecisive musician. In the past the popular Nintendo Wii has imitated tools of sport, from a tennis racket to a golf club, so why can’t impersonate musical instruments in the same way? Soo’s Invisible Instruments is slightly complicated to explain as a process – especially because the methodology has varied over time- but it always involves the Nintendo Wii. His Invisible guitar pairs the Wii remote with an iPod touch but the Invisible violin pairs the former with an I-Cube touch glove – sounds like something Imogen Heap would wear – a Max/MSP Patch. The second set-up helps him to perform the violin in an arco-style that’s similar to the original and has the elegance of a real bow sliding across the instrument. It’s unclear how far in the development stages this is, when you consider that his first project of this kind failed in receiving funding at Kickstarter but nonetheless it shows far invisible instruments have come.

Who’s laughing at the invisible instrument musicians now eh? Well, maybe it’s not that easy to silence the critics.


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