by: TRIBUNE PHOTO CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Two-time champion Tony Tapatio had Dante's in downtown Portland hopping last week during the 10th annual U.S. Air Guitar Championships.
It's a packed house at Dante's as the regional competition of the 10th annual U.S. Air Guitar Championships kicks off the night of June 15.

For the next couple of hours, the audience will be subjected to sophomoric humor, exhibitionist behavior and tons of metal. If there is one thing I learn at the contest, "air guitar" really means "air metal guitar." Virtually every performer performs to tunes by metal bands popular in the 1980s, the heyday of spandex, big hair and orgasmic guitar solos.

Early on, a female performer starts out with a promising solo on Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train."

Well, sort of.

First off, it's not the right song. Then, it's not clear which hand she uses to strum her imaginary guitar and which hand she uses to finger the invisible strings. In fact, pretty much every performer displays a similar lack of knowledge of how guitarists actually play. But we'll get back to that in a moment.

Suddenly, the woman lurches off the stage, clearly in pain.

"We have our first injury of the night," says the emcee Björn Türoque. She's hurt her leg or legs - it's not clear.

"Here's the thing," Türoque says. "It looks so simple up here, but it hurts."

What really hurts, however, is my stomach from laughing after watching another performer pull an American flag from his spandex pants. His patriotic appeal works, garnering a brief "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" chant from the crowd.

Still another performer, Richard Gismondi, has no right hand but pretends to play a guitar on stage to "Ace of Spades" by


Technically, he's breaking the rules by bringing a guitar on stage, but no one, including the judges, seems to care.

"I don't even care," Gismondi says after his show. "I had fun."

One guy takes to the stage dressed as Ozzy, replete with black robe and cross, another performer less interested in playing air guitar and more interested in simply living out his fantasy.

Which brings us back to my point about the performers knowing nothing about the guitar - this is really more of an over-the-top version of karaoke, in which how rock ‘n' roll makes us feel, or rather, squeal, is what's important, and not how it's created.

And the winner is ...

Which brings us to our winner, Tony Tapatio, 24, of Portland.

This guy knows how to bring it. First, he sports the requisite amount of tattoos - enough to look like a bad boy, but not so many as to make you think he has hepatitis. Second, he wears a vest over his bare torso, which gives him that biker look prized throughout the metal world.

Third, he's perfected the "kiss-my-finger-then-touch-my-bum" move every schlock guitarist has ever used to turn an audience wild. He even uses his tongue correctly, wiggling it in time to an Eddie Van Halen solo.

Clearly the audience and the judges' favorite, Tapatio realizes winning has nothing to do with appearing proficient - it's about looking like you've come out of the closet where you've jammed for years and letting everyone know: "I'm one of you. I, too, can't resist pretending to be a rock god!"

Last year, Tapatio won the Portland regional competition and came in fourth at the nationals - no surprise, because he's a member of Airpocalypse, the nation's leading air guitar band.

Last October, Tapatio also won $1,000 from Red Fang, a Portland metal band, which featured him in its air guitar contest video "Hank is Dead." It's on YouTube.

Tapatio's band was a Top 25 contestant in "America's Got Talent" in 2010, so this cat has some experience. A burlesque performer by trade, he practices air guitar a couple hours per week "in the off-season" (who knew there was an "on-season" in air guitar?) and daily a month before a competition.

Tapatio actually plays guitar, but says he throws out what he's learned when he plays fantasy fretboard.

"When you see your favorite guitarist do a solo, it's actually quite restricted," he says. "When you do your air guitar solo you can stretch down the entire fretboard, throw the guitar behind your back and come up with a personality. The best air guitarists really study character development - it's like a professional wrestler."

Tapatio says he tries to tap into his inner Freddie Mercury-meets-Prince when he performs and puts a premium on facialisms.

"My face is sore after a competition more than my hands and knees," he says with a laugh.

As the night ends, contestants pile on stage for one last song - "Free Bird," of course - I can't resist. I raise my hand and strum a chord, sending an invisible ripple of total awesomeness out into the night.

For more information, visit National finals take place July 21 in Denver; the World Championship is Aug. 24 in Oulu, Finland.

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