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Ax Face: U.S. Air Guitar Championships

1. the extent to which a performance transcends the imitation of the real art form and becomes an art form in and of itself.
2. C-Diddy‘s performances, as seen in the film “Air Guitar Nation.”
3. kind of like the definition of “pornography;” you know it when you see it.

At least that’s how Kriston Rucker, co-commissioner of the U.S. Air Guitar Championships, defines “airness,” one of the three criteria in judging live air guitar performances.

Contestants in more than 20 U.S. cities will compete this summer for the chance to represent the states at the 13th annual World Air Guitar Championship in Finland from Aug. 20-22. Each city’s winner will face off in the national finals in San Francisco on Aug. 8; the winner gets a free trip to Finland. The 2008 U.S. Air Guitar Championships tour makes its second stop in Washington tonight at the 9:30 Club.

But the U.S., despite its long history of teenagers air-picking along to Jimi Hendrix solos, wasn’t always an air-guitar nation. It wasn’t until Rucker and his co-commissioner, Cedric Devitt, traveled to the world championships in 2002 that work even began on securing a spot for the U.S.

“We were kind of shocked to discover the U.S. wasn’t represented,” Rucker said. “We thought it was one of the few things the U.S. should dominate on a global scale.”

Rucker and Devitt then took the initiative to start a U.S. competition in 2003 with two contests in New York and Los Angeles, as documented in 2006’s “Air Guitar Nation.”

“They’re not that hard to reach,” Rucker said of the world championships. “They had been contacted [before by people in the U.S.] but no one had been serious. No one was really interested in wasting enough time. And we were both interested and had enough time. We had to do a … deal with them — kind of like getting an Olympic bid. We even had a letter from Rudy Giuliani.”

Competitors are judged on the following criteria: technical merit, stage presence and the elusive airness.

“It’s not that you have to be note for note,” Rucker said of technical merit. “You need to convince the crowd that you’re producing the sounds you’re hearing. You can take more liberties than note for note. I have a theory why the best [air guitarists] don’t play guitar. It’s too limiting. If you’re too constrained by the fretboard then there’s not enough creativity.”

Rucker said he sees a successful performance as a play of sorts.

“You’ve got to think of what you’re doing as a 60-second play in three acts: a beginning, suspense in the middle and then an actual sense of the ending. It’s like you have a minute and this is theater. It leaves the audience happy. I think what you want to do is establish technical merit for the judges, then you need to be surprising, go a bit off the completely mimicry kind of thing and do more surprising stuff and you got to be willing to take chances.”

U.S. competitors fared well in the world competition at first, with David “C-Diddy” Jung taking the crown in the States’ premiere air outing. The following year, the U.S.’ Miri “Sonyk-Rok” Park shared a tie for the gold medal with New Zealand‘s Tarquin “The Tarkness” Keys. In the past three years, however, the U.S. has been shut out of Gold, Bronze and Silver, a plight Rucker translates to Japan entering the competition in 2006.

“The one country we truly feared, Japan, entered,” Rucker said. “We thought if they entered they’d win. [Two-time defending champion] Ochi ‘Dainoji’ Yosuke has an amazing sweater, which is a secret weapon. They take it seriously in Japan.”

Rucker is putting out a call to all U.S. challengers to step it up — plain and simple.

“We need another C-Diddy, in my opinion, he was the best that ever was and best there ever will be,” Rucker said. “Hopefully someone will step up and take the mantel.”

» 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW; Wed., 7:30 p.m., $15; 202-265-0930. (U St.-Cardozo)

Written by Express contributor Rudi Greenberg

Photos, top to bottom: Bjorn Turoque (MC of the tour and star of “Air Guitar Nation”) by Tommi Kohonen; William Ocean (current U.S. champ) by Dan Eckstein; Skeety Jones (current Chicago champ) by Tien Mao