We just learned a few hours after posting this article that our very own Hot Lixx Hulahan has won the title of World Air Guitar Champion after crushing his opponents in the World Championship in Finland! Congrats Hot Lixx – you make us all proud to be from the Bay Area!!

For any of us who grew up listening to rock and roll, air guitar was an integral part of the experience. “Air guitar is inherent to anyone who listens to rock music,” says Craig Billmeir of Alameda, while noting that his old roommate’s two-year-old begins the air guitar motions whenever a Ramones record is put on. “No one taught her that.”

Billmeir knows a thing or two about air guitar. He goes by the stage name Hot Lixx Hulahan, and this past weekend at the Grand Regency Ballroom in San Francisco, won the US Air Guitar Championship for the second time in three years. Soon, he will be off to Finland to represent the United States in the finals. Billmeir is proud that when he hits that Finnish stage, he will also be representing the Bay Area. “I was particularly stoked they had the finals in San Francisco,” he adds, “these people get it.”

Liberal views and a colorful personality help characterize Billmeir’s local sensibility. He says one of the things that attracted him to the competition was a taste for absurdist guerilla street performing. “I was lucky enough to find music,” he says, “or I’d probably be in a circus or avoiding the law.” While air guitar is building a national reputation, the Bay’s history of acceptance to new ideas makes it a particularly conducive environment for this art form to flourish.

Writing on the LA Times Soundboard blog, Charlie Amter characterizes the environment this way: “Bay Area residents have embraced the competition and made it their own. Clearly, no city is better suited to the absurdity of an event where multiple contestants dressed as rock stars (wearing all manner of codpieces) go onstage in front of hundreds of strangers with no instruments.”

The competition’s roots don’t actually lie in the Bay Area, however. The Air Guitar World Championships have been taking place in Finland since 1996, but the competition did not include the U.S. until 2003. The documentary Air Guitar Nation chronicles the first US competition, founded by Kriston Rucker and Cedric Devitt. Since that time, the competition’s popularity has continued to grow, with winners making numerous television and radio appearances. “By taking air guitarists out of the bedroom and putting them up on the national stage,” Devitt says, “it seems that air guitar is finally being accepted as a serious competition.”

But air guitar has yet to become a mainstream phenomenon. While the door has opened for such performers to reach the masses, not everyone is taking it quite so seriously. Billmeir acknowledges that morning talk shows can be a little awkward when you have to perform without an audience. Last Wednesday, finalists performed during the seventh inning stretch at AT&T park, and, of that experience, Billmeir says the art form has a long way to go on its way to general acceptance. Still, he appreciated performing for their largest live audience ever and a crowd that was “forced to watch and react.”

Unlike some of his fellow competitors, Billmeir is a musician who has been playing guitar since childhood and has a band called Conquest For Death. In 2006, he was forwarded an email about the competition days before entry and decided to enter on a whim. Despite a lack of preparation, he won the national championship. Two years later, he wanted to prove that was no fluke.

“I felt kind of like a Johnny-Come-Lately with my first win,” he says. “This year I really wanted to prove that I wasn’t fly-by-night.”

In order to hone his craft, Billmeir built up a catalog of songs that weren’t heavy on guitar solos, while seeking inspiration from Van Halen. “I’d like to be David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen all in one,” he says, hitting on the fact that air guitar is just as much about a charismatic performance as it is about guitar skills. Billmeir notes that about half of the competitors are not guitar players, and sometimes that gives them an advantage. “The guitar was something I had to kind of unlearn,” he says.
 Billmeir drew attention for his attire in 2006, but this time went for “less flashy, more functional gear.” Lastly, he needed songs that featured three acts – “a strong beginning, middle theatric breakdown, and powerful climactic ending.” Performing Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train,” Billmeir received a perfect score from the judges.

While it’s called a competition, Billmeir characterizes the atmosphere as social. A day after the competition, he hosted all the finalists at his house for an all-day barbeque. Throughout our phone conversation, he speaks highly of several finalists, adding, “Every year the bar is being raised.” Clearly he is as much a fan as he is a competitor. “This year, I went on the tour and served as the MC a bit, and I loved not having to compete,” Billmeir says. “I think I’d like to move more in that direction.”

Billmeir has noticed that the competitions are “weighted heavily towards male participants” yet has seen a growing contingent of female air guitarists. “I’d like to encourage more women,” he says. One female air guitarists making a name for herself is New York champion Bettie B. Goode, who last month had a toe amputated after it was broken during a particularly intense performance. However, she took this in stride and was a runner-up in the finals.

On his way to Finland for the second time, Billmeir has seen how the competition changes at that level. The crowd is bigger, with a pronounced gap between the stage and fans, a far cry from the intimate atmospheres of earlier competitions. “What I learned before is don’t go in thinking you’re the best,” he says. “I am just going to do my best so that when the video shows up on YouTube, people will says, ‘that’s awesome.'”

Thanks to YouTube, an air guitarist’s moment in the spotlight has a longer duration than just 15 minutes. Billmeir says, “It’s like I am going into syndication. The moment will be immortalized.”

Billmeir performing in SF in 2007