Like most great musicians, it didn’t come easy for me. I had to work at it. Then again, when you’re doing something that you love, it really doesn’t seem like work at all.
Quite frankly, I am also mindful of my place in history. I have a responsibility to future generations who may look back at my contributions with wonder and awe. So whenever I feel lazy or apathetic and contemplate wavering from my arduous practice schedule — not to mention my touring — I recall the thrill I received when I first picked up my instrument, and that snaps me back to attention.
Oh, by the way. I play the air guitar.
I’ve been at it for as long as I can remember. I believe I first picked up the air guitar when I was four. It was an old, beat up Rickenbacker my sister got for me at a garage sale. But it meant the world to me, because it was my first. I would dance around my room with that baby and wail on it. Like the parents of most kids from my generation, mine were terribly worried. I think they would have felt more comfortable if I had learned to play a real guitar rather than an invisible one. But sometimes parents just don’t get it.
Since one’s exploits on the air guitar are largely make-believe, I don’t mind sharing some of my background. I studied classical guitar at Juilliard, although I was thrown out after an incident involving a voluptuous piano tuner. The first song I ever learned was “Roll Over Beethoven” by Chuck Berry, which I still open with. Naturally, I did birthday parties, weddings and bar mitzvahs, paying my dues. Slowly, my legend grew.
Soon I was doing studio work with the Stones, Zeppelin, the Allman Brothers, the Who. I even played lead on a secret unreleased Beatles album recorded well after they broke up — and of course, I have the only copy. It might be their best work ever.
But like most air guitarists, what I enjoy most is performing before a live audience. You name the venue, I’ve played it. The bond between passionate performer and rapturous fans? You can’t beat it. Personally, I hate playing stadium shows, but let’s face it, that’s where the money is, not to mention the groupies. I try to mix in a club date here and there. It’s my way of giving back to the fans.
Which air guitar do I play? I have many. My favorite is a 1959 Gibson Les Paul standard. I guess I’m just old school. When I run my nonexistent pick across those imaginary strings, and my fingers dance along those fake frets, it’s bliss. Recently I had hoped to bid on Blackie, Eric Clapton’s favorite Stratocaster that was recently up for auction, but I couldn’t even afford it with fantasy money.
But enough about me. I think my career speaks for itself. What I would like to do here is list the 10 songs I feel are essential in any air guitarist’s catalogue. You may disagree. You may have your own favorites. You may believe there are real guitarists out there who make these strummers look like amateurs. But that’s the beauty of the air guitar. Your nirvana is whatever you want it to be:
1. “CROSSROADS” by Cream — The song itself, a bluesy rocker, was originally done by Robert Johnson in the 1930s. Legend has it that Johnson went “down to the crossroads” to make a pact with the devil to become a better guitarist, and afterward made a dramatic improvement. Coincidentally, “Clapton is God” graffiti was turning up around England and the U.S. when Cream played a gig at the Fillmore West in San Francisco in 1968. Thus the extended live version is the standard by which all other rock guitarists — and air guitarists — are measured. Eddie Van Halen, a Clapton devotee, supposedly slowed it down so he could learn it note by note. Technically, Slowhand did not acquire Blackie until 1973, but I think we can bend the rules here and use it for our purposes.
2. “BACK IN BLACK” by AC/DC — When you want to really get nasty, when head-banging metal is the order of the day, then strap on the heavy artillery and crank up the amp. Angus Young is the picker of record here. He plays fairly straightforward middle and closing riffs to accompany the raging vocals of Brian Johnson (original lead singer Bon Scott choked to death before this was recorded, and Johnson replaced him). “Back in Black” is contained on the 1980 album of the same name, and it is widely regarded as the Australian band’s best. When playing the air guitar to this, a black concert T-shirt, jeans and black boots are required; silver skull-and-crossbones belt buckle is optional.
3. “TIGHTROPE” by Stevie Ray Vaughan — Sometimes when you want to just let it rip in a Southern blues-rock kind of way, there’s nothing like a little Texas heat to get the juices flowing. Stevie Ray died way too young — at age 35, in a helicopter accident along with three members of Clapton’s entourage on the way to a show in Chicago in 1990 — but he left behind a wealth of rousing guitar work. “Tightrope” appears on the “In Step” album, which was his last studio effort, and also the first he made without the use of drugs and alcohol. Although “Crossfire” was a No. 1 hit from this collection, “Tightrope” is the choice of aficionados. There’s some wicked picking going on. When playing the air guitar, try to round up a bandito hat for the full effect.
4. “SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL” (LIVE) by the Rolling Stones — Recorded in November, 1969 at Madison Square Garden, “Get Your Ya –Ya’s Out” might be the best live rock and roll album ever released. The version of “Sympathy” done here features guitar solos by both Keith Richards and Mick Taylor. The latter replaced Brian Jones, the band’s original lead guitarist who drowned earlier that year in a swimming pool three weeks after leaving the band. Richards — who solos first — is fine, but it’s Taylor who follows and really sizzles. When Mick Jagger implores, “Get on down,” Taylor does just that. And, of course, you can, too. If you play the air guitar to this, give a nod to Charlie on the drums.
5. “SWEET JANE” (LIVE) by Lou Reed — This is from the “Rock N Roll Animal” album, recorded at New York’s Academy of Music on December 21, 1973. It presents one of those rare air guitar opportunities where you can mimic two real guitarists of equal ability. Dick Wagner and Steve Hunter share a magnificent intro before Lou takes the stage, then they close the song out with some astounding riffs. Lou covers a lot of Velvet Underground territory on this release, so you might want to think about doing a whole glam thing. Check out some photos from the era.
6. “DAZED AND CONFUSED” by Led Zeppelin — What would an air guitar compilation be without a cut from one of the most imitated figures in rock? Jimmy Page was often remembered for playing with a double-necked guitar, but this song is noteworthy for his drawing of a violin bow across the strings of a signature Les Paul. However, it’s the hard-driving solo when the music picks up that marks this as an air guitarist’s dream. There are many Zeppelin choices, but you can’t go wrong with “Dazed,” which was supposedly inspired by “I’m Confused” by folk singer Jake Holmes. The problem with playing air guitar to this is that, because John Bonham is so incredible also, you might be tempted to switch into playing air drums. Try to avoid that, or else you’ll throw the whole band off.
7. “VOODOO CHILD (SLIGHT RETURN) by Jimi Hendrix — This appears on the “Electric Ladyland” album. Don’t confuse it with another cut from it, “Voodoo Chile,” which is a 15-minute jam. “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” features some stone-cold acid-rock riffing and haunting vocals. Air guitarists can have some fun with the wah-wah pedal, but don’t overdo it. Also, Hendrix played left-handed, on a Gibson Flying V, decorated in a psychedelic motif of Jimi’s own design. What I like to do is put on a headband and play air guitar with my teeth to this, but I can pull it off, because I’ve been doing this a while.
8. “BREATHLESS” by X — This song appears on the album, “More Fun in the New World,” but it was done for the soundtrack of the 1983 movie of the same name, which was a remake of “Breathless,” the 1960 French New Wave classic by Jean-Luc Godard. At the end of the ’83 version, Richard Gere is cornered by the cops. He reaches for his gun, the film freezes, and X takes over. The L.A. punk band tears it up, but guitarist Billy Zoom really sizzles with a rockabilly-on-steroids blast of furious fingering. The song is only a little over two minutes long, so it’s perfect if you’re short on time and you need to run out of the house but you can’t do so without a little air guitar acrobatics. You might need to call a chiropractor after this.
9. “I’M GOING HOME” (LIVE) by Ten Years After — On the other hand, if you want to enjoy an extended period of make-believe picking, it’s hard to beat Alvin Lee’s performance here. This comes from the “Woodstock” soundtrack. Ten Years After was a British band that lasted from 1966 to 1975. The group really took off in the U.S. and around the world after this lengthy display of Lee’s dazzling guitar work. It’s just an old-fashioned blues-rocker, but it has historical significance, coming as it did during a seminal event that included Hendrix, Joe Cocker, Santana, the Who, Joan Baez and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. You can play air guitar, then imagine yourself relaxing backstage with a bunch of rock legends.
10. “LITTLE MARTHA” by the Allman Brothers Band — Not all air guitar has to be electric. Sometimes you’re just in a mellow mood, you know? Sometimes you just want to lay back and serenade your significant other with a lovely acoustic instrumental. The song was written by Duane Allman — who died in a motorcycle accident at the age of 24 in 1971 while the band was recording the “Eat a Peach” album, which contains this song — and it’s a duet with Skydog and Dickey Betts. Duane also was exceptional on the slide guitar, and “Statesboro Blues” on the “Live at the Fillmore East” album is another worth making believe you’re playing along to.