Joe Cocker could feel the music channeling through his body as he began his final number on the Woodstock stage. With one hand, the singer mimed the song’s opening piano notes, and then, as the drums kicked in, Cocker lifted his left arm and swung his right in front of his body in perfect time with the dramatic first chords of his hit “With a Little Help From My Friends.” The term wouldn’t be popularized until the 1980s, but there, in front of hundreds of thousands of people, Joe Cocker was playing air guitar.

You could start the history of the invisible instrument at that formative moment in 1969, says Byrd McDaniel, an ethnomusicologist at Northeastern University. But McDaniel, who studies “air playing,” has found the same impulse to embody music throughout history. In the 1860s, it was described as a symptom of mental illness, but by the 1930s, it was a mere curiosity, a side effect of the phonograph; some listeners, the Minneapolis Phonographic Society reported, had “taken to ‘shadow conducting.’”

Since then, air playing has become a socially acceptable alternative for those who don’t dance, says ethnomusicologist Sydney Hutchinson of Syracuse University. The practice crosses cultures; in the Dominican Republic, people pantomime the air güira, a metal percussion instrument. But only air guitar has also become an international spectator sport.

One of the first known air guitar contests took place at Florida State University in November 1978. Hundreds of students turned out to watch “Mark Stagger and the Rolling Bones” take first prize: 25 vinyl records. This August, top air guitarists from nearly a dozen countries will compete in front of some 30,000 people in Oulu, Finland, at the 24th annual Air Guitar World Championship. They will be judged on technical skills (which are different from those needed to play an actual guitar), stage presence and “airness.”

Airness “is that spark of creativity. Someone who makes the song come alive,” explains Eric “Mean” Melin, who won the 2013 world title by swinging his air guitar behind his back, Kip Winger style. “We want to express ourselves in a way that goes beyond what a ‘there’ guitar can do.”

Also essential to being a great air guitarist: a sense of irony. “You have to know it’s ridiculous,” Melin says, “but also be really passionate about it.”

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