World Air Guitar Champion Is In Finland To Defend His Title The 2017 world air guitar finals are Friday night in Finland, and Matt Burns is there. He was last year's winner. Burns picked "Airistotle" as his nom de rock.
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World Air Guitar Champion Is In Finland To Defend His Title

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World Air Guitar Champion Is In Finland To Defend His Title

World Air Guitar Champion Is In Finland To Defend His Title

World Air Guitar Champion Is In Finland To Defend His Title

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/545998883/545998885" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Matt "Airistotle" Burns (center) took home the top award at the 2016 Air Guitar World Championship in Oulu, Finland. He is back to defend his title this year. Juuso Haarala/Airnest Productions hide caption

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Juuso Haarala/Airnest Productions

Matt "Airistotle" Burns (center) took home the top award at the 2016 Air Guitar World Championship in Oulu, Finland. He is back to defend his title this year.

Juuso Haarala/Airnest Productions

Update at 3:40 p.m. ET

[The Air Guitar World Championship has crowned its winner. Scroll to the end of the story to find out who won.]

Great rock guitarists need great nicknames. There's Slash, Slowhand and The Edge.

Meet a new one: Airistotle. No, that's not a misspelling. The nom de rock belongs to Matt Burns, a waiter and world-class competitive air guitarist living in New York City. He decided to try air-rocking almost a decade ago when he saw the documentary Air Guitar Nation.

"I was like, 'That is the silliest, dumbest, most beautiful, amazing thing I've ever seen,' " Burns says. "I signed up for the next competition that I could."

It turned out that Burns had a knack for it. His résumé includes four national air guitar championships and three runner-up finishes in the world finals.

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Last year, Airistotle won his first Air Guitar World Championship. The 2017 world finals are Friday in Finland, and Burns is there, performing Me First and the Gimme Gimmes' version of "I Will Survive."

So what does it take to be an elite air guitarist?

"You do not have to be in good shape for this," Burns says, "which is a huge plus." Stretching is a good idea, though, and Burns says he's dabbled in Zumba (the exercise dance program) because its "over-the-top moving" translates well to air guitar. And it helped that Burns had some experience on stage. He's a self-described "theater kid" and says he has also performed stand-up comedy.

But his creative niche is air guitar. Competitors generally use the same routine for a year, then create a new one in time for the start of a new air guitar season.

Burns' creative process involves a couple of months of listening to pop-punk songs — he grew up with Green Day and Sum 41, he says — and narrowing it down to a song he likes. Then he crystallizes his performance routines with the help of a few friends.

"We'll all just have a bunch of beers," Burns says. "We basically just try to make each other laugh."

Then, with the basics of his routine fleshed out, Burns practices at his favorite rehearsal spot: the New York City subway.

Airistotle shows his stuff during the 2012 world championships in Finland. He has been rocking the air for almost a decade. AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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AFP/Getty Images

Airistotle shows his stuff during the 2012 world championships in Finland. He has been rocking the air for almost a decade.

AFP/Getty Images

"The train platforms kind of feel like a stage," Burns says. "So I kind of pretend that I'm on the world stage there, and that's when I kind of scale up all my moves."

This year's competition includes finalists from Japan, Australia, Korea, Europe and Canada — with names like The Jinja Assassin, Mom Jeans Jeanie and Ehrwolf. But the air guitar community is tightly knit, and Burns says they often work together to perfect their routines — which makes sense. "They housed the first air guitar championships out of the belief that if everybody would just pick up an air guitar and put down the guns, then the climate would change, war would end, and all good things would happen if everybody would just party and have some fun," Burns says.

Burns and other competitors are trying to hit all three categories their routines are judged on. First is technical merit: Air guitarists have to look like they're actually playing a guitar. Stage presence is second.

The third and most nebulous category is "airness." Burns calls it an air guitarist's je ne sais quoi the moment, he says, "when what you're doing transcends the act of imitation and becomes an art form in and of itself."

If Burns makes all of this sound easy, it's the same way that professional "real" guitarists can make face-melting solos seem easy.

Air guitar is "ridiculous," Burns says, but creatively stimulating. "Like, how can I entertain somebody with nothing for 60 seconds?"

If Burns can again take top honors at the world finals, he'll win a trophy and a guitar, custom-made by a Finnish luthier.

What happens when the world's best air guitarist picks up a real, six-string guitar?

"I started learning to play the guitar after I got involved with air guitar," Burns says. "And I'm not very good. I'm not very good at all."

UPDATE: Airistotle did it again. He remains the world air guitar champ. Two on the five-judge scoring panel deemed his performance perfect, and he handily won the competition. Check out all the performances here.

Jacob Pinter is a producer at Morning Edition. Tyler Hill, a news assistant at Morning Edition, contributed to this story.