Whit Hubner is at home in front of a crowd. A popular DJ on Hippie Radio (WHPY, 94.5 on your radio dial), and creator/host of the popular Mando Blues independent radio show, Hubner has promoted, produced, or emceed rock & roll music most of his adult life, after being introduced to the good stuff via Cheap Trick on the Dream Police tour back in 1980.
What he hasn’t done much — OK, never — is play a musical instrument.
“I know this might sound crazy, but I feel like the spirit of rock & roll is in me, and I feel like it’s never had a way out,” Hubner says. “I’ve never been the talent. I’ve talked about the talent, I’ve promoted the talent, but I’ve never been the talent.”
As such, he’s heretofore been content to indulge his passion from the other side of the studio monitors. That is, until one fateful evening this past May, when Hubner — clad in a kilt, because why not? — decided to go support his girlfriend, a burlesque dancer who was performing during the 2015 US Air Guitar Southern Qualifier and Nashville Burlesque Showcase at fooBAR. A tall, striking individual, whom Hubner would later learn was former World Air Guitar Champion Justin “Nordic Thunder” Howard, asked him what song he was going to perform. Hubner told him he wasn’t there to perform — he was there to witness. “Not dressed like that, you’re not,” Howard said.
Intrigued, Hubner decided to give it a shot. He requested some Blackfoot, but Howard didn’t have any of their music on his laptop computer — which was fortunate, as Hubner would later learn, because songs that simply repeat one riff or phrase over and over usually aren’t crowd-pleasers. He then requested some AC/DC, and ended up miming to the their leering ode to the full-figured set, “Whole Lotta Rosie.”
By the end of the night, Hubner found himself in second place (along with a “crowd favorite” nod), which earned him an invitation to July’s Atlantic Conference finals in Washington, D.C., at the legendary 9:30 Club. In D.C., Hubner blazed his way through “Rosie” again with his Angus Young/Pete Townshend/Tasmanian Devil “style.” Hubner says he has no real style, per se, preferring to “rock the fuck out,” which he says is when someone allows the music to wash over them completely, oblivious to anyone or anything around them. But that’s not to say he wants to override other concertgoers’ enjoyment of a show. “It’s kind of a personal place you have to go to really rock the fuck out, you know?” he says. “But I still try to be courteous and not step on people’s feet or whatever.”
Hubner tied for third in D.C., which earned him admission to the US Air Guitar finals in Portland, Ore., in early August. Alas, his Cinderella story ended there, but not before he was tabbed “Rookie of the Year,” a grand achievement for someone competing in a sport — which is what air aficionados call it — he scarcely knew existed four months prior.
Like any good athlete, he’s already thinking about next season. Hubner’s goals for 2016 include not only a new song or two, but also a renewed concentration on stamina and picking-hand technique.
“It’s a 60-second sprint of pure rock & roll,” he says. “Not everyone’s full-on, but I’m full-on. It’s a sprint. And you can’t see this in print, but this is not a sprinter’s body! So I want to work on that, so I’m not so gassed by the second round.
“I also want to work a bit on my technique,” he continues. “You have to pay attention to what’s being played to get the higher scores, and what you’re doing with your hands has to match up somewhat believably to what’s being played. If a guitarist is playing a complicated solo, though, chances are he’s not jumping around the stage — he’s concentrating. In air guitar, you have to have both.”
What he wants to tell those curious about professional air guitar is that it’s fun, and it’s accepting, and it’s a tribe, albeit a tribe that encourages punny, pro wrestling-style monikers. Hubner, whose nom de plume is “Witness,” notes that it’s a sharp contrast from the sometimes-cutthroat world of “real” music-making, and that perhaps dropping the physical gear from the mix also serves to lessen the pretension factor somewhat. In air guitar, he says, it’s less about how you play the music, but how the music plays you.
“Everyone’s played air guitar at some point in his or her life,” he says. “It’s inclusive. It’s universal. And it’s just fun, which is always the most important part.”