Examples of air guitar activities by heavy metal fans occurred in the late 1970s. In the Iron Maiden DVD "The Early Years", former and current band members claimed that fans would come to shows with wooden cutout guitars and would emulate what was being played on stage. Eventually, the practice caught on with other fans, some of whom did not have a homemade guitar and would just rock out on their "air guitars".
The roots of air guitar go back much earlier. The father of air guitar might be Joe Cocker, who actively demonstrated an air guitar technique on stage. During the guitar solo lead-in to his live performance of "With a Little Help from My Friends" at the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969, he can be observed simulating the music with his hands, sans guitar.
Preceding that date by twelve years, Bill Reed, of The Diamonds, during a live TV performance, is seen playing the “air guitar” while doing his recitation on the song, “Words of Love”. This performance, circa 1957, has been added to YouTube from a kinescope recording.
Annual world championships (full name: "The Annual Air Guitar World Championship Contest") were first held in 1996 as part of the Oulu Music Video Festival in Oulu, Finland. Participants from all over the world competed in skills of playing air guitar. The judging panel included Finnish guitarist Juha Torvinen, and prizes included a custom made 'Flying Finn' guitar and VOX BM Special amplifier donated by Queen guitarist Brian May. The ideology behind the event was that "wars would end and all the bad things would go away if everyone just played air guitar".
Championships generally follow international rules with minor exceptions and additions:
Returning 2006 United States champion Craig Billmeier, who uses the stage name Hot Lixx Hulahan, claimed a second national title in the 2008 US Air Guitar National Finals, held in San Francisco, California, on August 8, 2008. Hulahan won the title despite fracturing his thumb during the first round of competition.
There are multiple technological innovations that try to allow air guitar to be played as real instrument, producing sounds that depend on air guitarist's actions.
In 2005, students from the Helsinki University of Technology developed a system that translates hand movements into electric guitar sounds, resulting in a functional air guitar. The system, consisting of a pair of brightly-coloured gloves and an infrared camera, is one of the most popular exhibits at the Helsinki Science Center. The camera recognizes the distance between the two gloves as well as strumming movements made by the wearer to synthesize an electric guitar tune, working using only six notes. No musical knowledge is necessary.
In November 2006, researchers at the Australian government's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation announced they had developed a t-shirt that senses human movement to "showcase its expertise in designing and manufacturing electronic and intelligent textiles with which people effortlessly control computers", publicising it as an air guitar shirt.
In 2007, a Japanese company Takara Tomy Corp introduced Air Guitar Pro (Guitar Rockstar), a functional guitar simulator. Fitting in one hand, the device uses heat and motion sensors to detect the other hand motions and produce the guitar sounds.
In March 2008, Jada Toys of California introduced the Air Guitar Rocker toy which featured patented technology in a belt buckle. When the user strums a magnetic pick in front of the belt buckle, guitar music plays through a portable amp attached to the users pant or belt. The Air Guitar Rocker is marketed with the popular Guitar Hero license and was created by toy inventor David Fuhrer and his team.
Björn Türoque (pronounced "byorn to rock," and spelled with heavy metal umlauts; real name: Dan Crane) became a well-known air guitarist as a frequent finalist of World Championships. In 2003–2005 he competed in ten air guitar competitions around the world and came in second place five times out of ten. In 2006, he published a book To Air is Human: One Man's Quest to Become the World's Greatest Air Guitarist. He hosts a set of events named " Aireoke" (a portmanteau of "air guitar" and "karaoke"). These events are held in relatively small local clubs and allow everyone to try becoming a rockstar for 1 minute, playing air guitar in public. Most successful persons performing in aireoke proceed to US championships.
On September 14, 2006, Björn appeared on Late Night with Conan O'Brien.