Who will be the next Air Guitar hero?

Chris "The Fro" Harden finished first in the Atlanta, Ga., regional last year and will travel to Milwaukee for Friday's U.S. Air Guitar competition.

Airness: the extent to which a performance transcends the imitation of a real guitar and becomes an art form in and of itself. It’s the skill all air guitarists strive to master, especially if they want to be competitive.

And there will be no shortage of airness at Stonefly Brewery, 735 E. Center St., as competitors battle it out Friday night at the Milwaukee Regional of the U.S. Air Guitar Championships.

Friends Kriston Rucker and Cedric Devitt founded U.S. Air Guitar (USAG) in 2003 after discovering that the U.S. was not included in the Air Guitar World Championships, which began in 1996. They started small, with competitions held only in New York City and Los Angeles, but 16 cities now hold regional competitions and send finalists on to the USAG final.

“We expected it to be fun, but we didn’t know it was going to take off as quickly as it has,” said Rucker. “Americans really like their air guitar.”

This is the first year that Milwaukee is participating in a formal regional with USAG, thanks to some loyal local fans insistent about bringing the competition to Brew City. Individuals are allowed to compete in multiple regionals if they have not yet won in another city, so Milwaukee is likely to have some visitors for the competition.

Chris “The Fro” Harden, a Georgia native who finished first in the Atlanta, Ga., regional and was ranked fifth in the nation last year, is making his first trip to Milwaukee with victory on his mind. Although sidelined two weeks ago by a broken toe during practice, Harden said he isn’t holding back.

“It’s very competitive,” said Harden. “I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

In each regional, there is a panel of three independent judges that score the contest. Matt Beringer, assistant talent buyer at the Pabst Theater, Scott Mullins, music director at 88Nine Radio Milwaukee, and Evan Rytlewski, music editor at Shepherd Express, will be the three judges weighing in at Stonefly tomorrow night.

Judges will critique each air guitarist based on technical merit, stage presence and “airness.” Performances are scored on a scale from 4.0 to 6.0, 6.0 being the highest, and a single score is given to each air guitarist based on overall performance that round.

Each regional competition consists of two rounds. In the first, each competitor performs to a 60-second track of their own choosing. It’s likely they will have picked this song prior to the competition have prepared a routine.

“I will practice for about an hour each morning daily for the first round,” said Harden. “I work on my hands by themselves, work on my feet by themselves, work on my facial expressions by themselves and then work on putting it all together.”

The top five competitors from the first round then advance to round two, where they perform to a surprise song selected by USAG. Here, each air guitarist jams to the same song, and the one with the highest score from round one has the privilege of going last.

“For the second show, I have various stunts that I’ll try to do, depending on the venue,” said Harden. “You have to push the limits. You have to find something that other people maybe aren’t willing to do.”

Peter Adams, a promoter from production company Tap the Masses and coordinator of the Milwaukee Regional, said that it is in air guitarists’ best interest to have a high score going into the second round. The compulsory song is played once before the second round begins, leaving little time for competitors to put a routine together.

“The one who goes first will have to sort of make it up on the spot,” said Adams. “It’s kind of an advantage for the person who gets the best score from the last round because they get to hear the song a few more times.”

Once round two is complete, the winner is determined by adding the scores from both rounds together. The person with the highest composite score receives not only bragging rights, but a trip to New York City to compete in the U.S. Air Guitar National Finals on July 22.

The winner of the finals will earn the 2010 U.S. Air Guitar Champion title and will be sent to Oulu, Finland, in August to represent the U.S. against national champions from around the world in the Air Guitar World Championships.

The shredding begins at Stonefly Brewery at 9 p.m. It is $7 at the door and you must be 21 or older to attend.