Monday, October 31, 2005


The Origin of the Air Guitar

Some time ago I tracked down what I think is the first mention of the custom of wearing baseball caps backwards. The opening stanza of "The Preacher's Boy," by American poet James Whitcomb Riley (1849-1916), contains a description of a preacher's wayward son wearing "his cap-rim turned behind" (line 7). See The Complete Poetical Works of James Whitcomb Riley (Garden City: Garden City Publishing Co., 1941), p. 284.

Now I have traced another modern custom, playing the air guitar, back to the nineteenth century. The hero of Anthony Trollope's novel The Warden is Septimus Harding, whose avocation is playing the cello. He doesn't need a physical cello in order to play, as the following excerpts show.

Chapter III:
He walked on awhile in silence before he recommenced his attack, during which Mr Harding, who had still the bow in his hand, played rapidly on an imaginary violoncello.
Chapter V:
The warden still looked mutely in his face, making the slightest possible passes with an imaginary fiddle bow, and stopping, as he did so, sundry imaginary strings with the fingers of his other hand. 'Twas his constant consolation in conversational troubles. While these vexed him sorely, the passes would be short and slow, and the upper hand would not be seen to work; nay, the strings on which it operated would sometimes lie concealed in the musician's pocket, and the instrument on which he played would be beneath his chair;--but as his spirit warmed to the subject,--as his trusting heart looking to the bottom of that which vexed him, would see its clear way out,--he would rise to a higher melody, sweep the unseen strings with a bolder hand, and swiftly fingering the cords from his neck, down along his waistcoat, and up again to his very ear, create an ecstatic strain of perfect music, audible to himself and to St Cecilia, and not without effect.
Chapter XVII:
Mr Harding, seated in his chair, began to play a slow tune on an imaginary violoncello.

"Nay, my dear sir," continued the attorney-general, "there is no further ground for any question; I don't see that you have the power of raising it."

"I can resign," said Mr Harding, slowly playing away with his right hand, as though the bow were beneath the chair in which he was sitting.

"What! throw it up altogether?" said the attorney-general, gazing with utter astonishment at his client.


And, as he finished what he had to say, he played up such a tune as never before had graced the chambers of any attorney-general. He was standing up, gallantly fronting Sir Abraham, and his right arm passed with bold and rapid sweeps before him, as though he were embracing some huge instrument, which allowed him to stand thus erect; and with the fingers of his left hand he stopped, with preternatural velocity, a multitude of strings, which ranged from the top of his collar to the bottom of the lappet of his coat. Sir Abraham listened and looked in wonder. As he had never before seen Mr Harding, the meaning of these wild gesticulations was lost upon him; but he perceived that the gentleman who had a few minutes since been so subdued as to be unable to speak without hesitation, was now impassioned,--nay, almost violent.
True, it's an air cello, not an air guitar, but both instruments have strings and the resemblance is striking.

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