Emperor of the Air

Justin Caplicki has long, dark hair, a beard with Sgt. Pepper–like walrus mustache, and a regal paunch. (Think Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski.) Caplicki's day job is on the lot at Fox Sports, but his passion in life is another thing entirely.

Caplicki, 35, recently played air guitar to a packed and energized house at the Troubadour. The occasion was the L.A. stop of the U.S. Air Guitar Championship, a popular touring contest whose winners could eventually move on to the world championship in Norway.

Caplicki's stage name is the Caplickster, an homage of sorts to pro wrestling's "the Hulkster." The Caplickster did well, although he didn't win. To Poison's "Talk Dirty," he haunched on wide legs in a perfect cool/metal/macho stance, frenetically working his fret and string hands like a fastidious, coked-up enrollee at the Guitar Institute.

"Some guys climb all over stuff, but when they're climbing on stuff, they can't use their hands to play guitar, and that makes me angry," the Caplickster explains later. "Technique, I think, is one of the most important things you can have in air guitar."

He wore a jacket with epaulets and a codpiece with attached faucet, from which he dispensed an alcoholic beverage during his set. During a peak moment in his one-minute act, assistants in the crowd fired confetti cannons toward the stage, filling the air with glittery, fluttering shrapnel.

While technique is uppermost, Caplicki concedes that a wow factor is important. "I made a reputation for myself my first year 'cause I broke the no-fire rule by having flames shoot out of my fingers.

"This year my codpiece was a faucet. I spent two hours at Home Depot putting it together. And you should try getting help to put together a faucet on a codpiece. But they did put me in the right direction for certain parts.

"I'd like to get one that could maybe smoke or light up," he continues. "I'd see these guys — they got light-up outfits and shit. I'm, like, 'How do you do that?' They show up with a battery pack and I'm, like, 'God DAMN!'"

Air guitar is not a cheap hobby, even if you don't need an instrument, amp or strings.

"As every day gets closer to Air Guitar, the more money I spend on stuff," the Caplickster says. "My credit-card bills peak around Air Guitar every year. I buy confetti guns, sparkly powder, flash powder, magician lighters, I spent a couple hundred dollars on pyrotechnics."

The Caplickster also dispels any notion that his craft is easy.

"The first thing is physical training. You gotta do the physical training. That includes cardio, stretching, losing weight, eating properly — just to drop some pounds.

"I run around the block and I go to the Metro station and hit the stairs. The weeks leading up, I ran those steps at Western and Wilshire, it's about three or four flights, and the first day I'm doing two, the second day, three, the fourth day, four. End of the next week, I'm doing, like, 20 sets, up and down. That helps with the cardio, it's good for the quads, and we're talkin' afterward I got, like, jelly legs.

"For me, I gotta lose some weight. Cold Stone Renegade has zero body fat. But I love beer, I can't stop drinking beer. That's in my blood. Sorry. My family's Polish. And I like Gummy Bears, I like nachos, I like wings — can't stop eating that shit. My fault, my bad."

To save calories, the Caplickster tells himself, "Okay, I'm not gonna drink beer tonight. I'll drink two bottles of wine instead."

While getting in shape is vital, it's not as important as rehearsal. "I burn the song 80 times on a disc and listen to it all day long. I try to learn the frets as best as possible. Thank God for YouTube and people with their tutorials from their basement apartment. Slides, pick slides, whammy bar, wah-wah pedal, all that stuff."

He also studies the current greats of air guitar: Dude Thrashington, Magic Cyclops and Dreamcatcher. And he finds inspiration in the metal/rock greats Mötley Crüe, Chris Holmes and Blackie Lawless from W.A.S.P — and, "for my money, the greatest rock star of all time, David Lee Roth."

The Caplickster says he has even drawn inspiration from sketch comedy.

"Rowan Atkinson, who plays Bean, did a sequence or sketch where he was pretending to be some sort of cleanup guy in a music studio and he ended up finding a drum set. He played air drums, and the actual drums were being played. It was phenomenal."

Yet no matter how hard you prepare, once the competition starts, everything changes, he says.

"I'll tell you something: As soon as I step on that stage, that routine is out the goddamn window. You got 60 seconds.

"It is the longest minute of your life."

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >