Musical pantomime, the mimicking of the playing of an instrument, originated in the 1860s.

The popularity of the phonograph in the 1930s led to the phenomenon of “shadow conducting”, in which listeners would pretend to conduct an orchestra. Air guitar had a seminal moment at the Woodstock music festival in 1969 when singer Joe Cocker mimicked the playing of the keyboard and guitar during his performance of “With a Little Help From My Friends”. Cocker’selaborate signature moves helped introduce the concept of air guitar.

Multiple technological innovations allow the air guitar to be played as a real instrument, producing sounds that depend on the 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 colored 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 and the strumming movements made by the wearer to synthesize an electric guitar tune, working using only six notes. In November 2006, researchers at the Australian government’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) announced they had developed a tee-shirt that senses human movement to “showcase its expertise in designing and manufacturing electronic and intelligent textiles with which people effortlessly control computers”, publicizing it as an air guitar shirt.

In 2007, toy company Silverlit introduced the V-Beat Air Guitar, a device that consists of a motion-sensing guitar pick, a neck part with four buttons, and a guitar body. By changing the distance between body and neck, and pressing a combination of the four buttons on the neck part, up to 48 tones and chords can be played. The V-Beat Air Guitar won ‘Best Music Gadget’ on the television program The Gadget Show. In 2007, the Japanese company TakaraTomy 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 guitar sounds.

In March 2008, JadaToys of California introduced the Air Guitar Rocker toy that included 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 amplifier attached to the user’s pants or belt. The Air Guitar Rocker is marketed with the popular Guitar Hero license and was created by toy inventor David Führer and his team. Annual Air Guitar World Championships were first held in 1996 as part of the Oulu Music Video Festival in Oulu, Finland, and are now held each August. According to the competition ideology, “wars will end, climate change will stop and all bad things will vanish when all the people in the world play the air guitar”.

Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, the Air Guitar World Championships were not held in 2020 and 2021.