A few years before everyone was rocking out to “Bohemian Rhapsody” in their cars and shouting things like “Schwing!” and “Party on!” you had the air guitar from “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” Unlike the ironic knowingness of “Wayne’s World,” there was an innocent exuberance to the gesture, which Bill and Ted used as an expression of happiness, agreement, or triumph.
While Bill and Ted may have been the ones who helped spread the air guitar into popular culture beyond rock music, they were by no means the inventors. The history of the air guitar can be traced as far back as the 1860s when pretending to play an invisible instrument was regarded as a sign of mental illness, while Joe Cocker miming the opening notes of a tune onstage at Woodstock in 1969 is regarded as the “formative moment” of the gesture.
Skip forward another 20 years and the boys’ use of the air guitar is clearly inspired by their taste in music. As Southern Californian lads growing up in the ’80s, we’re talking AC/DC, ZZ Top, Kiss, Megadeth, Iron Maiden, Frank Zappa, and, of course, Van Halen. Alex Winter explained (via Rolling Stone):
“The image that Eddie had runs through all of our movies. Bill and Ted are supposed to be into hard rock. But were these sunny, optimistic California guys. And that’s really embodied by Eddie Van Halen. We talk about Iron Maiden a lot, but I think we would have come up listening to Van Halen and the positivity that was infused in the music. […] And I always thought of Eddie’s incredible physicality with the air guitar stuff, and just the way these guys would have seen him and how that would have impacted them.”