Musical pantomime, the mimicking of the playing of an instrument, has roots as far back as the 1860s, when it was considered a mental illness. 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 itself 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's signature elaborate moves helped display air guitar to the broader public.
The term "air guitar" gained popularity in the 1980s, with one of the first contests held at Florida State University in 1978. Contests multiplied in Sweden and the United States during the 1980s, and since 1996, the annual Air Guitar World Championships have been a part of the Oulu Music Video Festival in Oulu, Finland, and the festival currently administers the Air Guitar World Championships Network of official national championship competitions. The idea of the contest was originally coined as a joke, meant only to be a side attraction for the music video festival, but has since become a major draw in its own right.
In 2009 the Network consisted of twenty countries: Finland, United States, New Zealand, Canada, The Netherlands, Greece, Belgium, Norway, United Kingdom, Switzerland, France, Japan, Australia, Germany, Taiwan, Thailand, Russia, Romania, and Brazil.