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SPOT ON: Justin Howard

Photo: Andrew Nelles (BA '08)

Cloaked in a skimpy leather tunic like a 200 A.D. barbarian ready to charge into battle, Justin “Nordic Thunder” Howard (BA ’07) stood in front of 5,000 screaming rock ’n’ roll fans with blood dripping down his knees. Moments earlier, while Metallica’s “Hit the Lights” blasted through the speakers, Howard injured himself performing one of his signature moves: a perfectly-timed-with-the-music leap into the air, followed by a direct crash landing on his knees and a series of synced pelvic gyrations.

It was August 24, 2012, and Howard, 29, was in Oulu, Finland, competing in the 17th Annual Air Guitar World Championships. “Pain is temporary,” he proclaimed into the microphone. “Air guitar is forever.” Later that day, Howard was crowned the 2012 World Champion of Air Guitar, completing a long, tumultuous journey through the ranks of competitive air guitar, enduring debilitating performance-related injuries, and—of course—graduating from Columbia College Chicago.

Howard’s tale begins in Casper, Wyoming, where he grew up playing air guitar to classic rock, and later, country and western and ’80s thrash metal. As a kid he was “obsessed” with Elvis Presley, decorating his room with posters of The King. “I’ve been playing air guitar to music for as long as I can remember,” he says.

Equally passionate about film, the future showman learned about Columbia in high school while taking an advanced video production class with Lance Madzey (BA ’94), an early mentor. In 2003, Howard enrolled at Columbia to study film and video post production. “At Columbia you’re allowed to explore,” Howard says. “No one ever says, ‘You can’t do this.’”

Howard’s foray into competitive air guitar began in 2006, when he saw an ad in the RedEye for the US Air Guitar Championships Regional Competition in Chicago. “I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to do this and win,’” he says. And he did. The legend of Nordic Thunder—the stage name he took after it came to his former manager/air guitar trainer in a dream—was born.

“Air guitar brings people together, promotes peace, and allows people to be themselves.”

Howard won the Chicago Regionals again in 2008, but ruptured a disk and herniated two others while performing at the US Finals—an injury that required back surgery. (It wasn’t his first air guitar injury: Before he turned pro, he tore the meniscus in his knee while air guitaring with some friends—an injury that also required surgery.) Howard, who once trained with a ballerina to learn how to move well on stage, won the Chicago Regionals in 2010, won it again in 2011, and then took the US title the same year. But at the 2011 World Championships, he lost by three-tenths of a point.

Not satisfied with second on the international stage, Howard flew on his own dime to Oulu, Finland, for the 2012 World Championships and entered the competition as a dark-horse entrant. The rest, as they say, is history.

View Justin Howard, a.k.a. Nordic Thunder, on state at the Air Guitar World Championships 2012 in Finland as he conducts his award-winning performance.

“I’ve had two major dreams in my life,” says Howard, who works full time as a video editor at Rotary International’s broadcast media department in Evanston. “One was to go to Columbia and get a job, and the other was to be the Air Guitar World Champion.” The champ will defend his world title in Oulu in August.

—Brent White (BA ’08)

Top 5 Air Guitar Songs according to Justin “Nordic Thunder” Howard:

1 “War Pigs”
(Black Sabbath)
This is the best air guitar song of all time. I don’t care what anyone says.

2 “Jesus Saves”
You really can’t go wrong with any Slayer song. The notes climb the neck of the air guitar beautifully and quickly crescendo to some fast shredding, allowing you to sink down into a power stance and head bang.

3 “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking?”
(Rolling Stones)
Sometimes it feels good to just jam. This song is most excellent for practicing your technical skills to reach a level of gnarly awesome.

4 “La Grange”
(ZZ Top)
This little band from Texas knows how to lay down some licks. Plus, they have beards. If you have a real beard—acquired from weeks of not shaving—you will automatically look cooler playing air guitar to this song.

5 “Welcome to the Jungle”
(Guns N’ Roses)
My main man Slash once told me when we were out to lunch together, “Every song I’ve ever written has been written entirely for all the air heads out there to shred to.” You know what? I believe him.

View Justin Howard as he makes an appearance in a Dr. Pepper commercial as his air guitar personality, Nordic Thunder.