Once confined to drunken
parties or the front row at heavy metal concerts, air guitar is becoming a
globally recognised art form. This story was written as the first New
Zealander to compete in the world championships - a Hastings meatworker
known as The Tobanator - was about to head to Finland, air guitar's
Toby Peneha, New Zealand's newly crowned
air guitar king, was strumming invisible strings even before he knew what a
real guitar was.
"I heard music and felt it and started moving my fingers. Maybe I'm just a
born air guitarist,'' he says.
The 28-year-old air virtuoso says his early
exposure to music was limited to velvet-voiced crooner Jim Reeves. Young
Toby's hair was kept short, and he was at church almost every evening.
That was until he turned 14. He told his
mother he didn't want to go to church any more, and his cousin lent him an
AC/DC tape, Black is Back.
"I put the tape in, and it was, like, DUH-DL-DUH-DUHHH! That's when it
Toby is so full of energy he's almost
popping out of skin. With every sentence he jabs his hands in the air,
demonstrates an impromptu power chord, or breaks huskily into song lyrics
from heavy rockers Pantera.
After the revelation of that first AC/DC
album, he graduated to Iron Maiden, Whitesnake, Guns n' Roses, Metallica and
Slayer, and there was no looking back.
A teenage stint as a vocalist in a covers
band called Headstone, doing heavy metal versions of Elton John songs, gave
him an outlet for his talents.
"I sang in the band and moved my fingers a bit. I can play a few chords on
the guitar too, but not as good as I can move my fingers,'' he says.
But then Toby found a girl, had a son, got
a job cutting up chilled lamb carcasses on a bandsaw, and never thought of
following his passion for air guitar - until one night at the Grumpy Mole
bar in Napier.
By chance, Toby was celebrating a mate's
birthday on the same night as the regional air guitar competition. His
partner, Dayna, put his name in "because it was right up his alley and he'd
be in with a chance''.
Much to his surprise, Toby, alias The
Tobanator, was called on stage to play to Black Sabbath's Paranoid
and Give Me All Your Loving by ZZ Top.
"I'd never played in front of a crowd - hell, I didn't even know there was
such a thing as an air guitar competition. I thought I'd just go up and make
a bit of a fool of myself, but instead I had them bowing down in front of
Toby won himself a place in the national
finals, at the Poenamu Hotel on Auckland's North Shore. The other
contestants arrived well prepared and in elaborate costumes, while The
Tobanator forgot his CDs and turned up in his normal clothes - Pantera
T-shirt, PVC pants and Doc Marten boots.
Thinking he had no chance of winning he
decided to enjoy himself instead, and started drinking with the South
Auckland contestant at 8am.
"The others stayed in their rooms and
didn't want nothing to do with us, they stayed straight all day and night
getting ready. I didn't care if I won or lost, I just wanted to get up there
and have a good time,'' Toby says.
The competition hinged on just on two
60-second excerpts - Pantera's Domination/Hollow in the free round,
followed by a compulsory number from Jimi Hendrix.
Toby agrees to demonstrate: Legs apart,
head down, he slaps out Domination's huge, throbbing intro with a
thumb on an invisible base. He switches quickly to an air guitar slung so
low it's practically hanging around his ankles. He slides his fingers down
the fretboard and picks out the melody so fast his fingers blur.
Then with navel-length hair flailing back
and forth he drops to his knees and grabs an imaginary whammy bar and the
guitar wails and... That's it. His 60 seconds are up.
But it was his faithful rendition of Jimi
Hendrix that really wowed the crowd, he says.
"Hendrix was left-handed so I flicked the air guitar around, even though I
can't really play that way.''
Needless to say, The Tobanator and his
non-guitar notched up a resounding victory. The much-hyped North Shore
candidate, who had been sponsored by a radio station and interviewed at
length on TV, failed to make even the top three.
His secret? "I was just being myself, they
were trying too hard.''
His victory was all the more remarkable - or perhaps not - because he'd
spent all day in a bar.
"Man, I was hammered!'' he says, his voice rising to a falsetto giggle.
Immediately after his win, Toby gave an
emotional interview which was broadcast on the 6 o'clock news the following
"This means a lot to me, and the most it's gonna mean is to my
three-year-old son, who jams with me all the time,'' he said, caressing his
framed certificate as if it were a lover.
He also offered a few words of advice to
aspiring air guitarists: "If you like to try it, man, just get up and be
yourself. Move your fingers like you're really playing the guitar and you'll
be away, man.''
But The Tobanator's path to fame is
littered with tragedy.
Toby grew up in Gisborne, on the North
Island's remote and rugged east coast, where his adoptive mother died while
he was in sixth form. His father had died years earlier.
"My little brother and I had nothing, nowhere to stay, no-one to back us
up... We slept at my mum and dad's grave, and the next morning I crossed the
road, stuck out my thumb and we ended up here - there was nothing else for
me to do,'' he says.
The brothers were picked up by someone from
social welfare who set them up in a Hastings flat. Toby, 16 years old, found
a job and tried to be a father to his brother.
But trouble wasn't long in coming. He did
all the things his parents had told him not to, and at a bar one night
someone abused and punched him in the back of the head.
"I'm not much of a fighter, but I'll tell you what, I lost it that time,''
Toby was locked away for assault, and almost ended up behind bars again when
he was falsely accused of robbery.
Nowadays, however, Dayna keeps him out of
The couple live in a Hastings suburb behind a white picket fence, where Toby
finds his inspiration in their three-year-old son, Danyon. Like his dad,
he's a natural-born air guitarist.
"He's the one that woke me up every morning, saying 'dad, dad, competition
time, time to practise'... He's just amazing, and I'd like to give him a few
of the choices I didn't have back then,'' he says.
But right now the family's concern is
getting some money together and getting organised - Toby has never been
overseas before, and has no passport, not even a birth certificate. The
flight up to Auckland for the national finals was his first time in a plane.
So does The Tobanator know anything about
"Nothing at all!'' he crows. "But a Kiwi up there will look pretty
different, especially a brown one with a beautiful smile. If I win I'll do
the haka (Maori war dance), and I'll do it with full-on feeling.''
But then the interview is abruptly
terminated by Danyon, who has found the cassette player. He turns Pantera up
so loud the windows rattle, and straps on his own miniature air guitar.
Shyly at first, he works the invisible
fretboard with his fingers and taps his feet to the thumping base. As his
confidence builds he throws off his sweatshirt and leaps about the kitchen
floor, thrashing out a metal riff.
His mum and dad, still seated at the dinner
table, join in and soon it's a three-man air guitar band, all three heads
rocking back and forth, hands strumming silent chords.
"This is just a normal household for us, man'' says Toby.
Toby "The Tobanator''
Peneha finished second in the 2002 Air Guitar Championships, beaten in a
controversial judges' decision by Londoner Zac "Mr Magnet'' Monro.
However, Toby won the
hearts of the hard-rocking Finns. They voted him the audience favourite and
treated him like a rock star during his five days in Oulu, a city just shy
of the Arctic Circle. He was mobbed in the streets, ushered to the front of
queues, and invited to the town hall to perform for the mayor of Oulu.
"I showed her what air guitar is all about, yeaahhhh!'' Toby says.
It was also the first time the Finnish media had encountered a Maori air
guitarist or anything quite like The Tobanator. He featured in newspapers in
Finland and Saudi Arabia and on the CNN website.
But Toby's fondest memory of the championships is the Finnish people.
"Every day they made me feel like I won, they were bowing down and calling
Sadly, Toby placed
second in the 2003 New Zealand Air Guitar Championships and missed out on a
second shot at the world title.
First published in
Hawke's Bay Today, July 2002. This story was included in a portfolio
that won New Zealand's Qantas Junior Newspaper Feature Writer 2002.