Nationally founded in July 2000 by Ray and Louise Nelson, Guitars not Guns’ (GNG) mission is to inspire at-risk and underprivileged youth to succeed in life by providing them music education opportunities through the use of volunteers and partnerships in their community. We help instill in them the confidence and character necessary to grow into productive members of society and responsible adults.
Guitars Not Guns is an all-volunteer and donation based non-profit with no paid employees. It comes from our hearts and our desire to make our city a shining example of what we can do around the nation and around the globe.
“One of the most important things that we can do as a society is to include music in our local communities. We can reach across the divide of cultures with music. We can bring forth change with music. We can and we must embrace the power of music. It is a very important thread in the fabric of our consciousness as a society.”
1. How did you come to be involved in Guitars Not Guns?
That’s an interesting story. A few years ago, as my Dad and I exited a metro station in SW DC, we were attacked and assaulted by a DC youth gang. Physically, I was pretty banged up, and spiritually, I was crushed. Two loud questions rang in my head for several days: “Why did they do this?” and “how can I help prevent this from happening again?” Here is some background on me: In 1999-2002, I was trained in wilderness and urban survival, search and rescue, and mentoring through a cross-over study program at the Tracker School’s bi-coastal wildness classrooms. One of my goals was to use all of these skills to instill “rites of passage” to youth to help them understand the value of life. Just after the turn of the century, I embarked on a 96-hour Vision Quest in the wilderness, with only water. I was seeking a Vision for specific direction in my life. Based on my experience during those four days I knew I had found my life’s work, my Vision, my purpose: mentoring at-risk youth in cities and using music, guitars, and the “survival mindset.” In 2008, I discovered the National Guitars Not Guns program through the Songwriter Association of Washington. In 2009, I chartered the DC Affiliate.
2. Why guitars and music? What gives you hope that music can and will impact the lives of at-risk youth?
Great question! First of all, music is the language of the soul. All of humanity has had music in some form or another as part of their culture. It’s used for many things. Music is part of weddings, birthdays, campfires, induction ceremonies, movies, theatre, gatherings of celebration and mourning. After 9-11 the first thing that people did was gather around firehouses, churches, and local pubs and sing songs of hope, such as “We will Overcome.” Music evokes emotion. It connects us with the invisible aspects of our emotions that we can only feel. The intangible. It is what bonds humanity, no matter what culture or background we come from. As an at-risk teenager from a broken home, I found music to be the only thing that I could hold onto and call my own, my place of safety and serenity. I loved the guitar and was gifted one when I was 12, but could not figure out how to play it. I couldn’t afford guitar lessons. I put it aside and ran the streets. At age 19, I was facing charges that were going to send me to prison. A friend brought his guitar to my house and taught me how to tune and play my guitar. I was elated. I started to play daily and practice. I had a new sense of myself. I changed my ways; I became proactive with my court case. I made choices that were better, and I played guitar. I did community service. I realized that I could be a better part of society. I became more responsible and avoided a prison sentence. Music and guitar and the ability to actually play were the catalyst to this transformation.
3. What sorts of programs or classes does GnG offer and to whom?
GnG conducts an after-school music program for youth ages 10-18. Classes consist of up to 10 students and last for 8-10 weeks. They meet once per week for a one-hour lesson. Level 1 lessons are for beginners; Level 2 are geared to the student’s skills.
4. Do the youth need to have a guitar in order to participate?
The students are loaned a guitar at the beginning of class. If they learn 6 guitar chords and can name all the parts of the instrument they get to keep the guitar. They have earned it, and can be proud of themselves for their accomplishments.
5. What sort of opportunities are available to people (musicians, businesses, community groups) who might like to support your work and programs?
Locations are a really big need. If there are spaces that we could use for an hour a week to teach lessons, that would be a wonderful contribution. We currently partner with Boys and Girls Clubs, Community Centers, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, subsidized housing complexes, special needs schools and Government foster care agencies.
Businesses can help by donating equipment, services or funds; displaying their advertising; and linking their website to the Guitars Not Guns site.
Musicians can help by spreading the word about the program; linking their website to ours; and performing on our behalf. GnG also accepts equipment donations; guitars, strings, picks, gig bags, amps and other accessories in good working order are welcomed.
6. How are financial donations used?
GnG’s program is free to all eligible youth. We are an all volunteer nonprofit that partners with other organizations to operate our program; there are no staff or office costs. Donations provide for the instruments, accessories and music books our students and teachers need. Any amount is appreciated; each $100 we receive funds a new student through graduation.
7. Your song ‘Set Me Free’ (available on iTunes) has over 1.7 million listens! Tell us a bit about your inspiration in writing the song and how the proceeds are used.
It’s a sweet thing! I wrote the song “Set Me Free” with my good friend Vince Scheuerman, who is the frontman for the band “Army of Me” and his latest band project is “River James.” We write songs together. At one of our songwriting sessions he asked me, “What should we write today, Gregg?” I answered, “We should write a song about the power of the guitar and music for the GNG students to learn to play, an easy song with inspirational lyrics.” And that’s exactly what we did.
I financed the recordings and studio time, and we have dedicated 15% of the proceeds to GnG programs. Every download counts, so please tell your friends to download the song.
Interview with Gregg Hammond, President of the Washington DC Affiliate, which he chartered in April 2009. This interview was originally published in the Summer 2011 issue of the Bittersweet zine.