Guitarist Gregg Hammond on ‘Guitars Not Guns’ by Marlene Hall

Musician and guitar teacher Gregg Hammond works with the nonprofit Guitars Not Guns in Washington, DC. According to Guitars Not Guns the theme of Guitars Not Guns is “Changing the World, One Kid at a Time.” The goal of Guitars Not Guns is to help prevent violence in schools and on the streets by providing foster kids and at-risk youth with focus and self-actualization. They aim to empower them with the most fundamental tool to succeed. Their motto is, “Believe in yourself and you can accomplish anything. “Using music as a catalyst they encourage children and teens to use their creativity to foster personal development and to help divert them from self-destructive influences like drugs, alcohol, and gang-related activities. By providing free guitars and lessons they hope to engage their creative potential and help them achieve their dreams.
Gregg Hammond.

Gregg Hammond.

Their programs are for children and teens ages 8 – 18 using low teacher-to-student ratios. Each class consists of a maximum of 10 students with three adult instructors. In addition to learning how to master changing from one chord to another, children learn perseverance, discipline and self-esteem. More importantly, the kids learn to enjoy the interaction and have fun in a group setting. Those who complete the full 8-week program are allowed to keep the guitar and are encouraged to return for Level 2.

Guitars Not Guns is not anti-gun. They are anti-gun violence.

We sat down with Gregg to answer questions about the program and why
he got involved.

Marlene: How did you first get involved with ‘Guitars Not Guns?’ Who started it? How is the program funded?

Gregg: In 2004, in Southwest, DC, my father and I were jumped by a gang of youths. In 2006-07, there were two separate incidents where youth jumped out of cars and attempted to rob me at gunpoint. Confused by the senseless violent acts, my training in mentoring and wilderness survival stirred a thought process in my mind, seeking a solution. Playing guitar had been a fantastic outlet for me as an at risk late teen/young adult. I searched for a way to be proactive using the skills I had. I volunteered with several youth programs, yet none of them had guitar and music at the center point. I searched online and found Guitars not Guns,  A national 501(c)(3) started by Ray and Louise Nelson, foster care parents, from the Bay Area in California. There was no Washington DC chapter yet established. I took the steps necessary to get it started. We are supported through donations.

What makes ‘Guitars Not Guns’ such a unique and special program.

The ability to weave the magic of learning guitar with mentoring done well creates a basket of life enriching experiences during weekly classes that help build self-esteem through goal setting/accomplishments providing a foundation for the participants of our program, that are not available to them otherwise.

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How does music inspire kids in this program?

Music is a universal language that every society and culture in history has used for ceremony, celebration, grieving, presentations, movie soundtracks, sporting events. Having a tangible connection to the experience of the creation of music is something that all people must have access to in order to stay balanced emotionally. Our program provides this to kids at the age when they have the curiosity to learn, and the time to practice.

What is it about the guitar that soothes the soul?

The guitar has six strings, each one divided by more than 20 half step intervals. It provides an endless spectrum of note combinations opening a matrix of melody lines and chord voicing. Endless hours of creation await any student of the guitar, no matter how young or how old. Every story every told is available in the musical language of the guitar.

How successful has the program been?

The Guitars Not Guns program has expanded from one classroom in California to hundreds of classes, reaching thousands of students, both nationally and internationally. Student participants have gone on to pursue careers in music. Many become mentors volunteering as teachers with our program, or other similar programs.

What are your two favorite ‘success’ stories?

In 2009, I was managing and overseeing Guitars Not Guns DC classes at a therapeutic day school. I had a student in one of my classes who had physical restrictions  from the time of birth that challenged his daily activities, and he could not sit and hold a guitar right-handed, nor could he hold it in the fashion that most guitar players would, and his fingers were unable to bend they way the rest of us can bend our fingers. My friend Bill who was volunteering with Guitars Not Guns DC, and I worked together to help this young man be able to play guitar along with the rest of the students. We reversed the nut on the headstock/neck of the guitar and re-stung it. I then tuned the guitar to an open D major chord. I took a piece of PVC pipe large enough for our student’s restricted finger operation to fit inside the pipe, and fitted it to his finger length. We put the guitar in his lap and strapped it to his shoulder from the opposite side to keep it stable. He was able to play along with the rest of the students and his self-esteem went through the roof. He performed at the school talent show with his classmates, beaming with pride. His smile worth every night of burning the midnight oil to keep the classes facilitated. He was so confident in himself that he applied for a job at the USDA, boasting of his ability to play the guitar and his future plans to start his own band. He was hired that day! Bravo to this future leader!

Another miracle was a teenage girl  that joined one of those classes a couple weeks after it started, seeming a bit shy the first day. I was gently persistent in coaxing her to try strumming the guitar. I observed that she seemed to be very quiet most of the way through the class, so I asedk her quietly, “Who is your favorite band?”  to which she  responded “I like Coldplay.” I told her I knew how to play “Wonderwall” and strummed some of the guitar chords to show her. She smiled and said, “That’s cool.” I let her know that she could learn to play it too if she just put in some time practicing. When the class was finished that day the teacher that was facilitating the partnership between Guitars Not Guns and the school said to me, “Mr. Hammond this is a miracle. That girl does not talk.”  For the next 36 weeks every class the girl attended she asked questions, answered questions and spoke to me without hesitating. The reality of the miracle did not sink in until the very last day of the school year when the head therapist stopped me in the hall and asked me and m my assistant teacher if the girl was still attending my class. I said, “Yes she was.” My assistant said, “Oh yeah she is in our class, but she never plays the guitar as much as the other students all she does is talk the whole time.” The therapist replied, “I’m sorry we’re talking about two different girls. The girl I am referring to never speaks to anyone.”

AND that’s when it hit me, because I had done the roll call in attendance and I knew that we were actually referring to the same girl by name. For all the weeks the young lady had been attending my guitar classes she was talking. She felt safer in my classroom then she did anywhere else in the school.

How has your life been changed by Guitars Not Guns?

My childhood was full of very difficult times. Violence, predators, assault. I survived but not without extreme trauma.

I journeyed in search of meaning of life, and a reason for mine. At the end of 2007 I used the process of envisioning as I had learned in wilderness survival school/spiritual questing to create a program in my mind’s eye, that would be proactive in being an effective tool for social change, mentoring youth, using music and guitar specifically, and would harness my skills as a teacher, my desire to be a great philanthropist, musician to set an example for other folks who faced similar doubts about how to find their passion and then actually live it on a daily basis. The Guitars Not Guns program has awakened my personal story and how to tell it. I am going to write the book that changes the world, and I am forever grateful for the experience of Guitars Not Guns triggering the right stuff in my spirit to embrace
the task.

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What do you try to accomplish with the kids in one of your ‘sessions’?

I approach every session I teach with two perspectives in mind. The first  is my commitment to being patient and understanding that today’s experience for my students may be the most  important part of their day week or month.  I do my best to remove my own personal distractions and be there in the now fully present and engaging with my students.

The second is that I use the power of musical intervals to create melodies that are both interesting and up lifting so that the students spend the rest of the week humming the tunes that have been played during their classes. This helps them stay connected to the good memory of their Guitars Not Guns experience.

Guitar virtuoso Stanley Jordan is also involved in the program. Tell us about his contributions and successes.

I met with Stanley in September this year, and explained how Guitars Not Guns works. He understands the power of music therapy, and has made great contributions to that modality (pun intended). He offered to help teach, right here in Washington DC. I am meeting with Victor Wooten (Bass guitar virtuoso) in October to discuss collaboration with our Guitars Not Guns program and Stanley Jordan.

How can our readers become more involved in ‘Guitars Not Guns’?

Guitars not Guns is an all volunteer staffed children’s music charity. Our greatest need is volunteer teachers and administrative help.

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Donations can be made by check to Guitars Not Guns DC and mailed to
Guitars Not Guns
1822 Florida Ave NW,
Washington, DC 20009

or contribute online at www.guitarsnotguns.org

We accept donations of musical instruments and gear.

Contact gregg@dcguitarlessons.com

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3 Responses to Guitarist Gregg Hammond on ‘Guitars Not Guns’ by Marlene Hall

  1. Hannibal October 5, 2013 at 1:40 pm #

    Great article Marlene on Gregg’s terrific work!

    • Marlene October 6, 2013 at 4:09 pm #

      Thanks Hannibal!

  2. Sarah Warren February 23, 2014 at 9:02 pm #

    Very nice article! Gregg is awesome, changing lives for the better, kudos to you friend!