Nonprofit Surpasses Annual Funding Goal

Guitars not GunsGuitars Not Guns


Some of the neediest youth in the United States reside in Contra Costa County, many languishing for years in the foster care system, moving from residence to residence. These children have learned few social or life skills and are at high-risk for involvement in drug use, crime, and gang activity. Studies prove that experiential art programs provide the most effective means of engaging these youth. Guitars not Guns uses this proven model, providing free group guitar lessons for children aged 8 – 18. Taught by caring and skilled instructors, students learn trust, discipline, and gain much-needed self- esteem.  At an often emotional and exciting graduation ceremony, before family and friends, they are presented with the gift of their practice guitar. For some, this guitar will be the only belonging they will call their own as they move from place to place.

Guitars not Guns, staffed entirely by volunteers, delivers services in an economical and highly effective manner by partnering with local social service agencies. The organization spends no funds on rental space. At agency sites, e.g. group homes, Boys and Girls Clubs, our screened, qualified instructors teach an eight-week series of basic lessons and students are encouraged to return for ongoing instruction.  Youth come to our program from both inside and outside these agencies. No child is turned away for lack of funds.

Guitars not Guns held its first class in 1992 in San Jose, CA. The organization now has chapters across the United States and in the UK.



Guitars not Guns began operating in 1992 as a program developed by Ray Nelson and his wife Louise.  The couple fostered children in Santa Clara County for 10 years.  Ray, a local musician, recognized that as these children were moved and re-moved from home to home, they needed something special that could go anywhere and that would hopefully last a lifetime—the ability to play an instrument, and the instrument itself.  The effort began in San Jose with two volunteer instructors.

As the result of the Nelsons’ efforts and those sharing that vision, chapters now exist in 11 states, Canada, and the United Kingdom. 

Our Program

Each child begins the program by receiving a guitar for home practice. Those who complete the eight-week curriculum receive a surprise at a group performance and graduation ceremony–the gift of that guitar.

This instrument may be one of the few belongings this child has earned through his own effort and perseverance. And, although  his life may be less than stable as he moves from residence to residence, he now has something to call his own.  Each  student receives the interest of a qualified, caring guitar teacher, an opportunity to learn music basics, and the social learning benefits of participating in a functioning group.

Class Locations and Students: Community Partnerships

Classes are ongoing throughout the year and located in safe and suitable locations.  For example, Guitars not Guns partners with Boys and Girls Clubs, Families First, Interfaith Housing, Kinship, and Concord Youth Homes. This arrangement saves rental dollars and supports both programs.  Each organization has its own criteria for student qualification. Guitars not Guns staffs primarily in economically depressed areas of the County.  We recently instituted a West County class partnering with El Sobrante Boys and Girls Club. This class graduated August 11, 2010.


Here in Contra Costa County, with a committed and stable volunteer staff, Guitars not Guns served 80 students  in 2009. Frank Darling has served as Chapter President since 2005;  Randall Davis, as VP.

Barbara Goring, VP of Public Relations,  works tirelessly.  Recognized by Diablo Magazine, in an award ceremony on December 2, 2009 at Danville’s Blackhawk Museum,  she received the Threads of Hope Award. This honor is bestowed upon volunteers whose efforts make a difference in our community. Barbara was profiled in the magazine’s November 20, 2009 issue.

Recent Achievements

§  Guitars not Guns (California) will sponsor the Jimi Hendrix Purple Haze event in San Francisco on October 25, 2009.

§   Heart members, Ann Wilson and Nancy Wilson, donated a signed a guitar for auction.  October 10, 2009.

§  The second CD recorded and sold by a local group of committed young people,youth bands of Contra Costa County– ‘Music Lives Here – Vol. 2’ — is projected to fund 50 new program participants.

§  Our supporters include Lowell Berry Foundation, Freddie Mac, Gibson Foundation, Hewlett-Packard, IBM Corporation, Mel Bay Publications, Mockingbird Foundation, Office Depot, Rex Foundation, Schwab Charitable Trust, and United Way. 

Statement of Need/Contra Costa County

Gang Membership and Delinquency

The 2009 National Council on Crime and Delinquency reports that California has faced significant and disproportionate levels of gang membership for decades. Nationally, 5% of youth report gang involvement.  Statewide, 8% report that they are gang members, and in Oakland and West Contra Costa County, 13% and 10% of youth, respectively, report gang membership.

California’s Dearth of Art Education

While the benefits of arts education are well documented, California has historically provided little funding in the area of arts education in our school system. For example, while New York and Michigan in 2001 spent $2.45 per student, California provided only $.97.  During last years budget cuts and layoffs, arts and music programs were on the chopping block. Unfortunately, for this at-risk population, those who would most certainly benefit, the opportunity for private lessons is almost nil.

Proven Benefits

Guitars not Guns does not propose to make a musician of a youngster in a short time; the modest goal is to provide a stepping stone to interest in the arts and a diversion  from unhealthy activities.  The benefits of arts education have been documented in hundreds of studies including Harvard’s recent Project Zero and the Association for the Advancement of Arts.  These benefits include:

§  Better self-discipline

§  Increased self-esteem

§  Hope for the future

§  Increased motivation

§  Less interest in drugs

§  More resistance to peer pressure

§  Reduced criminal activity

§  Improved math, reading, and language skills


The program creates a safer, socially-healthier child. He/she:

§  Learns to earn:  By completing this program the student learns that sustained effort results in positive outcomes. Recognized for his achievement, he receives a  guitar, a chance to perform, and graduates from the program before his family and peers..

§  Learns to trust and socialize: By providing an opportunity to interact with a musical mentor and a functioning social group, the student learns that healthy relationships assist him in reaching his goals.

§  Learns to deal with feelings:  Musicians have long used their music as a healthy outlet for feelings.  This method is available to him as well.


Cost per student:  $80    Average cost per class: $960                        Children served in 2009:  80


Guitars not Guns serves primarily the foster care population; social services require we no longer have contact with the children after graduation which hampers tracking.  However, an obvious bonding occurs between these children and the instructors.  The children delight in their guitars and bask in the glow of recognition for their efforts. Students frequently return for second and third phases of the teaching program.


Youth leave the program with higher self-esteem, improved social skills, and increased trust. They interact with adults and peers more respectfully.  Guitars not Guns creates safer children, and, more importantly, provides them with a feeling of hope and caring they may seldom experience.