In an upstairs classroom at the Veterans Memorial Building in Hollister last weekend, the first session of Guitars not Guns was at full throttle.
“Right now you are doing some free jazz,” said San Juan Bautista musician and teacher Bruce Gilsenan to a room full of 21 eager students holding guitars, some of them for the first time ever.
“This is really cool,” said Hollister resident, Kari Bridge, 56, who brought her granddaughter, 8-year-old Rowan Shores to the inaugural class. “I played a little bit of drums in grammar school. It gives them the opportunity to try new things. A little bit of culture didn’t hurt anyone.”
The Guitars not Guns program aims to give kids, from 8 to 18 years of age, a taste of the rock and roll life, by providing basic guitar lessons over an eight week period.
Started by Hollister resident Mike Smith, the program also provides guitars to students who do not own one. Students get to take the guitars home with them each week to practice and if they attend all sessions, they get to keep the guitar once the course is over.
“It was a New Year’s Resolution of mine to start the program,” said Smith, who plays the piano and comes from a musical family. His mother, Mercedes, is a classically trained pianist and operatic soprano.
The program is entirely supported by donations, said Smith.
“We got $500 here and there,” he said, adding that San Benito County Supervisors, Mark Medina and Jaime De La Cruz donated funds. The black guitars that most of the students practiced their newfound skills on were donated by the Monterey County chapter of Guitars Not Guns, which Smith first contacted when he decided to start the program in Hollister. Smith hopes to expand the program to San Juan Bautista and other parts of the county.
As students sat at their desks, looking down at their lesson books, Gilsenan led them through their paces, reviewing finger placement, familiarizing them with the different parts of the guitar and showing them how to hold the guitar correctly.
“Everybody get finger number three and put it on the top string – the skinny one,” instructed Gilsenan.
“Today we are getting to know the students,” said Gilsenan, who was assisted by fellow teachers, Richard Primont and local musician, Zach Freitas. “They showed a lot of enthusiasm for the guitar.”