.Guitar Heroes

Nonprofit puts guitars in future musicians' hands

Damon Danielson remembers listening to the radio, hearing another story about the arts being underfunded in school. 

“Yet a lot of studies show people with a musical background do better in math and science. So I was listening to that story and my thoughts went back to my dear friend, Terry Esau, in MInnesota,” Danielson says.

A lifetime friend and one-time commercial jingle writing partner, Esau is also the co-founder of the non-profit, Free Bikes For Kidz (FB4K). Danielson knew that since 2008 FB4K’s had already given 125,000 bikes to kids in need and is on a trajectory to reach one million by 2027. 

That’s when he heard the music. 

“I asked, ‘Terry, what about doing this for guitars?’” Danielson remembers. “He jumped on it and that’s where the whole thing sort of took off.” 

secure document shredding

That “whole thing” is Free Guitars 4 Kids (FG4K), a non-profit that puts instruments directly in the hands of the youth. 

“Last year we gave away 1,078 guitars,” exclaims FG4K Executive Director, Ben Dudley. 

“We have plans this year to give away over 4,000 [combined] with an ultimate goal of giving away 1 million guitars within the next 10 years.” 

While that goal might seem high, the non-profit’s growth is tracking. In just under four years FG4K has partnered with over 20 different non-profits, schools, churches and event programs in 16 states along with the countries of Uganda and Jamaica. 

“I’ve never been involved with an idea that people just seem to get immediately,” Danielson says. “It’s just so wonderful to hear people get excited about things.” 

Danielson should know as he’s no stranger to entrepreneurial startups. 

Now retired, he has spent a lifetime in the tech world. A Santa Cruzan since 1996, Danielson was the co-founder of Zero motorcycles (the world’s first electric motorcycle), VuSpex (virtual inspection software) and OneMusic–the world’s first internet and CD production music library which BMG bought for a 40 times return to stockholders. 

“We’re a generosity organization,” he explains of FG4K. “If we model giving, then we hope others will understand what it means to have something given to them and pay it forward.” 

So how exactly does it work? According to Dudley, it’s pretty simple. 

“If somebody wants guitars, then we want to give them some,” he says. Dudley takes a pause before adding, “No strings attached.” 

As they open in different areas, “sounding boards” are set up as a point of contact between the organization and local kids charities in the area.

“We don’t pick the kids,” Danielson says. “We leave the selection process totally up to our partners [local organizations] because they know the kids that need help.” 

He says on average the children who receive the guitars are anywhere between the ages of 10 and 15. The non-profit also provides valuable resources for recipients and instructors alike. 

“We created a 16 week, 16 lessons over 16 videos course that we’ve uploaded to the website,” explains Dudley. “They are more geared towards instructors but anyone can use them.” 

Many of the guitars donated by the organization are themselves donations. Free Guitars 4 Kids accepts used instruments no longer being played–think grandpa’s dusty Martin sitting in the closet corner. 

However, the organization has also teamed up with guitar manufacturing companies, Gibson and Fender, as a way to get new instruments into the future shredders’ hands as well. The companies not only donate a number of  instruments, but allows the non-profit to purchase them at cost, a deal awarded to few. Dudley also creates frequent Tik Tok videos of himself going into music stores to pick out a new piece to donate. 

Donations, funding and promotion also comes from the most obvious of sources, professional musicians. 

“Artists really love working with us,” Dudley exclaims. 

Jack Johnson, Cory Wong, Grace Bowers and Charlie Worsham are just a few of the names who have collaborated with FG4K. Last year, they teamed up with Christian-pop crossover artist, Amy Grant, to give away two guitars. FG4K.org currently hosts video of one of those recipients, Obediah, busking on the streets of Minneapolis, entertaining tourists and locals with his heavy riffs.

Last December, the organization was featured on Good Morning America, when they teamed up with musician Ron Artis II. The partnership donated 200 guitars to Hawaiian students who lost their instruments in the state’s deadliest wildfires last August. Over 17,000 acres were destroyed on the island of Maui between a period of three days when not one, but four separate fires killed 100 people and destroyed an estimated $5.5 billion in damage. Dry conditions and high winds were blamed for the inferno. 

“It looked like a nuclear bomb had gone off” Danielson says. “Everything’s flattened. It’s unbelievable what these people have gone through.” 

He says when FG4K was there, 800 displaced individuals were still living out of the hotel they were staying at. That’s just one hotel to accommodate the over 10,000 people who were displaced during the disaster. According to a recent NBC News article, 4,961 people are still living in hotel rooms.

“It’s been a very difficult time for families there,” he admits. “Many of them are musical and lost all of their instruments in their houses.” 

Surprisingly, Dudley says the organization received some opposition online from people questioning why they’re donating guitars instead of food or other aid. However, he argues their mission is just as important on a deeper level. 

“That’s the beauty of music,” he says. “It transcends race, it transcends culture, it transcends politics. It’s healing. It’s a necessary part of our lives, it’s not a luxury. It’s a part of who we are as people.” 

Since its founding, FG4K has worked throughout the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, raising funds and distributing instruments to those in need. Although there are no current plans to work with local Santa Cruz organizations, Danielson says he foresees some for possibly later this year. 

“It takes leadership at the local level,” he says. “I’m in Santa Cruz but it takes the right type of team to keep things going. It’s easy to do something once, it’s harder to institutionalize it.” 

Anyone interested in helping but might not have time to spare are encouraged to go to the website and donate whatever monetary value they can. Dudley tells GT every $100 donated equals one guitar in the hands’ of the youth and even the smallest amounts add up. He also highlights the success of social media campaigns and hopes more people will like, follow and share FG4K’s accounts to spread their mission as far as possible. 

Danielson breaks it down nicely. 

“If people are interested and want to get involved we’d be delighted to talk with them,” he says.

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