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Alex Bell, 14, steps on a distortion pedal while playing Metallica's "One" during a lesson with Songbirds Foundation Director Reed Caldwell at the Siskin Children's Institute on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018 in Chattanooga, Tenn.
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Guitars for Kids

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When Songbirds Foundation executive director Reed Caldwell takes stock of the fact that since coming online almost three years ago, the nonprofit has put about 1,000 guitars in the hands of nearly 1,600 kids — and provided lessons — in Chattanooga, Cleveland and Knoxville, he still wishes the numbers could be much larger.

"I'm proud of what we've done, but I can't help but think that we could have 10 times that many kids if we had the resources," he says.

The foundation is a byproduct of the Songbirds Guitar Museum, and Caldwell was brought on board shortly after it opened in late 2016. It didn't have a specific mission at the time, but he has developed one over the years, with the main one being the Guitars for Kids program.

Kids in underserved communities and schools are given the opportunity to take free lessons using donated guitars. The guitars and the lessons are provided through fundraisers, such as one coming Nov. 1 featuring Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley, and also through donations of cash or old equipment that is either reused or sold, with the cash going to buy more guitars.

"For every $100 raised, we can provide lessons and a guitar for kids," Caldwell says.

Both Hensley and Ickes are multiple award-winning performers who have played with everyone from Earl Scruggs to Alison Krauss.

The Guitars for Kids program has partnered with almost a dozen agencies, including YMCA YCAP in Chattanooga and Cleveland, as well as Siskin Children's Institute. Guitars are also used as music therapy where needed.

If you go

› What: Guitars for Kids fundraiser featuring Rob Ickes & Trey Hensley

› When: 6-9 p.m. Friday, Nov. 1

› Where: Songbirds North, 35 Station St.

› Admission: $25

› Online: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/rob-ickes-trey-hensley-songbirds-foundation-benefit-show-auction-tickets-72249049853? aff=odwdwdspacecraft

The foundation also produces the Vault Sessions, an online video-based program featuring local, national and internationally renowned guest artists discussing their careers, their music and, often, the guitar licks that have most influenced them. The videos have become so popular, the foundation receives some money from YouTube.

All of the services, including the guitars, are free to the kids, ages 12-17. The sessions are 10 weeks long, but Caldwell says most kids re-up for more and the foundation is happy to keep teaching as long as the budding musicians continue to show interest and try.

In some cases, the foundation has even worked with a young player who wanted to play an electric guitar instead of the provided acoustic one. And in the case of budding guitar shredder Alex Bell, Caldwell, who has been teaching for 20 years, found someone who could take the lessons to the next level.

"He can shred, and he blew past me, so I had to find him someone who could keep up," Caldwell says.

In a letter to Caldwell and the foundation, Bell's mother wrote that the guitar lessons have been life-altering for her son, who deals with Asperger's syndrome.

"Alex loved guitar immediately," she wrote. "He couldn't wait until the next lesson. We also noticed that he could focus for long periods of time on guitar and practicing. His autism makes him extremely focused, almost obsessed, about his favorite subjects, and for him it's guitar. For the first couple of months the teachers would say how well he was doing. We just thought that's what they say to all of the kids. Then they began taking him out of the class and teaching him by himself. Not too long after, we were told that they were bringing in a new teacher to help him with electric guitar and the styles of playing that he was interested in learning, like sweep-picking."

Mardee Miller is the principal of the new Howard Connect Academy. The middle school offers an innovative curriculum that, among other things, allows kids to learn all levels of music, from writing to recording to production. She says Songbirds' Guitars for Kids program is a perfect fit.

"We have now about 20-25 guitars in our building," she says. "Songbirds jumped right on with us in our mission to teach kids how to write and produce their own music."

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

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