Skip to content

Music Heals: A Conversation with Guitars for Vets’ Patrick Nettesheim

Jul. 29, 2022 at 2:03PM

Patrick Nettesheim was in seventh grade when the first Van Halen record released in 1978, yet he can still recall the smell when he tore open the album’s plastic sealant. It was a pivotal moment—a discovery of a band that would change his life.

It was the smell of fresh, hot-off-the-press ink from the cardboard insert and sleeve—a scent one might also associate with flipping through the pages of a brand new book. That sensory recollection of the first Van Halen record transports Nettesheim back to a time when high school felt like prison, and the only escape was to come home and listen to his records.

Whether he knew it at the time or not, Nettesheim understood that music had a healing quality to it—a way to temporarily escape, or even face, your internal struggles. Sure, the struggles of high school kids aren’t always going to compare to the hurdles of adulthood—I can speak on that front with the pop-punk songs I wrote as a teenager about getting dumped. But it’s still something that he would carry with him for years, eventually using it to help others.

Nettesheim is the co-founder of Guitars for Vets, a non-profit organization that quite literally puts guitars into the hands of veterans. The goal is to help veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder overcome their struggles through the process of learning not just how to play music but to perform music that is meaningful to them. The organization spans 118 chapters across the United States, with over 500 volunteers assisting with the teaching process.

“The efficacy of Guitars for Vets is what I call ‘opening windows of serenity for folks who pick up the guitar,’” Nettesheim says.

I spoke with Nettesheim over a Zoom call about his organization—what it does and how it started. We bonded over old punk music and almost instantly went into networking musician mode—he sent me a recording of his hard-rock ballad “Full On,” and I in turn sent him one of my band’s latest singles. I’m only now wondering if sharing a song that entertains the idea of purposefully driving a car into Lake Michigan may have killed all of the lingering positivity left over from our productive conversation. But positivity is something that Nettesheim carries with him and promotes seemingly at all times and hearing him tell his story is proof of that.

Patrick Nettesheim at the National Association of Music Merchants (2019)
Patrick Nettesheim at the National Association of Music Merchants (2019)

An Unlikely Duo

It all started when Nettesheim met fellow co-founder Dan Van Buskirk, a marine who served in the Vietnam War. Van Buskirk signed up to take guitar lessons from Nettesheim in the spring of 2007, and the two exchanged stories from their colored pasts—Nettesheim, the starving-artist musician who bounced around from gig to gig, and Van Buskirk, the troubled marine who constantly relived the horrors he endured as a sniper fighting in Da Nang.

“We were freaking each other out with our stories,” Nettesheim says. “Dan being the walking history book that he is, I was able to learn a lot about the brotherhood of the marines and what he went through.”

Van Buskirk soon found that those moments when he would wake up panicked in the middle of the night could be quelled by picking up and strumming his guitar—recalling the chords that Nettesheim had taught him.

“[So, we decided] ‘Let’s not keep this to ourselves,’” Nettesheim says. “’Let’s go and play in front of people.’”

The duo set off to perform at the VA Milwaukee Health Care, first stopping at Cream City Music in Brookfield. Joe Gallenberger, who founded and owned the business until he sold it in 2013, donated two guitars to Nettesheim and Van Buskirk to give away after their show. Gallenberger’s father had served in the Korean War—the donation was in his honor.

“We played and gave away the guitars and the dudes lit up like a holiday,” Nettesheim says. “And we had to keep teaching them.”

Nettesheim and Van Buskirk knew they had found their calling.

“Being a good businessman means being a heartless motherfucker,” Nettesheim says. “I’m already good at not-making money—let’s start a non-profit.”

A Google search for “guitars for vets” produced zero results. Deciding to keep things as simple as possible, Nettesheim and Van Buskirk went with those search terms as a name and snagged the vacant website.

Patrick Nettesheim and Dan Van Buskirk
Patrick Nettesheim and Dan Van Buskirk

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School

Lessons at Guitars for Vets are free. Students receive 10 weekly lessons, each an hour long. They’re typically private sessions but certain volunteers have had to double down on students due to popular demand. The curriculum is loose—the focus is more on helping Veterans learn what they want to learn. The way Nettesheim sees things, a student is a lot more interested in learning their favorite Black Sabbath song than they are being forced to memorize what notes make up a G major chord.

“You get people playing right away—that is the key,” Nettesheim says. “If they’re not looking forward to doing it, it's just not going to happen.”

Veterans practice on guitars sourced from the community. Guitars for Vets has several drop-off points in Wisconsin. Those points include Guitar Center in Brookfield and Wade’s Guitar Shop on Milwaukee’s East Side. At the end of the tenth lesson, students receive a brand new Yamaha FG800 acoustic—a lightweight, beginner-level guitar with a solid Sitka spruce top.

From there, students move on to group lessons, where Nettesheim says “all the other magic happens.”

Medics on the Frontline

Guitars for Vets isn’t the magical cure for Veterans experiencing trauma. Nettesheim doesn’t consider himself a musical therapist. He considers himself a teacher—he understands how he himself has been transformed by music and is showing others how to achieve that level of mental health self-sustainability. 

He asks me to remember what it was like to learn how to play guitar for the first time— what it was like to get comfortable holding the instrument in my hands, to strum a G chord for the first time. When the instrument resonates against your body and the sound hits your ears—they’re remarkable things to feel not just for the first time but every time after that. The high I get from writing a new song with a friend or stepping off stage after a day of nerve-wracking anticipation of playing a show just cannot be achieved in any other way than through my guitar. Nothing else matters in those moments—life is good.

“We’re trying to keep people alive—we’re the triage medics on the frontline of battle,” Nettesheim says. “We stop the bleeding and keep them breathing.”

Guitars for Vets doesn’t attempt to find the root of someone’s trauma—it instead focuses on the positive aspects in a person’s life. Which, at its most basic level, is the fact that someone is still alive—that they’re breathing and that their heart is still beating. That there was once a time when hearing a song evoked emotion—like the thrill of hearing the needle of a record player scratch the surface of a Van Halen record for the first time—and that in turn, playing that song on a guitar can transport someone to a better place mentally. Nettesheim describes it as throwing fuel onto the spark that is their life force—the fuel being music.  

“When I went to school, I hoped to be a doctor, but I couldn’t afford it, and I didn’t fit in with that crowd,” Nettesheim says.

With his long hair and at-times crass-yet-positive attitude, Nettesheim certainly fits the role of the rocker more than a practitioner of medicine. But six strings have always felt more comfortable in his hands than a single scalpel ever would, and Nettesheim makes a difference in the world in his unique way.

“I’ve helped people find themselves in a positive light,” Nettesheim says. “Where words fail, music speaks.”

Some photos courtesy of Patrick Nettesheim

About the author

Mike Holloway

Mike Holloway was the music editor for The Wisconsin Gazette until it ceased publication in Sept. He currently writes for 88Nine Radio Milwaukee, Milwaukee Record and Urban Milwaukee.