A quadriplegic rediscovers music after a motorcycle accident

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The day everything changed

Wells’ grandfather first sat him on a motorcycle when he was 6 years old. His grandfather put the throttle on and let Wells go. The skills we learn as kids make them second nature when we’re older, so the bike has become an extension of Wells’ body. Although he was never a professional pilot, Wells took the sport seriously and competed in many competitions over the years.

When his daughters were little, he made them sit on motorcycles, just like his grandfather had done for him. It was a gift of joy and freedom. Why not share that with his daughters?

In 1992, Wells was a young father. Her three daughters were all under 10 years old. He was about to move to Oregon with the intention of buying a motorcycle shop and teaching at a college in Eugene. One evening he went out for a walk in the rolling shale hills at the foot of the book cliffs as he had done countless times before. He and another rider were returning when the rider in front of him missed a turn and put his bike down. Wells’ split-second decision to pull away from the other rider knocked him off his bike.

“I just hit badly. I hit the top of my head instead of the side,” Wells recalled.

He never lost consciousness. He was there for everything. He just felt like he couldn’t move his body.

The doctor was a straight shooter, Wells said. “The doctor came and said to my family, ‘He’s paralyzed from the neck down, get used to it.’ So what do you do from there?”

Wells’ immediate thoughts upon hearing this had nothing to do with motorcycles or guitars. His number one concern was whether he could hug his daughters again.

A legacy continues

Wells has what’s called incomplete quadriplegia. Complete quadriplegia is what most people think of when they hear this term: complete paralysis of all four limbs. That was Wells’ initial diagnosis. However, exactly four months to the day after the accident, he moved his left leg slightly. Shortly after, he moved his left thumb.

These small moves began a long journey of recovery that would eventually plateau with a relatively strong left side of his body and a weak, under-responsive right side. His right hand would never be able to press a string on the fingerboard and play notes on a guitar. He thought little of it. He could kiss his daughters. He felt lucky to still be able to work as a researcher and technical writer and support his family.

Fifteen years later, Wells’ brother had a Les Paul guitar and placed it in Wells’ lap and said, “Play it or drop it.” Wells struggled to hold on, but he didn’t let him down.

“And then I realized that when I grabbed the neck, I naturally put my palm up and found myself moving my fingers around a bit. All of a sudden you think, maybe i can do that.”

He was strumming with his left hand and, to his sincere amazement, notes rang out. His love for the guitar was awakened. He began looking through catalogs for a guitar that would rest on his body so he could play. But, he found nothing. Wells decided to make one.

He based the shape on a Fender Stratocaster and called his creation the Quadricaster (his sense of humor was unaffected by his injury).

Wells bought a blank wooden electric guitar body and began carving it so it could rest on his lap. He sculpted a large scoop on the top to free up his right arm so he could more easily reach the ropes. He wired it to his favorite specs and installed the best pickups. The guitar is equipped with all the electronics that helped create long and sustained notes. He goes back to making music, the one he has always loved: nuance, atmosphere, complementary sounds.

Reflecting on the motorcycle accident, Wells said: “I’m kind of glad this happened to me. Because otherwise I would have owned a bike shop in Oregon and my girls would have been racing and cycling because they all loved it and no doubt they would have been injured.

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