Paralyzed Fruita vet finds a way back to his lifelong passion of playing the guitar
When he was 12, Jay Wells would sneak his dad’s guitar and turn it around so he could play it left-handed — the strings upside down from how a guitar is usually played.
Wells grew up in the 1960s and ’70s, playing the songs of Frank Zappa, Jimi Hendrix and the Doors. He learned Hendrix’s version of “Star Spangled Banner.”
He’d teach himself to play television ditties from shows like “Bonanza,” the “CBS News” and “Pink Panther.”
“I always wanted to be the guy who played guitar on the commercials,” Wells, 58, said.
He and his buddy played for parties and various functions, and then, at 17, Wells joined the Army. He remembers sitting in the barracks playing Deep Purple and Uriah Heep songs.
“In the Army I played in a funk band at Ft. Carson in Colorado Springs,” performing at the service club where GIs go to socialize and for entertainment, Wells said.
In 1975, after his service, Wells enrolled at College of the Redwoods where he took a jazz improvisation class and learned to play with horns and saxophones. He continued to perform in bands and earned the nickname “Jam” because “I love jamming — that’s me,” Wells said.
Then, in 1992, everything changed.
Wells had moved to Fruita and was the father of three young daughters, ages 9, 7 and 5. In what he described as a fluke accident, Wells crashed his motorcycle near the Book Cliffs and broke his neck, paralyzing him from the neck down.
“I went from being a daddy who rolled on the ground, was athletic and played with his kids to one who had to be taken care of,” Wells said.
He remembered hearing the doctor say “he will never move again — get used to it,” said Wells.
His main concern, he said, was that he’d never be able to hug his girls again.
After three months at Craig Hospital in Denver, Wells returned home to Fruita and began rehabilitation at Hilltop Community Resources. Within a year he was walking with a walker or cane, though slowly, and with difficulty.
He had little use of his upper body and fingers, but he was able to hug his kids again.
As a quadriplegic, guitar playing appeared a thing of the past.
“For 15 years, I never imagined being able to play guitar,” he said.
FROM STRATOCASTER TO QUADROCASTER
In 2007, Wells’ brother who he had not seen for more than a decade, came to visit him in Fruita, bringing along his Les Paul Gibson guitar.
He placed the guitar in Wells’ lap in the playing position and told him to “play it or drop it.”
Wells could type with his left hand, but had not been able to use his right hand. Yet, with the heavy guitar placed in his arms, and his right palm facing up, Wells found he could move his fingers a little.
He had no muscle, but finger spasms allowed Wells to push down lightly on the strings and play a note.
Two months later Wells decided to buy a left-handed Fender Stratocaster guitar — one with a thin neck and “forearm contour” on its body, plus a “tummy cut” that would hopefully allow Wells to reach the strings — which he re-strung so that the low E string was at the bottom, and the high E note at the top — the way he learned on his dad’s right-handed guitar, and how he had played for 25 years.
Still, Wells’ limited mobility prevented him from reaching the strings. Plus, the guitar’s neck was too long — he couldn’t quite reach the open position of chord-playing.
Wells decided to take apart his brand new Stratocaster. He kept the neck and bridge, but created a new body with a piece of ash wood — a “body blank” Wells purchased from a company in Washington.
“I had to build one I could reach,” Wells said.
Wells experimented with that guitar for a couple of years, and figured out ways to fit it to his body better, making it easier to play.
He made markings on the guitar body with a black marker; then brought the guitar out to his garage where he has a belt sander and saw and would “cringe and cut,” he said, “slowly and carefully until it fit me and I was able to play it.”
Wells cheerfully calls his shorter necked, smaller bodied guitar the “Quadrocaster.”
In the living room of his Fruita home are photographs of his three grown daughters, all of whom work and live in the Midwest now. Underneath the wall of photos, Wells sits down next to a “JamMan stereo looper,” which allows him to add digital effects such as drums, plus layers to his guitar-playing — a tool that many musicians use.
“The effects are to give subtle nuances to the sound,” Wells said. “
Wells played a few bars of “Star-Spangled Banner” — Jimi Hendrix-style — then looked up and grinned.
“I haven’t done this song since 1979,” Wells said.
He still has some limited use of his index finger and his right hand isn’t as fast changing chords as he’d like it to be — so he compensates by finding alternate ways of making the sounds with his thumb and fingers.
“I’m discovering things all the time — different movements,” Wells said.
Making music is again his passion.
“I just adapt to using both hands in different ways,” Wells said. “It’s moved beyond therapy — it’s become musical. That’s what’s awesome about it. I played music all my life. It’s in my heart.”
In 2009, Wells and his “Quadrocaster” guitar were featured in “Vintage Guitar” magazine which brought requests from readers for Wells to build guitars for others with disabilities. The process is too slow and labor-intensive, however, for him to make a business of it, he said.
He is ready to play in a band again, he said.
And, he is planning to make himself another guitar.
“I’m getting ready to build Q3, with a mahogany wood back and Hawaiian Koa front. Mahogany has warm tones.”
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