Jason Gerling, The Wheelchair Drummer: Part 2

Party Like It’s 2000

Jason Gerling rolled through the front door of his parents’ house once again, this time a man on a mission. He lowered himself to the floor from his chair and, step by step, scooted his way down the basement stairs to the space that started his life in motion. There was no sign of life when he reached the bottom, until he saw the familiar glint of a cymbal peeking out of a closet.

His dad’s instinct had been correct: Jason couldn’t stay away from the thing he loved.

His counselor, ever the springboard, could see the difference in Jason when he came to talk about his progress. What had once been the embers of his artistic expression were starting to glow again. Without hesitation, she suggested a comeback concert.

Jason began contemplating the idea. There were some inherent problems with a disabled man playing drums: namely, he couldn’t operate the bass drum and hi-hat cymbal with his feet. Then he remembered that most live bands play with prerecorded tracks. I can do that! he thought. That’s how I can play just like everyone else.

It took a lot of preparation, laying down the tracks digitally and lining them up for the series of concerts. But the night of his comeback, he was at The Quest (previously known as Prince’s nightclub Glam Slam), feeling almost like Prince himself, with the warm welcome of over 400 people in the audience. Jason told his story to his biggest audience to date, then rolled into position behind the set. Time and the chair seemed to completely slip away.

“Next to marrying Bobbi, it was one of the best nights of my whole life, returning to the drums again,” Jason later said.

 

Mission Possible

 

“One day, I got a call from a guy at this church I was attending and he said, ‘Hey, Jason? We want to get you back playing drums here.’ And I told him that I was prerecording the bass drum at the time. He said they were doing a lot of live stuff and didn’t know how that would work out.

“That was when the idea was planted in my mind. How could I do this where I don’t have to prerecord the bass drum?” Jason knew that he needed to find a sensor that would allow him to play the drum by hand.

He installed an amplifier into the bass drum to imitate the sound of an unmodified kit as closely as possible. The church was impressed. “It was like nothing was different,” Jason said.

Jason Gerling's adaptive drum kitThis was in 2002. Jason Gerling was the first to develop a modified set that so closely resembled an original.

“That was the first time I knew I didn’t have to hold back on this,” he said, his confidence restored by the success of the drum construction. “I could actually, if I wanted to, pursue a music career again.”

Around the same time, he started a business doing soundtrack design that opened up the door to recording work. Eventually, Jason left the corporate world to continue music work full time.

Church gigs were lining up and Jason was busier than he had ever been before. One Sunday, as he played for a packed audience, a person in the crowd was about to change Jason’s life for the better once again. A man who worked at Risen Drums approached him after the service ended.

“It just so happens they are huge,” Jason said. “Along with a ton of famous artists, they build drums for Kelly Clarkson’s drummer, and Sara Bareilles’ drummer, too: they all use Risen Drums.” Jason wheeled around the shop one day after speaking with the owner, Keith Anderson, about styles and colors. He couldn’t help but pitch his idea: building a new kit of Risen drums from the original kit prototype. Instantly, they were on board.

 

Owl City Lights

 

March 27, 2014, was the 20th anniversary of Jason’s car accident. The kit was raced into production to try to get it finished in time for the celebration. The kit was called Jason’s “20th Anniversary Dream Come True,” and, though it may seem odd to include a celebration of the day you became partially paralyzed in the same sentence as the phrase “dream come true,” to Jason, it’s just life. And now life came with a state-of-the-art taxi-yellow drum kit. Risen Drums and Paiste Cymbals gave him endorsements for doing what he loved, and the media was there to document the story.Jason Gerling with Gabriel Hagen holding the pair's innovative triggers

As his story was unfolding, Jason met Gabriel Hagen, Owl City’s drummer.

Gabriel had heard Jason’s story and knew he continued to experiment with and build his own electronic triggers in his drum kits. This appealed to Gabriel, because he had ideas about including LED lights in his own triggers.

He called Jason and asked him to build him a kit to take on the road when he toured with Owl City.

“It turned out to be so successful; people were seeing him perform and they were like, ‘Man, I want some of those!’” Jason said. “In fact, Paul McCartney’s drummer got ahold of [Gabriel] after seeing him on The Today Show using our drums.”

Gabriel Hagen with his Risen drum set and triggersThe triggers Jason invented have gained so much attention, that Jason is setting his sights on new business ventures, hoping they can be taken to the next level.

“No one has done a drum like this before. You can change colors…the faceplate can change colors…this is truly a revolutionary drum trigger.”

Now a husband, keynote speaker, musician, and inventor, Jason balances his many different hats and never looks behind him unless it’s to learn. Sights set ahead, he started a website: wheelchairdrummer.com.

There, he’s posted instructional videos demonstrating his inventions, how he plays from a chair, how to order a bass drum, and everything in between.

“I just want to show, yes, it can be done and no, you don’t have to give up. I’m proof of that. I’m honored and humbled to be in the position of doing that. And yes,” he acknowledges, “that did not come at a cheap price. I went through major hardship–depression, despair; I’m still dealing with physical ailments.”

But is his dream of touring really over?

“There are still people out there who tour the world in a wheelchair as musicians,” Jason said. “I don’t see drummers doing it…but I’m not going to rule that out. If that happens–if some big-name act wants me to tour–I would say yes. That isn’t my first priority, though.”

“The bottom line is encouragement through the power of music,” he said. “But I’m not going to say no if John Mayer calls me and says, ‘Hey Jason, we need a drummer…’”

So…what do you think, John?

(To read Part 1 of Jason’s story, click here.)


Jason Gerling, a wheelchair drummer, with his specialized kit.At 23, Minneapolis native Jason Gerling was an aspiring drummer with a promising future. Drumming professionally since he was 16, studying under acclaimed drummer Gordy Knudtson, writing profound music and performing in top Minneapolis clubs since 1986, success seemed no more than a beat away. In 1994, while driving home from a late night performance, Jason fell asleep at the wheel of his car. The resulting crash left him with a decompressed skull fracture, concussion, punctured lung, and a C6/C7 incomplete spinal cord injury. By 2004, Jason, now a quadriplegic, was not only drumming again professionally, he also realized that his unique position enabled him to inspire and encourage others. Jason anxiously started a music production business where a unique drumming opportunity emerged. Over the next several years, Jason invented an entirely new way of playing drums from his wheelchair that does not require him to use his feet.