A different drummer

Jason Barnes lost his hand, but it didn’t keep him from his passion.

Before he became the first cyborg drummer, Jason Barnes was just a regular drummer, and like many musicians, he had a day job, a grubby grind cleaning the exhaust systems of restaurant oven.

So on a cool, misty January afternoon in 2012, Jason stood in a pool of water on the roof of a restaurant on McDonough’s historic square, working to pay the rent.

In a few days, he planned to audition to become a student at the Atlanta Institute of Music and Media. But his skins didn’t pay the bills.

He and assistant Nic Whisnant had already disassembled the fan covering the oven vent. The restaurant was closed, but the streets were full of cars joining the late afternoon rush hour.

Inside the kitchen the young men had rigged garbage cans to catch water and debris that flowed down as they scrubbed. Up on the roof they sprayed solvents down the exhaust shaft. Then Barnes, 22, picked up an aluminum pole with a magnetic pad on one end.

Outfitted with razor-sharp blades, the pad is designed to cling to the interior of an oven vent’s vertical shaft, making it easier to scrape off hardened crusts of grease inside as the worker pushes and pulls the pole from above.

This day was different. As Jason lifted the pole, he felt a sudden bolt of fear. “Get the (heck) down!” he screamed at Nic. In the same instant, he heard an explosion and saw a pink flash.


No stranger to risk

With his short, bristly blond hair perpetually standing on end, and his thin, wiry frame, Jason Barnes looks a little like a human lightning rod. That January day on the restaurant roof wouldn’t be the first or last time he’d attract a bolt from the hand of fate.

A few years ago he lost a significant chunk of his arm to an untreated spider bite.

Just recently he spun his mother’s Taurus on a wet highway, completing a Shaun White-worthy 540 before leaving the pavement. He and the car came out with a few scratches.

“He’s for sure a daredevil,” says friend Amy Ross, a tattoo artist who inked “L-I-V-E” on the knuckles of Jason’s right hand and “L-I-F-E” on the knuckles of his left. “Even if he’s not the one that says ‘let’s go do this,’ some of these things just find him.”

Jason could credit his mother Maggi Pier for his adventurous spirit.

Her life has been a vigorous and exploratory quest, moving around the world and experimenting with one business venture after another, not all of them successful. “I was always one to jump in the fire and then decide if it was hot,” says Pier, 63.

Jason’s father, who no longer lives with the family, is an Australian rock musician named Michael Barnes. Jason inherited that music gene and was playing in metal bands by the time he was a teenager, rotating between bass, guitar and drums.

He was born in Guam and spent part of his childhood in Roatán, a tiny island off the coast of Honduras in a cabin on the beach. He grew up skateboarding, racing motocross, cheating death and playing rock ’n’ roll. As a representative of the future of wearable robotics, Jason is an unlikely choice, having lived on the edge of civilization during his formative years.

But when he woke up in Grady Hospital, it soon became clear that technology would have to step in where flesh had failed.


Life-changing decision

He knew he’d been hurt, but he didn’t remember how; and he couldn’t figure out why his family was crying.

Then he looked at his hand.

“I was cooked pretty good,” is how Jason describes it.

His hair was singed and the right side of his face and right shoulder were bright red and blistered. Jason thought he’d been hurt in a fire or explosion; he had no memory of the accident.

Co-worker Nic would never forget it.

“The flash blinded me,” recalls Nic. They were both knocked off their feet. When Nic jumped up, he saw Jason lying on the roof. “All his hair was fried off, the sleeves to his clothes were frayed. He looked like a fish on a boat, gasping for air.”

His doctor estimates Jason had been hit with about 1,000 volts, after an arc of electricity crossed from an overhead power line into the pole he held in his right hand.

Surgeons sliced open his arm to relieve swelling and embedded pins in his fingers to keep them from curling into a permanent claw. Doctors also pulled strips of skin off Jason’s thigh and back to graft onto the damaged arm.

The efforts were in vain. His hand had suffered muscle and nerve damage. Most of its blood vessels were destroyed. After four or five operations it became clear he would never again use that hand to swing a drumstick again.

Jason faced one of the more painful decisions of his life. But to hear his family describe it, he was pretty matter-of-fact about it. Maybe he was just going stir crazy. Lying in a hospital bed is not his idea of a good time.

What's the fastest way to get me out of here? he asked the Grady doctors.

Amputation, they said.

Looking back on the decision now, Jason counts the positives and discounts the negatives.

He points out that getting hot-wired could have turned out much worse. He could have been killed, or suffered brain damage, or lost his dominant hand. (He’s left-handed.) He had been crippled, yes, but he still had something crucial, spelled out in the letters on his left hand: L-I-F-E.

“I’m ridiculously lucky, if you think about it,” he says now.

He agreed to the operation, and then his pragmatic pluck deserted him. That night he grieved for all the things he would never get to do again and cried in his mother’s arms.

Days later surgeons removed Jason’s right arm below the elbow.


‘I can do this’

Jason left the hospital with a half-million dollars in medical bills and a small settlement from the restaurant that didn’t make much of a dent. He had to quit his job, give up his rental house in Jonesboro and move in with his mom near McDonough. Depressed and defeated, he went crazy with boredom.

“What I was going to do? Go home, veg out and play video games?” he remembers thinking. “No, you can’t do that. You can’t play drums anymore. You can’t play guitar anymore. My life was over. I was down and out.”

But then one day, three weeks after getting out of the hospital, Jason dragged his old drum set out of his mother’s garage. He still had bandages on his incisions and wore a silicone sleeve to protect the arm during physical therapy.

He took a roll of duct tape, attached a drumstick to his stump and tried out a simple pattern.

It was pathetic. And painful.

Playing hurt so much, it was impossible to do it for more than a minute. And the subtleties of drumming were erased by the crude arrangement. But he saw a light in that dark forest.

Things improved when a prosthetician at Hanger Inc. crafted a simple device that would hold a drumstick. Then Jason found a better custom prosthetic at TRS Inc., a company that makes appliances suited for archery, weightlifting, fishing, bicycling, guitar-playing and other activities.

He modified the device with his own hardware, using eyebolts and a spring from his kick drum. His goal was to create some “play” in the stick, a way for his prosthesis to mimic the “give” in a drummer’s grip.

He practiced with that appliance for about a year. “I can do this,” he thought. So he rescheduled the audition at Atlanta Institute of Music and Media he had missed the year before. In the fall of 2013 he was admitted to the school, where drum instructor Eric Sanders was impressed by Jason’s determination and persistence.

Nevertheless, there were some things Jason couldn’t do. A drummer’s grip can tighten or loosen, allowing the execution of single and double-stroke rolls. The more play in the stick, the more freely the stick bounces off the drum head. Without fingers, the grip stays the same.

Jason began to research myoelectrics, a type of prosthesis controlled by electrical impulses that are generated by the body’s muscles.

He dreamed of being able to use muscle tension in his right forearm to send signals to a mechanical hand, a hand that could instantaneously loosen or tighten its grip on a drumstick.

He told Sanders about his fantasy, but assumed it would never become a reality.

He didn’t know it already was.


The robot arm

Georgia Tech professor Gil Weinberg is a jazz pianist who speaks in rapid-fire bursts that make his Israeli accent even harder to decipher. The founding director of Tech’s Center for Music Technology, he likes to dream up bizarre machines and then build them. He’s the kind of futurist who demonstrates a technology breakthrough by jamming on a Miles Davis tune.

Weinberg has become famous in certain circles for developing robots that not only play music, but can improvise it. One of his creations is a marimba-playing android named Shimon that was featured on Stephen Colbert’s TV show. (Colbert joked that Shimon represented the two greatest threats to American life: jazz and robots.)

Why make robots that play music when we already have Skrillex?

The answer is that robots, just like 5-year-olds, benefit from musical training. The same algorithms that control Weinberg’s machines could help coordinate robot and human cooperation in other settings.

“We want robotic devices to anticipate what humans will be doing and synchronize their robotic actions just in time,” says Weinberg. “The idea is that if we get this to work in music — the most time-demanding medium — it would work in other scenarios, too. Think surgery rooms or space stations.”

Jason’s drum instructor Eric Sanders happened to see Shimon on “The Colbert Report” and found out Weinberg lived in his own back yard. He contacted the professor and told him about Jason, so Weinberg set up a meeting.

Jason politely smiled and rolled his eyes when Sanders told him about the professor.

Nothing will come of this, he said.

But while Jason imagined a device that could replicate a normal hand’s range of motions, Weinberg’s ideas went further. He wanted to create something superhuman, something that could play the drums like no one had ever played them before.

Weinberg secured a grant from the National Science Foundation to pursue the project and began to design Jason a $50,000 arm. He planned to debut it at the Atlanta Science Fest, less than eight months away, so the deadline was tight.

Using a light aluminum frame, Meka Robotics in San Francisco assembled a device with tiny, powerful, reversible electric motors to run belt-driven wheels that could swing a drumstick through a short arc. A second drumstick was embedded in the apparatus, a stick that Jason could deploy at will, but which would augment his playing with its own improvised additions.

Snapped into a carbon-fiber sleeve and hooked up to a nearby laptop, it’s an arm with a mind of its own.


The test drive


The name reverberated through the auditorium. Weinberg was announcing his new protege while an audience of 200 waited expectantly.

They had come to Kennesaw State University to hear the young cyborg drummer perform as the opening act of the inaugural Atlanta Science Fest.

But for a minute, Jason looked like he might be a no-show.

While Weinberg paged the drummer, Jason was pacing and smoking on a loading dock behind the Bailey Performance Center. He was trying to find a screwdriver to get his pincer prosthetic off. And he wasn’t happy: Weinberg had just told him he wanted him to stand up in front of the audience and tell his story.

Playing drums, even playing with just one hand, is much easier than public speaking.

“I don’t know what I’m going to say,” he fumed.

It had been a stressful month. Meka delivered the working arm at the end of February, less than a month before the Science Fest debut. Jason tried it on, played with it for about 30 minutes, and then Weinberg asked him to perform, right then and there, with a group of musicians for a promotional video. Terrified, Jason felt like a student driver being handed the keys to a Lamborghini. Now, once again, he was being forced out of his comfort zone.

Jason stepped out on the Kennesaw stage and gave the audience a concise, unemotional account of his harrowing experience.

Then Jason sat down at his black drum kit and immediately relaxed. He played a percussion duet with Sanders, and then a version of Miles Davis’ classic “So What?” in a combo featuring Weinberg at the piano.

Then Weinberg explained that he had downloaded some rhythmic patterns from atom bomb scientist (and drummer) Richard Feynman, and uploaded those beats into Jason’s arm. This allowed Jason to play a duet with a dead theoretical physicist.

Finally, Jason demonstrated some of the super-human qualities of the arm. It can play 20 beats a second — essentially a one-handed roll. It can play contrapuntal rhythms — say, five against eight. It’s an arm that sounds like two drummers playing at once. Speed metal drummers would be envious, Jason observed.

Though his game face didn’t offer a clue to his feelings, Jason was elated. After the show he pulled off the robot arm, donned his regular pincer, and posed for photographs with giddy audience members, who mobbed him in the lobby.

“Look at him,” said friend Nic later. “He’s bigger and badder than he ever was. He is a way better drummer, and a better person.”


Man and machine

On the wall in Jason’s practice shed is a portrait painted by his tattoo artist friend, Amy Ross. It shows Jason’s face, surrounded by lightning-bolt letters that spell out “Cheat Death.”

The painting helps him keep things in perspective when he gets frustrated. Like when he wants to change the station on the car radio, but has to use his left hand to do it. When he tries to hold his smartphone with his pincer and cracks the screen. When he feels a tiny little itch on the end of his right thumb, which he can’t scratch, because he doesn’t have a right thumb any more.

He is, after all, still here. “I shouldn’t be alive, honestly,” he says. “I mean depression sucks and everything, but feeling sorry for yourself is not going to get you anywhere.”

And even though it was a total hoot to become the first bionic drummer, the robot arm didn’t really solve all of his problems.

Jason talks about the drawbacks of a $50,000 arm as he shows off his music headquarters, a small outbuilding at his mother’s McDonough house, where the walls are hung with guitars and beer posters and assault rifles, and where his band, when he has one, gets together.

The tour is interrupted by a cellphone call. It’s another journalist requesting an interview, one of dozens he’d done in recent weeks. He’s been on CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, NPR, the Discovery Channel, a German news station and in a handful of print publications.

This is the biggest change: Jason has become a mini-celebrity. “He’s going to be in Wikipedia!” marveled Maggi. “I Googled his name: It’s page after page!”

To help capture some of that buzz, the family hired a videographer to document the Science Fest concert, and Jason has his own YouTube channel.

But will he continue to be the robo-drummer? The possibilities are tantalizing. Shortly after his Georgia Tech video went public, Jason was contacted by Rick Allen, the drummer from the rock band Def Leppard, whose left arm was severed in a street-racing accident. Allen invited Jason to meet him backstage when his band plays Atlanta in July. One can’t help but imagine a duet between the two one-handed drummers, each aided by high-tech devices.

The fact is, the expensive robo-arm does not belong to Jason, it belongs to Georgia Tech. And while he is grateful to be part of Weinberg’s experiment, it’s clear that Jason prefers his old drum-hand prosthetic. It may not have a mind of its own, but is lighter and more flexible. The Meka arm weighs almost two pounds, which is like holding a quart of beer at arm’s length while trying to play music.

Yet the recognition he’s gained may be enough to help Jason rise above the sea of other struggling musicians. The life of a musician is a challenge; for drummers the sailing is even rougher, considering the popular taste for electronic dance music and computerized beats.

Jason’s high profile has already paid off in a few ways. He recently traveled to Los Angeles with his mother for an appearance on the TV show “The Doctors,” where the producers promised him a bebionic mechanical hand, a $60,000 myoelectric prosthetic device.

Maggi Pier is convinced the best is yet to come.

“I’ve known in my heart of hearts that Jason will become something big because of this,” she says, sitting on her front porch looking out over her rural property. “It’s funny how God works, how you have to go through fire to get to something better.

“You can’t let having your arm chopped off keep you from getting on with your life.”

I first met Jason Barnes at his prosthetician's office, where he was looking for a new hand. I was going to feature him in a story about the Atlanta Science Fest. Among the dozens of technological marvels revealed at the festival, his robot arm was the coolest. But after I heard his story, I realized it was a deeper, more complex story better suited to a Personal Journey. Later I met his mother, siblings and friends, heard him perform in concert and had a chance to see some of his stranger tattoos up close. (His leg-tat portrait of Michonne from "The Walking Dead"  is creepy and impressive.) Jason was just trying to do his job when a freak accident shoved him into the spotlight. He didn't ask for the amputation, or the attention, but he has handled both with grace.

Bo Emerson
Staff writer

About the reporter

Bo Emerson is an Atlanta native who joined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1983. He has been a feature writer for most of his AJC career, covering music, the Olympics and Billy Graham's last crusade.  He is also a musician and plays jazz trumpet with Style Points, The Lowlights, and other hackers. He is married to Maureen Downey, who covers education for the AJC.

About the photographer

David Tulis is an Atlanta photojournalist who spent most of his career at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution before striking out on his own in 2009. He has covered the Olympics, the World Series-winning Atlanta Braves team, and traveled to South America, Europe and Africa for the newspaper. He is a member of Georgia State University's 100th Anniversary Class of 2013 and plays bass guitar with the Sagamores.