Mastering a musical instrument is a challenge to begin with, but when an injury ruins someone’s ability to play, that generally is the end of their career. Fortunately, some great musicians have been able to work beyond their injuries and relearn to play, in some cases, making them even better musicians than they ever were before.
Jazz fans and gypsy music lovers adore Reinhardt, although the name isn’t familiar to many other music fans. Even so, he was a wildly inspirational musician who pioneered his own style of jazz that blended gypsy roots with jazz guitar. His music has since been featured on about a dozen movies, including The Matrix, L.A. Story, Chocolat and more. Reinhardt started learning to play music as a boy, starting with the violin and then moving to the banjo and the guitar. When he was 18 though, tragedy struck. Django and his wife were living in a caravan where they sold imitation flowers made from celluloid and paper to supplement their meager income. When Reinhardt accidentally knocked down a candle on his way to bed, the caravan burst into flames, destroying all of his property and leaving him with first- and second-degree burns over the entire left side of his body. As a result of the accident, his right leg and the 3rd and 4th fingers on his left hand were completely paralyzed.
Doctors said he would have to get his leg amputated and that he would never play a string instrument again. But Reinhardt refused to get the surgery and within a year, he was able to walk with the use of a cane. While his fingers never recovered, the doctors were wrong about his music career as well. As it happens, learning to play guitar again may have saved his life. Reinhardt ended up getting stuck in France during WWII and it was said that and handful of jazz-loving Nazis ensured his safety despite the fact that thousands of Gypsies were murdered under Nazi-occupied territories. To help protect himself further, he also developed a distinctively non-jazz sound to please the Nazis who, like the majority of their party, were adamantly against jazz.
Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath
Interestingly, Django wasn’t just influential when it came to jazz musicians, he also played a major role in the creation of heavy metal. You might be asking yourself how in the world a gypsy jazz musician helped create one of the darkest genres around, but the answer isn’t in his sound, it’s in his story. You see, guitarist Tony Iommi was talented, but he came from a poor, working-class family so he was forced to work at a sheet metal factory as a youngster, rather than chase his dreams of rock n’ roll stardom.
Unfortunately, industrial factories aren’t the safest place for the hands of budding musicians. On his last day of work, Iommi severed the tips of the middle and ring fingers on his right hand. As a leftie, this meant his fretting hand was destroyed. Unsurprisingly, the teen was heart-broken and convinced this would be the end of his musical aspirations. However, his boss from the factory inspired Iommi to stick with his craft by bringing him a Django Reinhardt album and telling him about the jazz musician’s injury. The inspiration worked like a charm and soon enough, Iommi was trying to remaster the guitar.
At first he tried learning to play right-handed, but when that didn’t work, Iommi instead developed a few prosthetic fingertips using plastic covered in leather. Because his prosthetic fingers weren’t as tough as the real thing, Iommi started using lighter strings and detuning the strings so the tension would be lowered. To match Iommi’s sound, Black Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler did the same, and suddenly, the dark, deep sound of heavy metal was born solely as a technique to work around an injury.
Iommi’s technique was certainly successful. Aside from shaping the sound of a whole new music genre, he also went down in the history books as one of the most talented guitarists of all time, ranked 86th on Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time,” and number one in Guitar World’s “100 Greatest Metal Guitarists of All Time.”
Image via Adam Bielawski [Wikipedia]
While Reinhardt and Iommi had to relearn their craft after losing a finger, Garcia started playing the guitar long after he lost a finger during a wood chopping incident that occurred when he was only four. Even so, he was inspired by Django to learn the banjo when he was in third grade.
At 15, he got his first guitar and by 1960, Garcia was ready to start rocking the world with the Grateful Dead. It wasn’t until 1986 that Jerry would face his greatest musical challenge yet. After suffering from drug use, a poor diet and a weight problem, Garcia collapsed into a diabetic coma that lasted for five full days. The coma had a dramatic effect on him, forcing him to relearn some of his most basic motor skills, which meant he had to completely relearn to play guitar.
Fortunately, Jerry was dedicated to his own recovery and was able to play again after only a few months. He was even able to tour with the Dead and the Jerry Garcia Band later that year. Source Image via Carl Lender [Wikipedia]
Even if you aren’t familiar with jazz, you’ve probably at least heard of legendary trumpeter Chet Baker. Baker was a talented musician and quickly garnered a strong following in the jazz community. But, unfortunately, like many jazz musicians, he eventually became addicted to heroin. His addiction almost ended up destroying his career, too, when he was savagely beaten in 1966 trying to get some drugs after a gig in San Francisco.
When I say "savagely beaten," I don’t just mean a black eye and a few sore ribs, I mean they essentially destroyed his livelihood by knocking out all of his front teeth. For the next few years, Baker was stuck having to take odd jobs like pumping gas. All the while he worked to relearn to play the trumpet with his new dentures. If you’ve never played a woodwind or brass instrument, this might not seem all that difficult, but the reality is that these instruments require a precise use of the lips, teeth and facial muscles to be able to create a distinctive sound.
With all new dentures and a whole new set of scars on his lips and cheeks, it took eight years for Baker to relearn to play the trumpet. In the meanwhile, he was able to play the flugelhorn in a West Coast Jazz style, but that certainly wasn’t his strong point and most jazz fans tend to overlook this point in his career. Source Image via Michiel Hendryckx [Wikipedia]
Rick Allen of Def Leppard
Rick Allen joined Def Leppard at exactly the right time. As soon as he joined the band, he was immediately opening for AC/DC and within a few months, he helped them record and release their first album, On Through the Night.
Unfortunately, only a few years into his new musical career, he was involved in a serious auto accident on his way to a New Year’s Eve party. Allen's Corvette flipped and while his girlfriend came out of the accident without any major injuries, Allen wasn’t so lucky. Because he wasn’t wearing his seat belt properly, Allen thrown from the vehicle and his left arm was severed. The first person at the scene was a nurse who knew just what to do and the couple was quickly rushed to a hospital. Because the response was so quick, Allen’s arm was able to be reattached. It had to be removed later. though. due to a serious infection. Allen thought this was the end of his career and he began to suffer from major depression.
After seeing the pain of his friend and band mate, Def Leppard’s lead singer, Joe Elliot, was inspired to help Allen work around his loss. The pair soon met with a few engineers and designed a drum set that could be operated with only one arm and both feet. Pretty soon Allen was back on the road again and recording with the band.
Image via Weatherman90 [Wikipedia]
In the end, these stories are great sources of inspiration, not only in showing what we are capable of overcoming in the face of adversity, but also in illustrating just how powerful friendship can be when it comes to recovering from an injury. Without help from his brother, Django Reinhardt never would have learned to play again. If Iommi’s boss had not introducing him to Reinhardt’s music, he may never have been inspired to play again. Without Joe Elliot, Allen may not have bothered trying to come up with a drum system that could be operated by pedals. Essentially, if you don’t have good friends and family, you’d better have some darn good disability insurance, because you might never be inspired to recover after a serious accident.