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The 4 famous drummers who overcame disabilities

A great aspect about music is that anyone can play. It doesn’t matter your race, gender, size, where you come from, what you’re into… none of these matters. What counts is if you can play.

Throughout time there have been plenty of musicians who have had some sort of disability. The most popular one being Beethoven, who by the end of his career was deaf, but still able to conduct and play.

Drumming is much more of a physical instrument from guitar or piano, you are using all of your limbs to make the sounds. Along with this you are sitting on a stool which can take its toll on your back. Your whole body is pretty much in action when playing.

In this article, we will focus on some drummers who have persevered through their disability.

Robert Wyatt

Robert was the original drummer for the English rock band Soft Machine. They were one of the bands pushing forward the Canterbury scene. It is a sub-genre of progressive rock, consisting of a jazz-like improvisational style. There is no real direction in the music.

In 1970 he left Soft Machine. Wyatt then helped form another Canterbury scene band, Matching Mole. He also then released his first solo album, The End of an Ear.

drummer Robert Wyatt before the accident

Unfortunately, while forming his second solo album, at a party, he had fallen out of a fourth-floor window, breaking his spine. This left him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, due to paralysis from the waist-down. This didn’t stop Wyatt from continuing music.

With Roberts influence on music, Pink Floyd held two benefit concerts for him, raising an approximate $10,000. He finished his solo album, Rock Bottom, which was mostly written before the accident, so parts were adjusted to help make performing easier for Robert. Wyatt even put out a cover of “I’m a Believer”, which hit number 29 in the UK music charts.

His career went on until December of 2014. Robert stated he didn’t want it to “Go off”. A brave move for any musician to make, stopping before the passion dies out.

Robert Wyatt took on more of a political lifestyle leaving music in his wake.

Dean Zimmer

There are few people who truly defy the odds. Dean is one of those people that turn the worst into the best.

He suffers from arthrogryposis, heavily restricting movement in the joints. You can clearly see the affects through his crooked arms. He is also unable to walk, being bound to a wheelchair or crawling. It almost seems like Zimmer doesn’t know he even has this disability.

His drumming is impeccable. There is a neatness yet sloppy style to it, but it holds itself together. Dean is extremely good at playing to the song, not overfilling or soloing where he doesn’t need to be.

The popularity began when he was featured in a documentary called “Drummer Wanted: Dean Zimmer”. It showed his skill and determination to play and highlighted his life as an aspiring musician.

Drummers such as Gregg Bissonette (drummer in Ringo Starr’s All-Star Band) make an appearance. He explains how Dean plays from the heart, ignoring the ideas of playing fast or with complex chops, being truly musical.

Greg also explains how he has a bounce to him when he is playing, never sitting still. Due to his disability, he needs to physically move his whole body to play the kit. It adds a uniqueness to his playing, giving him his own touch to the set.

Zimmer is a regular player now at Club M in California. Before he was struggling to find work, as the sight of a drummer in a wheelchair can get you turned away very quickly.

Now the idea of a disabled drummer has truly been changed to the masses, opening doors to many others to take this path. Dean Zimmer is a revolutionary figure in the world of drumming.

Stevie Wonder

“Superstition”, “Isn’t She Lovely”, “Sir Duke”… Stevie Wonder is a household name in music. Mainly being known as the blind pianist/singer, Stevie is also an amazing drummer. Tracks such as “Superstition” and “Boogie on Reggae Woman” feature Stevie on the kit.

He has an extremely funky style. It drives the music in his own way, only being heard in his music. Some drummers just come with a unique style that cannot be replicated, and this is one of those cases.

Maybe this is due to his possible heightened hearing. This could be allowing him to have a better sense of what the music needs, how to make it groove, giving it feeling. Stevie is not seeing what is being played, so he truly relies on his ears.

Some musicians focus so much on gear, how the instruments look, how the band looks… Wonder does not worry about any of this. All his heart and mind go into the basics of the music, not any of the flashy playing or looks.

There are plenty of videos online featuring his drumming, him playing solos at his concerts are great examples. He doesn’t play all of the solo; he has some percussionists playing along with him. But generally, he is still the star player keeping the crowd’s attention.

Did we mention he is the first musician to have a number one album and single at the same time? Yeah, it can be difficult to hold a candle to Stevie Wonder.

Rick Allen

All above all the best known, with a missing arm, is the drummer for Def Leppard. Leppard was at the height of their career, but it was about to get larger. A monumental album would soon be in the making setting them into stardom and fame.

Rick Allen had been the drummer for Def Leppard since the age of 15. Tragically at the age of 23, he lost his arm in a terrible car accident. The doctors told him he would never drum again. This wouldn’t stop Rick from playing with what would become one of the biggest rock bands in history.

Rick had to find a way to compensate for his missing left arm, as normally this is the drum hitting the snare when playing most grooves. Allen found a way by combining the use of electronic drums and acoustic ones. It allowed him to control more parts of the kit using pedals.

This enabled Rick to continue playing with the band. He already had hits under his belt such as “Rock of Ages” and “Photograph”. His world was about to get a lot bigger with the release of Hysteria, the bands fourth studio album. It included songs such as “Rocket”, “Animal”, “Love Bites”, “Pour Some Sugar on Me”, and “Hysteria”.

Contrary to normal though, Rick actually did not play the drums on this album or Pyromania. A drum machine was used to track the drums, only the cymbals were acoustically recorded.

Of course, at shows Allen utilizes his hybrid drum set to replicate the sounds on the album. It is remarkable to watch him play, it is no secret to the audience he is playing with a missing arm, but it does not halt the music one bit.

Rick is one of the most inspiring drummers in the books, he overcame the odds launching is life into fame and stardom.

In all…

Being a drummer is already a feat in itself. Unlike other instruments, it utilizes your whole body. It is a complete physical undertaking. So, for these drummers on this list to do the same with some sort of disadvantage is quite the spectacle.

Robert Wyatt helped define what prog rock would eventually become. Later losing his ability to walk, creating a minor disadvantage to him, as he still could play the drums. He modified how he played to make up for the loss in his legs.

Dean was a lost art, being turned away from many jobs due to his physical representation. But his drumming is truly something that needed to be heard. After a documentary exposed him to the world, he is now a regular gigging drummer.

Stevie Wonder has always played with fate, not allowing his inability to see to hinder his musical abilities. He is able to still conquer the art of the drums despite being unable to see, writing some great big hits.

Rick defined a mark for drummers to come. The 80’s, when he lost his arm, were a revolutionary time. Having your favorite band was a big thing, and one on many people’s lists were Def Leppard, the band with the one-armed drummer.

These musicians show that a disability should not define what you can do. Make the most of the situation and always pursue your dream.