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Rick Allen On How He Reconfigured His Drum Kit For Just Three Limbs

In the first two installments of this interview series with Def Leppard drummer Rick Allen, we touched upon several topics, including the 1984 car accident that took his left arm, drummers he admires and was influenced by including Billy Cobham, Ginger Baker, Keith Moon, John Bonham and Mitch Mitchell, the “12 Drummers Drumming” charity auction to benefit veterans stricken with PTSD, his 2019 Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame induction and more. Here, we probe how he became a painter as well as a musician, how he set up his electronic drum kit to make best use of only three limbs, how he is a PTSD victim himself and more. Following are edited excerpts from a longer phone conversation.

Jim Clash: You’re a painter as well as a musician.

Rick Allen: When I was young, I had problems with numbers. I was ADHD, so numbers would jumble up. But when I put math into song form, playing drums, I could do it. It was really interesting. Painting was one of those things I could do, too, and totally kept me in the moment. I loved the physical nature, splashing paint everywhere. My grandfather bought me my first camera when I was 8. I got interested in music when I was 10. And, of course, I joined Def Leppard when I was 15. My youngest daughter was born 11 years ago, and it wasn’t long until I started painting with her. It reignited my passion for it.

Clash: I know you are interested in veterans with PTSD. I see similarities to what you went through yourself, in the car crash.

Allen: Not too many people know this, but yes, I suffer from PTSD, even though it’s not combat-related. There are lots of us traumatized from car accidents, abusive parents, alcoholic backgrounds, sports injuries, you name it. In 2006, I visited Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and it was then I realized the severity of the problem with our warriors. It isn’t just physical, it’s the invisible injuries, too. When we started talking, I recognized that some of the places that they went, in a negative way, were the same places I would go. If I was mistreated, I could get really angry, go into a rage, or self-medicate. We had these things in common. It was an obvious relationship to me. Plus many of the warriors felt as if they knew me, having seen me play all these years, so there was this level of mutual trust. The least I can do is support them as they have supported me.

Clash: Most people with four limbs can’t drum to your pro level. How do you do it with just three?

Allen: What sparked my passion in the first place was listening to a real drum kit. No switches to turn on, no technology. It’s immediate, instant gratification. Whereas the electronic drum kit has a lot more thought behind it. I was able to put things on the kit in different places. I could put a kick drum where I could play it with my right hand. I could group drums together on my pedals that were arranged to play several different sounds at once. So there were all of these ways to have this hybrid drum kit. It made me think outside of the box, not get bogged in traditional placement of drums, but really be able to push the boundaries.

Clash: It must have been comforting to know that your fellow bandmates were willing to give you time to recover after your accident.

Allen: I don’t think people really understood what I was going through, the level of suffering. I tended to paint a rosy picture, act as if everything was okay. If I did that, everything would be okay. As a 21-year-old, it wasn’t on my radar to be in this situation. I was still full of dreams, tons and tons of energy. Having a car accident, especially one that took my arm, was not part of what I signed up for. The most important thing the guys did was give me time to make a decision as to whether I wanted to continue to play or not. The time that they gave me to myself, and to play, and play, and play, and play, was very valuable. Finally, it was my decision. I remember saying years ago that it’s not like I could consult with a book called, “One-Armed Drummers” [laughs]. Everything I did I had to figure out for myself.

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