Photo: courtesy of Rick Allen.

Q&A: Def Leppard Drummer Rick Allen

A 1985 auto accident cost this hard-rock musician his left arm, but he found ways to stay hopeful—and keep playing.

For 41 years, Rick Allen has played drums with the bestselling hard-rock outfit Def Leppard. With hits like “Pour Some Sugar on Me” and “Photograph,” the group has sold 100 million albums worldwide, all with Allen at the sticks. But Def Leppard almost disbanded in January 1985, after Allen’s Corvette rolled over near Sheffield, England, and his left arm, entangled in his seatbelt, required amputation. 

Allen initially concluded that without his arm, his career and life were over; but when encouraging letters poured in from around the world, he decided to try to find a way to continue playing. To create the sounds his left hand had played, Allen ordered specially designed electronic drum foot pedals to imitate the hi-hat, bass drum, snare, and tom. The setup worked and today, the 59-year-old, known to his fans as the “Thunder God,” continues to play with Def Leppard, which was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2019.

Born Nov. 1, 1963, in Derbyshire, England, Allen started playing drums at age nine and performed in four bands over the next five years. When he was 14, his mother answered an ad from Def Leppard, which was looking for a replacement drummer. Allen joined the band on his 15th birthday and, a year later, left school to concentrate on his music career. He celebrated his 16th birthday with Def Leppard, opening for AC/DC at the Hammersmith Odeon in London.

Allen’s first marriage, in 1991, produced a daughter but ended in divorce in 2000. That same year, he met Lauren Monroe, a singer/songwriter. The two, who married in 2003, collaborate musically and have founded the Raven Drum Foundation, a nonprofit that educates and empowers veterans and others with PTSD and TBI (traumatic brain injury).             

Currently, Def Leppard is co-headlining a world tour with Mötley Crüe that also features Alice Cooper. The three acts travel together in a private jet they’ve named Def Crüe. Rick spoke with us from his home in Big Sur, California, where he lives with Lauren, who joined our conversation at a couple of points, and their 12-year-old daughter.

Rick, how did you happen to start playing drums at nine years old?

I asked my parents for a drum kit, and they said they couldn’t afford it. But a week later, they said if I did jobs around the house, they’d buy me one on layaway. The stipulation was I had to go for drum lessons. It felt natural for me to sit behind a drum kit, and I took it up immediately.

What’s the best advice your parents gave you?

To be yourself, just really believe in yourself. They believed in me, and I was very lucky to have parents who were so supportive.

Who were your musical idols back then?

I started out listening to Glenn Miller. But then my brother started bringing rock records home and I listened to other styles of music. I listen to anything I think is good and inspiring. I still go back to all the greats, drummers that I grew up listening to like Ian Paice with Deep Purple, [Led Zeppelin’s] John Bonham, [the Police’s] Stewart Copeland, and [the Who’s] Keith Moon. 

You’ve been married for 20 years. What makes your marriage work?

I think creating together is a huge part of keeping things vibrant and keeping us looking toward a bright future. 

Lauren: And also, being of service together. We do things together to reach out to other people. It’s very unifying for us. 

Photo: Grant Kinsey.

Rick, after your accident, at first you felt your life was hopeless. How did you recover?

One thing that really helped was hundreds of thousands of letters from all over the planet offering support. The big step for me was discovering the power of the human spirit and to stop comparing myself to how I used to play drums and embrace uniqueness.

You've said you've worked hard to accept the purpose of your life. What is that purpose?

I do what I do because I want people to feel good when they see me doing it. I love being in a position where I can inspire people and hopefully, because of all the trauma that I've been through, I can somehow be a beacon of light for people.

Technology has really changed since you adopted those original foot pedals. Has your playing changed as a result?

Back in the day, it was this big unit you would have to sit in front of. Today, the way that I access all the sounds is more computer-based. 

What did it mean to you to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?

I was very flattered—and to see the entire industry standing in that room, let alone all the fans that voted for us, I felt an appreciation I don't think I've ever felt before. It's a very exclusive club and I felt honored to be part of it.

I understand you got the longest standing ovation in the history of the Hall of Fame.

It felt like an eternity, and the beautiful thing was I could see Lauren in the audience. I was close enough to her to see she had tears rolling down her cheeks. 

How have things changed for Def Leppard in this new era, when most fans are streaming music or downloading singles?

The music industry has changed somewhat, but we're fortunate that we have a loyal following of people our age, and we're seeing a lot of young people come to our concerts as well. I think that's because we're very seasoned and serious about what we do. And I think people have a great experience because we always put on a fantastic show.

What do you think of the state of rock music today? 

There's some great music out there. But remember, back in the day, you would go out and buy a vinyl record or a single, you'd go home, play it, read everything there was to read on the album cover, and that was what you learned about the band. These days, people seem more comfortable streaming music, and they don’t find out as much about the artists they're listening to as we did when we were young. 

You’ve said that playing drums is meditation. Can you explain?

It's my happy place. I feel like I go to a healing zone, almost like an open-eyed meditation. I find that with music and art and any of the work I do with Lauren and Raven Drum.

How did the Raven Drum Foundation come about? 

Lauren: Rick and I met in 2000. I understood music in a healing way, and we brought together Rick’s trauma and recovery and expertise in music. It was easy to see the impact we could make on other people going through hard times. We started the foundation in 2001 in California, giving drums to people so they could experience mindfulness, breathing, and alternative ways to access healing through self-empowerment. We’ve been doing that ever since.

Who are the people the foundation works with?

Lauren: We started with special-needs kids and then worked with kids in medium-security juvenile detention centers, and gang kids in prison. We’ve worked with women and children in safe houses, people going through addiction and recovery, cancer, suicide prevention, anyone going through a crisis. Now, we're focused on veterans and first responders with PTSD. It's a field of work that keeps growing as the need keeps growing.

What’s your newest project?

Lauren: From September 21 to 23, we’re doing an inaugural Mountain Rhythm Reset at Jackson Hole’s Royal Wulff Lodge. It’s a transformational experience designed to inspire, enrich empathy, and overcome trauma. We have a stellar group of world-class drummers including Matt Sorum [Guns N’ Roses], Duane Trucks [Widespread Panic], Wally Ingram, [Sheryl Crow, Jackson Browne, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh], to name a few. it’s an exclusive invitation-only event with 60 thought leaders. 

Rick, has Lauren been able to help heal you?

Absolutely. My experiences were very profound, and I didn't have the language to really explain what I've been through. Lauren helped me to feel and see what it was that I was dealing with, with my own recovery.

Are you the only one-handed drummer you know of?

I know a few, believe it or not. I know drummers who are challenged in a whole host of ways, so there's a camaraderie. They have a certain respect for me, and I obviously do for them. But there are more physically challenged musicians out there than you would realize. 

Photo: courtesy of Rick Allen.

When did the band start flying privately? 

In the ’80s. Now, when we tour places like South America or Europe, that's where we'll normally take a chartered flight. The plane that we had in South America had 70 or 80 people on board and all the equipment. The company put up this beautiful artwork with Def Crüe on the side of the plane. We felt very special. It looked bigger than a 747. It was a beautiful plane. I felt very taken care of. We had an incredible flight crew, and the meals were great.

Are you flying more privately now or less?

More. Recently, I've been doing probably three or four flights a week.

What to you is the difference between flying first-class commercial and privately?

Privately is infinitely better because it is more of an intimate experience. It's literally just the band and immediate family and a few people that work with management. It's nice that we can discuss things between shows and come up with ways to improve the show or improve our lives.

If you could buy any jet, what would you choose?

Well, we'd like to be able to get our parents around, and a private jet would be a wonderful way to do it. I think we’d need at least a 737.

Besides being a great drummer, you're an artist whose paintings sell for tens of thousands of dollars. What attracted you to painting?

It does a similar thing to the music. It keeps me in the moment, which is very important given the circumstances that I deal with, with PTSD. Sometimes, my nervous system is more amped than other people’s and I find when I'm creative, it settles my nervous system. I started painting when I was young and got more paint on the ceiling and floor than anywhere else. But then, after our daughter was born, she and I started painting together, and it reignited my passion for wanting to paint.

Some of the pieces that I'm the proudest of are of musicians who’ve inspired me. The first one I ever did was of Steve Clark, the guitar player with Def Leppard. And then the last one I did was of the Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts. If it wasn't for Charlie, I don't think I’d be doing what I do now. He was such an inspiration.

How so?

He was such a sweet guy. It was refreshing to meet somebody with such a huge band who was so down to earth. That was one of the things that really inspired me, let alone the music. 

What message do you want to convey to your fans?

I just want people to be inspired. It doesn't matter what you go through, you can still express yourself in a new way. I could have given up easily, but I found something very magical, very powerful within me, that allowed me to continue.

This interview has been edited and condensed.