Becoming a professional musician is difficult under any circumstances, but the following musicians beat those odds without a full set of digits.
1. Jerome John Garcia
(August 1, 1942 – August 9, 1995)
Better known as Jerry to legions of Deadheads, Garcia, an avid folk and bluegrass enthusiast, was best known for his singing, songwriting, and lead guitar playing with the Grateful Dead for three decades.
When Garcia was four years old, he and his family were vacationing in the Santa Cruz Mountains in Central California. A young Garcia was tasked with steadying wood, while his older brother Tiff chopped. Garcia inadvertently placed his hand in the path of the falling axe. As a result Garcia lost two-thirds of his right middle finger.
Garcia’s accident didn’t discourage him. As a child he would brag about the missing digit to children in his neighborhood. He would go on to become one of the founding members of the Grateful Dead and play in numerous side projects including Legion of Mary, Old and in the Way, and the Jerry Garcia Band.
2. Jean “Django” Reinhardt
(January 23, 1910 – May 16, 1953)
Django Reinhardt was a virtuoso jazz guitarist and composer who began his career in France at the age of 13. Music critic Thom Jurek calls Reinhardt’s jazz group Quintette du Hot Club de France, “one of the most original bands in the history of recorded jazz.”
When Reinhardt was 18, he and his wife Florine “Bella” Mayer were extremely poor. To supplement their income, Bella made imitation flowers out of celluloid and paper. One night after a performance, Django came home and knocked over a candle in the their caravan that was full of the highly flammable material. He received serious burns over half his body and the third and fourth fingers of his left hand were so badly burned that doctors believed he would never play guitar again.
After the injury, Reinhardt developed a new technique to compensate for his paralyzed fingers. He would go on to become an international jazz superstar and inspire generations of guitar players. Many guitar players have cited Reinhardt as an influence including Jeff Beck, who has described Reinhardt as “by far the most astonishing guitar player ever” and “quite superhuman.”
3. Malcolm John “Mac” Rebennack, Jr.
(November 21, 1940 -)
Known by his stage name, Dr. John, Rebennack is a Grammy-award winning pianist, singer, and songwriter; and purveyor of all things New Orleans.
Rebennack began his musical career in the 1950s playing guitar because he didn’t believe he could make a living playing piano. However, his career as a guitarist would come to an end around 1960. Rebennack’s friend and band mate, Ronnie Barron, was being pistol whipped before a performance one evening. Rebennack interceded, placing his hand over the attacker’s gun. The gun discharged, severely injuring Rebennack’s left ring finger. The injury would lead Rebennack to concentrate on piano.
After shifting his focus from guitar to piano, Rebennack would become a highly sought after session musician working with the likes of James Taylor, Van Morrison and Aretha Franklin. Eventually he launched his solo career and developed the persona of Dr. John. He has collaborated with artists including Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson, and Ani DiFranco, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2011.
4. Theodore Roosevelt “Hound Dog” Taylor
(April 12, 1915 – December 17, 1975)
Taylor was a Chicago bluesman known for his infectious up-tempo, slide guitar playing. Born in Mississippi, he was a sharecropper who didn’t begin playing guitar until he was 20 years old.
Unlike the others on this list, Taylor’s missing digit was no accident. Taylor suffered from polydactylism, a congenital physical anomaly where a person has additional fingers or toes. In Taylor’s case he possessed a tiny extra digit next to his little finger on both hands. One night Taylor got drunk and amputated the extra finger on his right hand with a razor blade.
Taylor influenced countless slide guitar players including blues artists such as George Thorogood, Sonny Landreth, and Warren Haynes. Taylor was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1984, and his debut album received the Blues Foundation’s Classics of Blues Recordings Award in 1996.
5. Anthony Frank “Tony” Iommi
(February 19, 1948 -)
Iommi, an English guitar player and songwriter, was one of the founding members of pioneering heavy metal band, Black Sabbath.
When Iommi was 17 he was employed as a machinist at a sheet metal factory. On his last day working at the factory, he was involved in an industrial accident and lost the tips of his ring and middle finger on his right hand. Discouraged by the accident, he almost abandoned music. However, his boss at the factory encouraged Iommi by playing a Django Reinhardt album to motivate Iommi to continue with music.
After the injury Iommi attempted to learn to play right-handed. Unsuccessful in that attempt, he then strung his guitar with banjo strings and fashioned prosthetic finger tips out of plastic liquid soap bottles. These changes led to a unique sound and style of play that would become Black Sabbath’s signature sound.
Iommi has been lauded as one of the world’s greatest guitar players and has been credited as pioneering the sound of heavy metal with his guitar riffs.