As a guitarist, Tom Petty relied heavily on his hands during performances. He once put his craft at risk in a moment of overwhelming frustration. While Petty was levelheaded in his later years, his temper was more volatile when he was younger. He got angry while working on an album and punched a wall. The damage was so extensive that many worried he would never play guitar again.
The Heartbreakers’ frontman was frustrated with his album ‘Southern Accents’
In the 1980s, Petty was working on the Heartbreakers’ album, Southern Accents. He said the process of working on this album was chaotic and exhausting.
“I think it didn’t get finished because I was just exhausted and couldn’t finish it,” he said in the book Conversations With Tom Petty by Paul Zollo. “There was a lot of partying going on. And my house had just become crazy. There were all kinds of people there. We were recording in the middle of the night. It was just a little bit nuts.”
He reached out to producer Jimmy Iovine, who brought him to a studio to continue working.
“I brought Jimmy back,” Petty explained. “And he was wise enough to say, ‘I’m pulling you out of your house, first thing.’ And we went down to Village Recorder and finished the record there.”
Tom Petty could have permanently injured his hand when he hit a wall
Things didn’t get much better in the studio. After working on the song “Rebels” for a while, Petty listened to the demo tape.
“It was so much better than what we were doing,” he explained. “And I was so pissed off that I couldn’t get the track as good as the demo that I slugged the wall. And completely shattered my hand. I shattered it. To powder.”
The injury was frightening, mainly because people wondered if Petty would ever be able to play guitar again.
“I suddenly had a hand as big as Mickey Mouse. It was really scary. I went to the hospital. And they said, ‘You’re going to have to go to a specialist.’ And I went to the specialist, and by that point my hand was so big, it had swollen up so bad. The guy said, right away, with me and Tony there, ‘Well, I’ll tell ya — if you were a carpenter, or a plumber, I wouldn’t be concerned. But I’m not sure we’ll be able to get your mobility back in your fingers.’ People said, ‘He’s broken his hand and he’ll never play again.’ And I didn’t buy that. I thought, ‘I will play again.'”
Tom Petty regained the use of his hand
Petty underwent a complicated surgery to rebuild his hand. He also stopped working on the album as he went through eight months of physical therapy. He explained that he did worry a little that he wouldn’t regain the use of his hand.
“Of course I had a little fear,” he said. “But I always thought I could do it. Though my hand is a little more limited than it was then. I don’t quite have the same range of motion in my hand. I’ve got this thing where the front fingers kind of pull [Laughs] the little finger a little bit. So I think it hampered me a little.”
He still had to learn a new way to play guitar.
“I had to learn a new way of playing,” he said. “I had to practice a lot, and just find ways around the limitations. So it was a bad idea to break my hand.”