L AST CALL
HEAR TODAY, GONE TOMORROW
A friend of mine, a true iron man of music— spike), or an extended long period of time
engineer/musician/singer/songwriter/tech—has exposed to loud sound (like regular gigging).
a horrific secret: he’s Beethoven-deaf. Currently When these tiny hairs get bent or broken, they
he works as a guitar tech for one of the most send electrical impulses randomly to the brain
famous guitarists in the world. I can’t reveal which are interpreted as sound, even though
his identity because it could cost him his job if there might be a complete absence of sound.
his boss knew that his tech couldn’t hear the That’s tinnitus, the ringing in your ears. I’ve
highs coming out of that stellar rig. Here’s an heard a theory that it is a little bit like phantom
example of his staggering deafness: you know limb syndrome—you know, an old soldier still
that scene in the movie Poltergeist where the reaches down to itch a leg that was blown off
little girl gives that prolonged scream after she in Da Nang forty years ago. The line to the
encounters the ghost? When my friend recently receptor still exists, even though the original
watched that scene, he heard nothing; he liter- receptor is gone (in this case the tiny auditory
ally thought his TV had stopped working. He hairs). These receptor lines are active and will
got up off the couch and walked up to the TV interpret any stimulus as sound. For example,
to investigate. When dialogue kicked in, he you squint your eyes just right, the damaged
discerned that the problem was his ears, not his receptor in your cochlea is stimulated, and you
television. That is cochlear damage. suddenly hear a high B-flat note ringing loud
and clear. Cochlear damage is almost like a
faulty electrical connection.
I bought expensive fitted plugs but found the
cheap, yellow E-A-R Classics work the best.
Now I buy plugs by bulk, stashing them in all of
my guitar cases, glove box and backs of amps.
Every pair of jeans I own has earplugs in the
pocket that go through the wash-and-dry cycle
then back in my ears. I’m the geek you see
wearing earplugs at bars when the music gets
loud. They not only protect me from deafening
music but also from the drunken moron standing next to me shouting in my ear. I put them
in when I board a plane to avoid the painful
announcements from the flight attendants.
There are thousands of tiny hairs in the cochlea
that are stimulated by the pressure of sound
waves, like wind moving in a wheat field.
Different frequencies of sound stimulate specific sections of these tiny auditory hairs, causing them to move; this discharges electrical
impulses through the auditory nerve, which our
brains interpret as sound.
A live stage punishes your ears, making
cochlear damage an occupational hazard.
The hell of it is that often it’s not even your
amp that’s robbing you of your precious
hearing. It’s your drummer’s bashing and the
occasional brain spike of painful feedback.
Even the warm lows of the bass that don’t
feel painful are still laying waste to part of
your cochlea. Unless you’re on a tour with
a killer in-ear monitor system and a quiet
stage, protecting your ears comes down to
wearing earplugs. Playing guitar and wear-
ing earplugs is the sonic equivalent of suit-
ing up with a couple condoms. Sure you lose
sensation, sure it feels unnatu-
ral, sure it’s not as fun—but
much like our Trojan friends,
these foam protectors should
be kept with you at all times.
Because earplugs color your tone by stealing
highs, you have to set your rig plug-free, really
playing with all of your settings: clean, dirty,
etc. Stand back as far as your cord will let you,
giving your ears the highs of the tonal spectrum that your audience hears. Once your tone
is dialed, don’t touch it, trusting that your rig
sounds like God Himself rocking.
Here’s the bad news: these tiny hair cells and
auditory nerves are easily damaged by either
a sudden loud sound (such as a feedback
E-A-R™ Classic™ Earplugs
I’ve advocated earplugs since I
was fifteen, working in a music store
employed entirely by musicians. I was the
only person on staff who could hear the
phone ring! I began gigging with an older co-
worker who set his amp with all highs and no
lows because 1K and above were gone in his
ears. Earplugs were the only safeguard against
sharing the fate of my old rocker co-workers.
The other day during sound check for the
Nashville Star Live tour, I set my rig sans plugs
on a big, open arena stage where you can
move some air. I cranked my Valve Train amp up
to six and it really came alive—the kind of good
tone that almost makes you drunk. I cranked it
up to eight and I began hearing cool overtones
that aren’t normally there. I was beginning to
feel a little giddy. I cranked it wide open and it
became sublime. Inspired, our drummer came
on stage and began pounding away, then our
bass player followed, and it turned into a Spinal
Tap jazz odyssey. I had more fun during the
trance-inducing ten minute jam than I had had
for the entire tour. We blew through sound
check with the singers and kept on jamming
until the stage manager ran us off so they could
open doors to let in the crowd. As I flipped my
amp to standby, a buzz in my left ear swelled
into a clear F# and I wondered if I would ever
hear that tone naturally in a mix again.
John Bohlinger is a Nashville guitar slinger who has
recorded and toured with over 30 major label artists. His
songs and playing can be heard in several major motion
pictures, major label releases and literally hundreds of
television drops. For more info visit johnbohlinger.com