In case you haven’t heard (all puns intended),
I have significant hearing loss and
the constant accompanying ring of tinnitus.
First of all, don’t worry, I’m not going to
spend this whole column whining or complaining
about it. My goal here is to give
you practical ideas on how to keep your ears
in good condition and also how to deal with
any hearing loss you may already have.
If I could go back in time and visit my
teenage self, I would certainly have some
important advice to give. I’d begin with hairstyles.
“Don’t get a perm. Let Def Leppard
be Def Leppard. Let yourself be yourself
and cut it short if it starts getting all straggly.”
Then I would discuss Spandex pants.
“They’re a bit … anatomical. Either change
to jeans or invest in a cucumber.” I would
then have a discussion about relating to the
opposite sex that is too lengthy to include
here, and finally I’d get around to the ears.
In the following list, keep in mind that all
the don’ts refer to things I actually did.
• Don’t put your ear right up against your
4x12 cabinet while it’s blasting loud, no
matter how much you love the sound.
• Don’t crank up your headphones to concert
volume while air-drumming to Rush
albums every night before you go to bed.
• Don’t crank up your car stereo to concert
volume every time you drive.
• Don’t angle your 4x12 cabinet sideways
onstage to spare the audience but
instead slam yourself with volume.
• Don’t insist that your drummer play
with an Alex Van Halen-style washy
ride cymbal and a sloshy open hi-hat
on every song.
• Don’t sleep with headphones plugged
into a cassette player set on “loop” in
order to internalize classical music.
• Don’t spend 14-hour days recording
with a loud click track in your
headphones. Instead, record live with
the entire band, so you can listen and
adjust to everyone’s natural tempo
without the DINK DONK DINK
DONK DINK DONK of that earwrecking
• Don’t spend 14-hour days editing
instruments and vocals. Hire an engineer
who can do it quicker and better.
• Don’t spend hours messing around
with microphones, pre-amps, and
EQs in the studio. Spend the time
practicing to get a great performance.
This will always beat any editing,
tweaking, or mixing.
• Don’t build a home studio without
treating the rooms with acoustic paneling.
Foam and carpets are ineffectual.
You need thick bass traps made from
compressed fiberglass. Trying to mix
in an untreated room will just confuse
your ears and the tendency to solve
the problem by turning up the volume
doesn’t help. Treat the walls and ceiling
with bass traps—lots of them!
• Don’t stick your head into the side-fill
monitor to try to figure out the key of
an unfamiliar song during the chaos of
a multi-guitar NAMM jam. Just mute
your strings and go chicka-chicka.
That works in any key.
• Don’t be “cool” during situations
where the music is too loud. Put your
fingers in your ears or leave the room.
• Don’t perform music that is constantly
loud. Choose or write music that
contains dynamic changes in volume.
These volume changes will actually
make the loud parts more musically
effective via the contrast to the quieter
parts. And your ears will fare much
better due to the rests.
This is a long list of don’ts, and I should
rephrase at least the last one (which I think
is the most useful) in the positive:
• Do play music with dynamics. You can
still be loud. But include some holes
and quieter sections in your songs.
Listen to the opening riffs of “Highway
to Hell” and “Back in Black” by AC/
DC. There are big gaping holes of
silence in those riffs, yet they remain
some of the most powerful in existence.
“Stairway to Heaven” begins
with over four minutes of clean guitar
before the drums enter, and then goes
nearly two minutes more before a distorted
guitar enters. Even most early
Van Halen songs have quiet breakdowns
in the middle. These dynamic
techniques will not only save your ears,
but they are also just musically good.
For me, it has always been difficult to resist
the “more is more” philosophy. When I play
quietly I feel sonically naked. My instinct is to
beat the audience over the head with volume,
power, and speed. If I play quietly, subtly, and
slowly, will they throw a tomato at me? I don’t
know. I’ve never tried it. At least not until
recently. So far, there have been no tomatoes.
I should have tried this a long time ago.
At this point, I should mention the headphones
that I’ve been wearing onstage for
the last few years. What is going on there?
Why don’t I wear custom-molded in-ear
monitors like everyone else does? All right,
here is my explanation. The purpose of my
headphones is the same as the more common
ear molds: to block out the stage volume
while giving me a controlled mix and
volume from the monitor desk. I’ve tried the
ear molds and I just prefer the headphones.
I can easily take them off if I need to talk to
someone in the room, listen to the audience,
or get away from an accidental volume blast.
And the speakers are simply a lot bigger in
the headphones, so there is more headroom
and better quality sound. It also gives me a
good excuse to have messed-up hair, which
is pretty much all my hair will do anyway.
Now, let’s turn to damage control. Do
you already have constant ringing and high
frequency loss? Do you wonder why most
people (especially women and children)
don’t talk loud enough? Do you wonder
why the dialogue in movies is mixed so
low? Do you wonder why telephones, alarm
clocks, and kitchen timers just aren’t made
like they used to be? Do you wonder why
your new stereo never sounds as good as the
one you had when you were a kid? Do you
wonder why concerts are always too loud
and sound crappy? I wondered all these
things until I realized it’s me! Sorry!
This is the price I paid for listening to all
that fantastic loud music and guitar. Was it
worth it? In a word, yes. I loved that music
so much. I would have had a lot more
misery if my rock and roll were taken away
from me than from any grief that I have
now from living in my treble-free world.
But I certainly wish I could go back in time
and follow some of my advice. I would
definitely trade some head-stuffed-into-the-
4x12-moments in exchange for getting
some high-end back into my ears.
So how do I deal with living in a treble-free
world? Well, first of all, I can still hear
my guitar. I have help from the best hearing-aid company in the world—Marshall
amps! Hearing my guitar is just not a
problem! Seriously, my experience of playing
guitar is not only via my ears. When I
play, I am physically touching the strings
and feeling the vibration in the wood of
the body and the neck. I have a strong connection
to the music before I hear a note.
Guitar is still good.
The biggest challenge is speech. Since
my hearing loss occurred gradually, I
never really noticed the change. I still feel
normal. But now it seems like I live in a
world where everyone else has bionic super-powered
ears. I’ll watch people on opposite
ends of a room talking to each other with
ease, while I stand in the middle and can’t
understand anything. I’ve tried hearing aids
and have yet to find one that doesn’t sound
like a kazoo broadcast on an AM radio.
So my solution is to move closer to people
and convince them to speak clearly, slowly,
and directly to me. I can imagine that this
requirement for simple communication
might be annoying to the people around
me. In a way, I am demanding special treatment.
But I don’t have brown M&Ms on
my backstage rider, so I’m hoping it will
balance out in the end.
Finally, this may be dangerous optimism,
but I actually enjoy some of my hearing
loss. I can sleep through just about anything
(alarm clocks, traffic, barking dogs, ringing
phones, noisy neighbors, even fire alarms).
I am not as annoyed as I normally would
be at the ubiquitous and horribly chosen
background music in restaurants, shops,
and public places of all kinds. And although
spoken communication requires that I get
closer to people, I like how it makes communication
more serious. I simply can’t chitchat
easily. You’ve got to get my attention,
look right at me, and say what needs to be
said clearly and directly. Cloudy mumbling,
whispered sarcasm, and fluffy verbosity simply
don’t work. The cantankerous old man
in me doesn’t miss those much.
And the young man in me sure loved listening
to all those great, cranked-up rock ’n’
roll tunes. Just to give you a sample of the
delicious music that helped to blast my ears
away, please check out “I Wanna Go Where
the People Go” by the Wildhearts. This was
my favorite rock song of the entire decade of
the ’90s, and I’m sure I lost a few decibels of
hearing while basking in its unrelenting riffs.
One little taste won’t hurt you. Go ahead.
Among the legendary musicians with
hearing loss (Pete Townshend, Brian Wilson,
Ted Nugent, among others), Ludwig Van
Beethoven certainly stands out for writing
the most 16th-notes. I’d like to pay tribute
to him with Fig. 1. This is an interesting
pattern taken from his “Emperor” Piano
Concerto No. 5. It was originally in Eb
major, but I moved it up to E major to
make it friendlier for guitar. The whole lick
works well with alternate picking. I suggest
starting with an upstroke (which keeps the
pick “outside” of the strings when changing
from string to string.)
All right. Let’s revisit the important
points. It’s time to turn down that click
track and record live with your band. Fill
your studio walls with bass traps and, most
importantly, put some quiet parts between
the loud parts in your songs. All these will
improve your music and extend the amount
of time that you’ll be able to hear all the
way across a room. An enviable feat for
sure! Or so I’ve heard.
purposefully began playing guitar
at age 9, formed the guitar-driven bands Racer
X and Mr. Big, and then accidentally had a No.
1 hit with an acoustic song called “To Be with
You.” Paul began teaching at GIT at the age of
18, has released countless albums and guitar
instructional DVDs, and will be remembered as
“the guy who got the drill stuck in his hair.” For
more information, visit paulgilbert.com