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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.
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 spike), or an extended long period of time exposed to loud sound (like regular gigging). When these tiny hairs get bent or broken, they send electrical impulses randomly to the brain which are interpreted as sound, even though there might be a complete absence of sound. That’s tinnitus, the ringing in your ears. I’ve heard a theory that it is a little bit like phantom limb syndrome—you know, an old soldier still reaches down to itch a leg that was blown off in Da Nang forty years ago. The line to the receptor still exists, even though the original receptor is gone (in this case the tiny auditory hairs). These receptor lines are active and will interpret any stimulus as sound. For example, you squint your eyes just right, the damaged receptor in your cochlea is stimulated, and you suddenly hear a high B-flat note ringing loud and clear. Cochlear damage is almost like a faulty electrical connection.
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 wearing earplugs is the sonic equivalent of suiting up with a couple condoms. Sure you lose sensation, sure it feels unnatural, sure it’s not as fun—but much like our Trojan friends, these foam protectors should be kept with you at all times.
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 coworker 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. 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.
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.
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 ValveTrain 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