Premier Guitar features affiliate links to help support our content. We may earn a commission on any affiliated purchases.

Hear Today, Gone Tomorrow

Like that little sensation you call hearing? Then protect your ears.

A friend of mine, a true iron man of music— engineer/musician/singer/songwriter/tech—has a horrific secret: he's Beethoven-deaf. Currently he works as a guitar tech for one of the most famous guitarists in the world. I can't reveal his identity because it could cost him his job if his boss knew that his tech couldn't hear the highs coming out of that stellar rig. Here's an example of his staggering deafness: you know that scene in the movie Poltergeist where the little girl gives that prolonged scream after she encounters the ghost? When my friend recently watched that scene, he heard nothing; he literally thought his TV had stopped working. He got up off the couch and walked up to the TV to investigate. When dialogue kicked in, he discerned that the problem was his ears, not his television. That is cochlear damage.

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

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

On her new record with her trio, Molly Miller executes a live-feeling work of structural harmony that mirrors her busy life.

Photo by Anna Azarov

The accomplished guitarist and teacher’s new record, like her lifestyle, is taut and exciting—no more, and certainly no less, than is needed.

Molly Miller, a self-described “high-energy person,” is fully charged by the crack of dawn. When Ischeduled our interview, she opted for the very first slot available—8:30 a.m.—just before her 10 a.m. tennis match!

Read MoreShow less

George Benson’s Dreams Do Come True: When George Benson Meets Robert Farnonwas recorded in 1989. The collaboration came about after Quincy Jones told the guitarist that Farnon was “the greatest arranger in all the world.”

Photo by Matt Furman

The jazz-guitar master and pop superstar opens up the archive to release 1989’s Dreams Do Come True: When George Benson Meets Robert Farnon, and he promises more fresh collab tracks are on the way.

“Like everything in life, there’s always more to be discovered,”George Benson writes in the liner notes to his new archival release, Dreams Do Come True: When George Benson Meets Robert Farnon. He’s talking about meeting Farnon—the arranger, conductor, and composer with credits alongside Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Vera Lynn, among many others, plus a host of soundtracks—after Quincy Jones told the guitarist he was “the greatest arranger in all the world.”

Read MoreShow less

The new Jimi Hendrix documentary chronicles the conceptualization and construction of the legendary musician’s recording studio in Manhattan that opened less than a month before his untimely death in 1970. Watch the trailer now.

Read MoreShow less
Rivolta Guitars' Sferata | PG Plays
Rivolta Guitars' Sferata | PG Plays

PG contributor Tom Butwin dives into the Rivolta Sferata, part of the exciting new Forma series. Designed by Dennis Fano and crafted in Korea, the Sferata stands out with its lightweight simaruba wood construction and set-neck design for incredible playability.

Read MoreShow less