With apologies to ChuckBerry, “Playing guitar like a ringing a bell” is probably tinnitus. Most guitarists who have been touring and working in the studio as long as I have are living with a certain amount of hearing damage, and I’ve also met many drummers and bass players who are totally deaf in one ear.
So it’s no surprise that many of the musicians who have played in my band over the years have worn earplugs on tour. On one hand, it seems silly. Why not just turn down the amplifiers to a comfortable level, and let the front-of-house system do the work? The simple answer: Drums. Rock drummers hit their instruments with enough force to get the sound they want to hear, and the stage volume escalates when they’re the first band members to put in the earplugs.
To save your hearing, performing live soon becomes a matter of, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” When playing on a small stage, it’s impossible for me to stand far enough away from the onslaught of cymbals and snare drum to avoid having my ears ringing by the night’s end. So I put in the earplugs, and, after a few songs, I get used to the sensation of playing with them, and I find I’m a lot less fatigued by the end of the concert.
When I’m performing on a huge stage, I now wear in-ear monitors—which, when used properly, can offer some isolation from loud onstage volumes. Many musicians turn their inears way up, but I tend to keep the overall monitoring volume low, and only accentuate the things I need to hear, such as hi-hat, background and lead vocals, and the Leslie speaker cab (which is under the stage). This method provides hearing protection, yet also lets me play shows in tune and locked in with the drums.
Recording studios can be dangerous to your hearing, as well. I once did a session with the incredible Milcho Leviev on Fender Rhodes when the entire band got a terrible volume spike through the studio headphones. Milcho flew into a rage, and threatened to walk out if it happened again. Five minutes later, it did! Milcho stood up, dumped over the electric piano, and left the building— never to return that day. On an orchestral date, I watched Chuck Demonico—one of L.A.’s finest bass players—throw his headphones against the control- room glass so hard that they exploded into a dozen pieces after he got spiked. I don’t remember ever seeing the responsible engineer again.
After suffering through my share of volume spikes in the studio, I solved the problem by getting a local tech to design a rack-mounted limiter for my rig. I feed the studio’s monitor mix into the box, plug in my headphones, and give myself a comfortable level that’s spike proof. I can even blend a little more of myself into the feed without making the other players suffer through too much guitar in the mix.
Doing whatever it takes to protect your hearing—whether you’re performing live or in the studio—will definitely pay benefits as you age. After all, I still want to hear the subtleties and nuances of tone when I’m old and grey. Don’t you?
Carl Verheyen is a critically acclaimed, Grammy-nominated guitarist, vocalist, songwriter, arranger, producer, clinician, educator, and tone master with 12 CDs, two live DVDs, and two books released worldwide.