The Greatest Gear You’ll Ever Own

December 16, 2016
Written by PGS staff
I'm pretty sure that when Paul Westerberg wrote the Replacements gem “Left of the Dial,” he was talking about the FM frequency dial. The lower range of the FM dial was home to the early independent and college radio stations. Those stations and the artists they fostered had a profound impact on my guitar playing, but today we're going to talk about staying to the left (so to speak) of the other dial—the volume dial.
What's the most important element to you guitar tone? It's not your guitar, it's not your amp, and it's not pedals. It's not something you can buy in a store. And contrary to what some would say, it's not your fingers. It's your ears. Without them, you wouldn't have heard the music that inspired you to pick up a guitar in the first place. And if you don't protect them, you're going to lose the ability to play, hear, and discover new music and sounds over time (not to mention a lot of more mundane, but critical everyday tasks).
What is it that destroys your hearing? As the Grinch once said, it's "noise, noise, noise!" Amps are loud, concerts are loud, and there are multiple types of hearing loss. Today, we will be looking at noise induced hearing loss, because it's the type of hearing loss to which musicians are most commonly susceptible. While it's hard to categorize music as noise (the complete works of the Black-Eyed Peas notwithstanding), your ears can't tell the difference between a jackhammer and a Marshall stack.
Hearing protection is worthy of the same amount of care and thought that you put into building your guitar rig. Over the next few paragraphs we will look at how playing guitar, practicing, playing with your band and other everyday exposures can damage your hearing and the protections you can employ.
Measuring sound and noise
Chances are, if you're reading this fine publication, you are at least familiar with the term decibel (dB). A decibel is a means of measuring sound, and the decibel scale is logarithmic. Unlike Nigel Tufnel's amps, with regard to decibels, going from 10 to 11 is more than just "one louder," it's a doubling of volume. In other words, a sound that is measured at 11dB is twice as loud as a sound measured at 10dB.
Back in March 2014, I wrote an article on how to get cranked amp tones at ear-friendly volumes. In the article, I discussed topics such as master volume, output attenuation, and even master voltage circuits as a means for getting great tones at lower volumes. If you are just playing guitar alone at home, I strongly recommend exploring these options. But sometimes, you can't avoid cranking it up. When playing a gig or even practicing with a full band, you will usually need to pump up the volume.
So just how loud are we talking? To give an example of just how loud a guitar and amp can be, let's look at my "little" Vox AC15 loaded with an Eminence Red Fang. At 9 o'clock on the volume knob (about one-quarter to one-third of the way up), the amp is putting out 117dB (measured at two feet from the speaker). Standing on the other side of the room, it's not shockingly loud. But to put it in perspective, a power saw is roughly 113dB and a lawn mower is 108dB. According to the h,uman ear can be exposed to sounds at 115dB for only 30 seconds prior to sustaining damage. In other words, you can pretty much play the intro of a song before risking permanent hearing damage.
Now take that Vox (cranked a little higher), add an Orange Dual Terror, a huge bass amp, an iron fisted drummer, and a vocal PA and cram them into a 20x30 room (which is pretty big for a practice space) and watch the volume level climb. Boom! You're now at continuous levels that are never considered safe for human ears. Not even for thirty seconds. And we're surprised when our ears are ringing after band practice.
Rock ‘n’ roll was meant to be loud, fast, and out of control. You can only turn down so low, and even if you could turn down. the electrically amplified instruments and voices, you're still dealing with the acoustic volume of a drum set.
For practicing at home alone, you can and should turn down. I've found that playing quietly has many benefits:
1) It protects my hearing and my ears don't fatigue as quickly.
2) It pleases my wife and kids.
3) It forces me to focus even more on touch and dynamics.
4) It justifies a big pedalboard and a shelf full of dirt pedals that help me get a wide variety of cranked up tones at low volume.
Plug in? Plugs in!
For practicing with the band or especially for playing and attending gigs, you are going to need ear plugs. I've used a wide range of ear plugs over the years, everything from the cheap, squishy foam ones, to nicer reusable ones.
My current favorites are called Dubs and I've been using them for about two months. I like the Dubs because they are comfortable, affordable ($25), and inconspicuous. Dubs attenuate roughly 12dB, and to my ears maintain a very natural frequency response. They are the only ear plugs I've found that I can leave in while singing in my band. About that inconspicuous thing, on more than one occasion, I've overheard people laughing and talking about the guy wearing earplugs at a rock concert. No worries, I'll have the last laugh when those same jerks suffer hearing loss.
Prior to Dubs, I was very fond of the Hearos High Fidelity plugs. They are bigger than the Dubs, and protrude further from your ears. They also aren't as comfortable. But they offer greater attenuation, ranging from 14.5-24.6dB. They attenuate high frequencies more heavily than low frequencies. That said, they still provide a natural, even frequency response. They are also easily washable—nice if you ever happen to drop one on a filthy, beer soaked floor, not that I've ever done such a thing.
I've also used the soft, semi-disposable foam ear plugs, but I find that they block too much sound (especially high frequencies). My suggestion is to think about how much volume you want to attenuate, and choose your plugs from there. No matter what, take steps to protect your hearing. If you suspect you are already suffering from hearing loss, make an appointment with an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor. They will be able to provide a basic hearing test or refer you to an audiologist.


  1. Bill Walker says:

    Amen Brother,  Good info that people need to hear as an active professional for over thirty years, Im lucky to have my hearing pretty much in tact, . I use custom ear plugs attenuated to 12db when playing with rock and soul bands (or go to concerts) but they real key for me was moving from an overkill rig of stereo 100 watts per side amps and an eventual hernia, to a rig with a Princeton reverb paired with either a deluxe reverb or vox ac10 twin, pushing drive and compression pedals through the low gain inputs. Also,  tilting the amps to aim the speakers at my ears helps get a more realistic picture of my treble response and overall volume , de-couples the amp from the stage to avoid bass standing waves, and Im not slamming the people on the dance floor with ice pick highs or volume overkill that I’m not hearing because Im standing above and too far off axis to the speaker.  In return I get great sound, at manageable volumes, with controllable feedback, that sound guys love. Now if I could just stand further away from the drummer bass and keyboard players, I wouldn’t even have to use the plugs…

    posted on December 16, 2016 at 8:56 am
  2. D.Campbell says:

    Objectively, twice as loud means doubling the acoustic energy, which is often measured in Joules.  In contrast, decibels are a measurement of power, most often expressed in volts (dBV)

    +6.02 dB equals 4x power… NOT 4x LOUDNESS.  Increasing power by a factor of 4 increases LOUDNESS by 2x in acoustical energy.

    +10dB equals 10x power…. NOT 10x LOUDNESS.  Increasing power by a factor of x10 increases LOUDNESS by 3.1748x in acoustical energy.

    Subjectively, everything becomes nonsensical.  It makes no difference what someone’s opinion of “twice as loud” or “three times as loud” might be. Modern science employs objective measurements to yield the correct answers, rounded to the nearest whole numbers:

    4x power = +6 dBV = double the acoustic loudness
    10x power = +10 dBV = triple the acoustic loudness

    Regarding the volume increase per knob number, control taper varies between manufacturers.  It is indeed possible to set up a volume knob so that there is a difference of +6db in power between “5” and “6”, for example.  If so, then “6” would be twice as loud acoustically as “5”.

    Conversely, gain knobs with a slower taper might double the acoustic loudness only when adjusting between two or three adjacent numbers.

    Best regards,  D.Campbell, Stellartone USA

    posted on December 16, 2016 at 9:06 am
  3. richard sales says:

    I toured for a long time with a 17 watt Magnatone 213 amp.  Played arenas, huge halls, festivals, tiny bars and it ALWAYS blew every guitar tech’‘s mind how good it sounded.  You don’t need more watts.  You just need a good PA and good monitor mix guy.  The less volume on stage the easier to mix because you’re not dealing with room filling sound coming from the amps etc.  Only noisy thing is the drums.  So mix guy only has one elephant in the room - not three or four.  Most guys record with lower wattage amps.  Some take huge stacks and use one, or the Deluxe or whatever behind the curtain.

    Now, two low watt amps is fun.  And you’re still not killing the mix… and your precious ears.

    I saw the name Bill Walker up there?  IS that the awesome looper Bill?  If so… HI BILL!  If not, Hi anyhow Bill!!!

    posted on December 16, 2016 at 9:49 am
  4. Philip J. Ockelford says:

    I’ve recently had an article published on this very subject, which may be of additional benefit to readers here:—cms-27627

    posted on December 16, 2016 at 10:47 am
  5. Lincoln says:


    A good set of IEMs will not only block out the vast majority of the ambient sound/noise/music, but will also allow one to better hear the monitor mix—and at drastically reduced volume levels. 

    Of course, this assumes that one buys monitors that actually work well, and are intended to be used in this way.  Earbuds from you iPhone aren’t going to cut it.

    With good IEMs you get the benefits of earplugs, but also with better monitoring, and a lower volume across the board.

    Yes, there’s always going to be that “guy” who is going to max-out the volume on his IEM mix, but _you_ don’t have to be that “guy.”

    posted on December 16, 2016 at 4:53 pm
  6. stratopastor says:

    An article worth sharing, thank you.

    posted on December 16, 2016 at 7:18 pm
  7. Daniel says:

    I think D. Campbell has used some terms in the wrong way. He uses Loudness to describe sound power or sound pressure (I not sure which one do you mean), well Loudness is a psycho-acoustic description of sound or noise.
    He saids “Subjectively, everything becomes nonsensical” well that is not true. Psychoacoustics is a branch of acoustics and study the perception of sound/noise and it is a “Modern science”. Generally the perception of “twice as loud” corresponds to an increase of 10 dB (sound pressure) in the mid-frequency range.

    posted on December 16, 2016 at 7:56 pm
  8. Don says:

    I had thought about IEMs too but had issues with our setup. I would be playing and then get an ice pick through my head. Either the system was faulty our some knucklehead was playing with the board and accidentally raise my volume.

    posted on December 16, 2016 at 11:30 pm
  9. richard sales says:

    Yeah… haven’t tried in ears for this ‘ice pick’ reason.  After 50 years of performing and recording, I can’t afford any more tinnitus or hearing damage.  I can still hear up to 12K, which is pretty cool, but am very careful about this.
    Was in a very noisy bar the other night and probably walked outside 20 times to give my ears a break.  And it was 10 below Celsius!
    With in ears, I also worry about being separated from the audience.  And I can sort of control the monitor mix by moving around a bit, which is sometimes beneficial.  Might buy one of those new WIC wireless setups so I can move around even more.
    Still, I ponder trying in ears.

    posted on December 17, 2016 at 1:05 am
  10. Pat Flanigan says:

    Thanks Andy! A very important subject for all us musicians. I have been wearing ear plugs for the last several years and will attest to the benefits. I have recently found Ear Peace ear plugs with changeable filters for high and medium protection. I love them. Unlike the soft foam plugs, you and others mention, that are like throwing a thick blanket over your head, they allow some highs to get through so that you get some definition to the sound. I can wear them for a four hour performance on a loud stage and feel great afterwards.

    posted on December 17, 2016 at 2:43 am
  11. Michael Stupel says:

    I hope that one day I will see my pedals tested by Andy and sold on PGS just like Roy’s, he build me some great pedals.

    posted on December 17, 2016 at 6:50 am
  12. D.Campbell says:

    Thanks to Daniel for his reply about the measurements of sound energy.

    Daniel is correct that “loudness” is the wrong term to describe measurable acoustic energy, or sound pressure levels.  I used this term as a convenience because of its common use, and to differentiate it from decibels, wattage, and voltage.

    Electrical measurements are often mis-applied to acoustical energy.  Although they are useful when applied to sound reinforcement or recording, it requires no voltage to produce 135 dB Spl from a snare drum, for example.

    So, for the purposes of this reply, I’ll use “volume” to describe measurable acoustic sound pressure.

    My point was that “psychoacoustics” is not a valid means to measure acoustical energy.  So, we’ll dispense with “loudness” as a perception and an opinion, not an actual measurement.

    Acoustical energy, as a physical sound wave pressure (i.e. “volume”) can be objectively and accurately measured using a precision electro-mechanical apparatus.  This removes all opinion and perception.

    Daniel correctly described that frequencies also affect the human perception of “loudness”, because our ears are not very linear in sensitivity, plus, this the non-linearity varies with amplitude.  Age and medical conditions such as asthma also affect hearing sensitivity, range, and linearity.  For these reasons, subjective assessments about “loudness” become even less useful.

    Here’s an experiment which illustrates actual “volume” differences in decibels, watts, and sound pressure.

    Let’s say that we are using multiple 50 watt RMS amplifiers, each driving identical speaker cabinets, all set at a fixed distance from our measuring equipment and human listeners. Each amplifier’s output has been calibrated to produce the maximum 50 watt RMS signal level, and the common program source is a pink noise generator.  In order to produce a comfortable 85 dB Spl reference listening volume from only one amplifier, the fixed distance has been determined using a decibel meter.

    Let’s see how the sound pressure (volume) varies in our experiment.

    One amp on:
    50 watts = 85 dB Spl = “J” Joules of acoustical energy / sound pressure.

    Now, without telling anyone what is being changed, a second amplifier is turned on.  Here’s the result:

    100 watts = 88 dB Spl = 1.41x “J” Joules

    Although a +3 dB Spl increase is “louder” by all perceptions, the relevant factor is the multiple of acoustical energy, which has increased from 100% to 141%.

    Let’s turn on two more 50 watt amplifiers:

    200 watts = 91 dB SPL = 2x “J” Joules

    With four amps at once, we’ve increased our original reference level by +6 dB Spl.  The measured sound pressure level is now doubled.

    This is highly-relevant to our discussion about guitar amplifiers.  The actual difference in sound output level per watt is widely misunderstood and mis-reported, such as “a 100 watt amplifier is twice as loud as a 50 watt amplifer.”  This is simply not true, no matter how many times you read it, or what your opinion might be.

    A 200 watt amplifier is “twice as loud” in sound pressure energy as a 50 watt amplifier, when both are set to maximum output levels.

    Let’s complete our listening experiment, by turning on a total of ten 50 watt amplifiers:

    500 watts = 95 dB SPL = 3.1748x “J” Joules

    Finally… we’ve increased our original reference level by +10 dB Spl.  This corresponds to triple (x3.1748) our 50 watt reference sound pressure.

    It’s untrue that a +10 dB Spl increase means the sound becomes ten times louder, or twice as loud.  It’s three times louder.  The only factor that is increased ten times is the wattage required to produce a +10 dB increase.

    The PGS staff wrote, “a sound that is measured at 11dB is twice as loud as a sound measured at 10dB”.  This is either a typo, or a gross misunderstanding!  In “psychoacoustics”, a 1 dB change is more realistically-described as the “minimum change in loudness perceptible in human hearing”.

    A listener can be trained to know what he or she is actually hearing.  For example, if repeatedly exposed to a +/- 6dB variation in volume, and told “the louder sound is twice as loud as the quieter sound”, then a relevant point of reference is established. The listener may soon develop a talent for identifying a 2X / 6dB volume difference.

    To sum up, using round numbers:

    +1 dB Spl is a very small change in volume;

    +6 dB Spl is double the volume;

    +10 dB Spl is triple the volume.

    Best regards, D.Campbell, Stellartone USA

    posted on December 17, 2016 at 6:54 am
  13. Sabby says:

    “In contrast, decibels are a measurement of power, most often expressed in volts (dBV)”
    The term you are searching for is Watt…
    Also dB is just a logarithmic scale and doesn’t necessarily means it is about power. Like voltage gain can be expressed in dB too.
    “50 watts = 85 dB Spl = “J” Joules of acoustical energy / sound pressure”
    This is wrong on so many levels.
    Watts aren’t for SPL and Joules are for energy ONLY (not just acoustic) not sound pressure.  Putting “=” there is a really big mistake.
    Please get your facts right before trying to educate others. Also please search for Phon and Sone scales. These are psychoacoustic scales for measuring precised volume.

    posted on December 17, 2016 at 11:02 pm
  14. D.Campbell says:

    You have taken one statement out of context, which is why it has been misunderstood:

    “50 watts = 85 dB Spl = “J” Joules of acoustical energy / sound pressure”

    Sabby: “This is wrong on so many levels.”

    No, it is not wrong on any level.  Read the entire theoretical experiment!  This statement specifically-described the sound pressure level of a 50 watt amplifier & speaker, playing a pink noise signal at a calibrated 50 watt RMS output, which has THEN been measured at 85 dB Spl at a fixed distance from the speaker.

    The Spl reading can also represented by an proportionate but unknown energy reading “J” in Joules.

    That statement, out of context and on its own, has no value… of course “50 watts does not equal 85 dB Spl!”  I’m surprised that this simple experiment was misunderstood.

    Your criticism is based upon impatience.  If you took the time to actually read my post, you’d also see that Phon and Sone scales are not relevant to either human hearing or measuring a pink noise signal, when amplified to 85 dB Spl. listening volume.

    Since you are a fan of arcane audio terms, let me explain further: the Fletcher-Munson curve is not relevant at an 85 dB listening volume - the human unequal sensitivity to frequency primarily applies to much lower volume levels.

    Lastly, a “scale” is just that… it’s not a form of measurement.  No one was discussing scales - just actual volume measurements.

    The point of my entire post was to explain that sound pressure levels can be measured objectively, and opinion and psychoacoustics have little to do with reality.

    I’ll rephrase: someone might think that a +10dB Spl gain in volume equals a doubling of volume… or might think it equals ten times the volume… based upon “psychoacoustic perception”.  Both the x2 and the x10 multiples are untrue.  The actual increase is x3.1748 in measured Spl.  Anything is else is opinion.

    Because the actual multiple of volume is easily measured, the true measurement takes precedence over opinion and “psychoacoustics”.

    I was not writing about perceptions of loudness… or how annoying a particular frequency might be… or why the human ear is more sensitive to mid-range than to bass or treble.  I was writing only about actual volume, as measured in Sound Pressure Level (Spl).  To illustrate the issue, I presented a hypothetical experiment using several amps at equal volumes, and an impartial and accurate sound pressure meter.

    My summary remains valid:

    +1 dB Spl is a very small change in volume;

    +6 dB Spl is double the volume;

    +10 dB Spl is triple the volume.

    I hope this clarifies the volume issue.  If not, it was worth a try.

    Best regards, D.Campbell, Stellartone USA

    posted on December 18, 2016 at 3:38 am
  15. tinnitus says:

    This is an excellent article, and wise advice for all musicians. I’m getting on in years and thankfully have managed to emerge from my various musical endeavors without much hearing loss, but I still have mild tinnitus, probably caused by attending really loud rock concerts in my youth without hearing protection. I attribute the conservation of the hearing I have to ALWAYS wearing ear plugs when I practiced and gigged with a fairly loud rock band in the early aughts. But I’ve done dumb stuff, too, mostly letting volume inch up on my amps when practicing at home in the basement by myself, and not using hearing protection. Like most guitar players I love the sound of an amp with the power tubes sweating and the dynamic interaction with the guitar pickups that comes from playing “at volume.” But you’d be surprised how quickly volume levels can inch up to the harmful zone. OSHA sets the permissible level for workers in an eight-hour shift at 90 dba. I’d encourage all players (especially younger ones) to buy a decibel meter or get a decibel-measuring app for your smartphone. Then measure the volume of your amp from where you typically stand when playing. You’ll probably be surprised at how low 90 dba seems. The only other observation I have is this. If you’re young and energetic, you may take a “no pain, no gain” approach to many things in your life, such as sports, exercise, work. It’s true that in order to develop your body in exercise you have to stress it. And to succeed at music or in your career, you may have to subject yourself to the “pain” of hard work. But this mantra does NOT apply to hearing. Pain or stress to your hearing means loss, often irreparable loss. And if you love music, you’re losing the sense that allows you to enjoy the thing you love.

    posted on December 18, 2016 at 4:35 am
  16. Sabby says:

    “Joules of acoustical energy / sound pressure”
    Energy is not pressure. This just means that.
    ” the Fletcher-Munson curve is not relevant at an 85 dB listening volume”
    Let me explain rather: It’s called Fletcher-Munson curveS (plural). There are several for different pressure levels. And around 80dB there is still a 15dB span for the curve.
    “The Spl reading can also represented by an proportionate but unknown energy reading “J” in Joules.” For a given time and a given surface…
    “If you took the time to actually read my post, you’d also see that Phon and Sone scales are not relevant to either human hearing or measuring a pink noise signal, when amplified to 85 dB Spl.” Sone scale can be used especially at higher volumes. For broadband signal you need to take the crucial bands into account. Sone scale is a good method to quantify PERCEIVED volume. Phon scale can also be used at high volumes too (this leads back to the Fletcher-Munson curves).

    “Your criticism is based upon impatience.” No. It’s based upon your half-true, misleading or plain wrong statements. I also love that you just ignored my first statement.

    Again please get your facts right before trying to educate other.
    Best wishes,

    posted on December 20, 2016 at 11:47 pm
  17. D.Campbell says:

    “+1 dB Spl is a very small change in volume;
    +6 dB Spl is double the volume;
    +10 dB Spl is triple the volume.”

    I will not bother to attempt any further clarification of my posts regarding “actual volume”, how it relates to common guitar amplifier outputs, and how to measure it accurately.

    This very-specific subject has now been conflated to include “perceived volume”... which ironically was my exact point of discussion:  perceived volume is not actual volume.

    I am baffled by the pointless and valueless attack made on my simple discussion about guitar amplifier volume.

    It’s not possible to maintain a useful dialog on one subject when an antagonist insists on changing to other subjects, or nit-picking about grammar, syntax, spelling, or common English language usage & abbreviations.

    For example, the abbreviation “=” was used as “shorthand” in the non-mathematical context of “corresponds to, is associated with, or results in”.  See how many characters were saved by using “=”?  The meaning of the abbreviation, in context, was crystal-clear to all, except one.

    Nit-picking aside… the responses were also off topic.  How do “broadband signals” pertain to a simple & focused discussion about the “volume of guitar amplifiers”?  Look up the definition of “broadband”.  This is an unrelated subject… not the original subject about risks of hearing damage from live sound reinforcement.

    That sums it up. I’ve unsubscribed to this thread; your trolling will only annoy the other readers.

    posted on December 21, 2016 at 4:49 am

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