"I’ve got this constant ringing in my ears, which has also made me somewhat deaf - or ‘conveniently deaf’ as Sharon calls it": Cautionary tales from Ozzy and 5 other rock stars who suffer from tinnitus and other hearing issues

Ozzy Osbourne onstage with Black Sabbath
(Image credit: Getty Images/Kevin Mazur)

Back in 2016, AC/DC frontman Brian Johnson caused a quake in the rock world when he was ordered to stop touring or face “total hearing loss” after years fronting the biggest rock band in the world.

The group were forced to cancel the remaining 10 dates of their Rock Or Bust US tour before famously hiring Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose to complete the globe-spanning world tour.

Thankfully, Johnson’s hearing troubles were improved thanks to pioneering technology developed by Stephen Ambrose of Asius Technologies, who helped the vocalist to return to the stage to continue his career - and eight years later, AC/DC are embarking on yet another tour with Johnson back behind the mic.

But Johnson is just one of millions who suffer from hearing damage, with a 2022 report for the Journal Of The American Medical Association estimating that more than 740 million people around the world suffer from some form of tinnitus, while 120 million have a severe form of tinnitus.

But while the use of earplugs at concerts has become a common sight over recent years in the crowd, the life of a rock’n’roll star is fraught with danger when it comes to tinnitus and other hearing issues due to their heavy touring commitments year after year.

Ozzy Osbourne

The Prince Of Darkness himself, Ozzy Osbourne, admitted in an interview with The Times in 2010 that he suffers from "permanent tinnitus," and added: "Which means I’ve got this constant ringing in my ears, which has also made me somewhat deaf - or ‘conveniently deaf’ as Sharon calls it. 

"It’s like this whee! noise in my head all the time. Should have worn earplugs, I guess. I still headbang, mind you.”

Lars Ulrich

Speaking with CNN back in 2009, Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich reported he had ringing in his ears from playing live over a number of years without using hearing protection - something that came to a head on the road in 1988 when he was sleeping.

“I would fall asleep often with the television on and I would wake up in the middle of the night to go turn the TV off… except it wasn't actually on,” he said. “When I realised that I was doing that frequently, actually getting up to turn the TV off that was not on to begin with, I realised that maybe I had some issues."

Ulrich added: "If you get a scratch on your nose, in a week that'll be gone. When you scratch your hearing or damage your hearing, it doesn't come back. I try to point out to younger kids... once your hearing is gone, it's gone, and there's no real remedy."

Pete Townshend

The Who guitarist Pete Townshend has also spoken about suffering from tinnitus - and said he's even unable to perform with in-ear monitors as it makes the condition worse.

He said via Hearing Health Associates: “I have severe hearing damage. It’s manifested itself as tinnitus, ringing in the ears at frequencies that I play guitar. It hurts, it’s painful, and it’s frustrating. My right ear, which encounters my own edgy guitar and the machine gun strokes of the drums, has suffered badly. Luckily for me, I still have my left ear, which seems to be less messed up. 

"When I’ve worked solo in the past five years, I’ve not used drums. This has meant I could play more quietly I think. With The Who, there is, of course, no way to play the old songs without drums. I’ve no idea what I can do about this. I am unable to perform with in-ear monitors. In fact, they increase the often unbearable tinnitus I suffer after shows."

At a show in Las Vegas in 2018, Townshend's bandmate Roger Daltrey pleaded with fans to use earplugs, telling the crowd (via The Times): “The trouble with these ear things that I wear is that I am very, very deaf. And I advise you all – all you rock’n’roll fans – take your fucking earplugs to the gigs. If only we had known when we were younger. We are lip-reading.”

Anthony Kiedis

Red Hot Chili Peppers' vocalist Anthony Kiedis spoke about his hearing issues in his 2004 autobiography Scar Tissue. The frontman reported he first became aware of it after a Chili Peppers' show with Nirvana in December 1991.

In the book Kiedis says: "That night was the beginning of my ongoing battle with tinnitus. Chad and I both came offstage and hugged backstage and realised that our ears were perceptibly ringing. By the end of that tour, I’d have permanent ear damage, which, unfortunately, is one of the hardest things to cure.”

Huey Lewis

In a recent interview with radio station Q1043 New York, American singer/songwriter Huey Lewis said he was suffering from Ménière's disease - an inner ear condition that affects both hearing and balance.

Lewis said: "I have a thing they called Ménière's disease. But it's not really a disease, it's a syndrome based on symptoms and they really don't know what it is. I've been everywhere, and it just sort of happens. You get vertigo and you lose your hearing, but what you gonna do?"

It's not the first time Lewis has spoken about his hearing health, revealing it's an issue that stretches back 35 years.

He told Songfacts (via MusicRadar): "I have hearing aids in and I'm Bluetoothing to the computer so I can hear you now. Without my hearing aids, I'm completely deaf. I lost my right side 35 years ago. When I lost my left side and couldn't hear music anymore, it was traumatic."

He added: "It was six months of pretty much lying in bed, just worrying, and trying different protocols and acupuncture and chiropractic and all-organic diets."

How can artists protect their hearing?

I previously spoke with Liam Hennessy, the head of health and welfare at Help Musicians, and Paul Checkley, who is partner and clinical director at Harley Street Hearing & Musicians Hearing Services about how musicians can better protect themselves at live shows.

Checkley said: "There are special flat-response musicians earplugs which reduce the level of the music entering the ear but maintain the fidelity by attenuating all frequencies to the same level. Most standard earplugs attenuate more high frequencies, which can result in a dullness of sound and make speech difficult to understand. The flat response plugs simply "reduce the volume" without affecting the sound quality.

Help Musicians can directly provide audiological assessments and custom-made hearing protection. For more information, visit Help Musicians' Protect Your Hearing page.

Should I wear in-ear monitors onstage?

Despite Pete Townhend's experience with in-ear monitors when playing live, using them is recommended by a variety of audiologists. IEMs channel the audio into the artist’s ears at a volume of their choosing and and offer 26dB of noise protection. 

Universal fit IEMs are available to buy off the shelf and usually come with a variety of ear-tip sizes. However, custom fit in-ear monitors are tailored to suit individual’s needs and offer an overall better experience due to their unique shapes.

Professional Audiological Services say in-ear monitors can be used by those who are hearing impaired, adding: “ They can provide a direct audio feed from instruments or sound systems, enabling the musician to hear their performance clearly, separate from ambient noise. 

"This can be particularly useful for musicians with hearing loss who rely on vibrations or visual cues to play their instruments. They provide practical applications for hearing-impaired individuals including enhancing communication, improving audio quality, and enabling musicians with hearing loss to perform more effectively."

Our friends over at MusicRadar have picked out a selection of the best in-ear monitors covering practice, performance and production across a range of budgets. The article also has expert buying advice to help you make an informed decision.

Scott Munro
Louder e-commerce editor

Scott has spent 35 years in newspapers, magazines and online as an editor, production editor, sub-editor, designer, writer and reviewer. Scott joined our news desk in the summer of 2014 before moving to the e-commerce team in 2020. Scott keeps Louder’s buyer’s guides up to date, writes about the best deals for music fans, keeps on top of the latest tech releases and reviews headphones, speakers, earplugs and more. Over the last 10 years, Scott has written more than 11,000 articles across Louder, Classic Rock, Metal Hammer and Prog. He's previously written for publications including IGN, the Sunday Mirror, Daily Record and The Herald newspapers, covering everything from daily news and weekly features, to tech reviews, video games, travel and whisky. Scott's favourite bands are Fields Of The Nephilim, The Cure, New Model Army, All About Eve, The Mission, Cocteau Twins, Drab Majesty, Marillion and Rush.