A Word about Mutes

Here’s the bottom line with mutes; for the most part – You Get What You Pay For.

Q.           What makes one mute worth more than another?
A.            Consistent intonation in all registers.  Often lesser mutes will make you sharp in the lower register and flat in the upper register.
A.            Intonation to the instrument; meaning, how far do you have to pull your slide when you put the mute in?  The best mutes out there these days don’t require you to adjust your horn; just plug and play!
A.            Evenness of tone in all registers.  Some mutes will have “dead spots” where a note or two doesn’t resonate like the others.  Check for this by slurring and tonguing through the chromatic scale slowly.  Sometimes these dead spots can be cured by carefully sanding or shaving the corks so the mute embeds further in the bell.
Q.           What makes one mute cost more than another?
A.            Quality of construction, materials used, science and thought put behind design.  A cherry handmade mute is going to run more than a prefab cardboard job.  The price difference for these two mutes would be around $80-120 vs. $8-12.
Q.           Why should I spend so much money on a mute?
A.            I put a tremendous amount of time and energy, not to mention money into researching my trumpets.  Why would I want to put something into my horn that makes it sound like crap?  Good mutes can add tonal variety to your color spectrum without the typical negatives (stuffiness, bad intonation…) associated with playing muted.
Q.           Which kinds of mutes should I own?
A.            Straight, Harmon, Cup, Plunger, Specialty Mutes (bucket, solo-tone, pixie, practice…)
A.            Depending on your playing interests, your priority list of mutes will be different.
From an orchestral standpoint the Straight mute is your most important mute.
The jazz player (soloist) will use the Harmon most while the big band player will probably use the Cup and Plunger most.
Q.           How many mutes should I own?
A.            I have a crate full of mutes that I own and have used in the past.  Then I have a shelf full of mutes that I am currently using.  (Probably 20+ all together)  Never throw a mute away, you never know when it might just the sound you are looking for; with the exception of those white and red cardboard straights.  You can throw those away unless the sound you are looking for is an out-of-tune 6th grader.
A.            It’s important to match brands of mute with whatever section in which you are playing.  So I have different Straights for the different orchestras I normally work.  I also have my favorite mutes for the solo work I do.

A Word about Straight Mutes

Of all the trumpet mutes the Straight has the most variety of style and subtlety of tonal color.  Just like your trumpet the material, thickness of material, cone flair, length of mute all play a part in the sound of the straight mute.  Once you get to the “pro-level” Straight mute (above $50), the “best” one is based on your sound preference.  Again, it’s important to match your section so that should be your first priority.  I find that some music might call for a particular section to just be muted or in sord. Is the composer looking for the trumpet to be as if in the distance but still brassy and trumpet-like or do they just want the phrase softer?  I have Straight mutes for soft passages and others for loud passages.  Personally, I like wood or fiberglass for passages that are to be soft and metal for loud passages.  Metal will accentuate your articulation and give a percussive quality to your sound while the softer materials will put your sound in the background.  Use the right tool for the job.

I like the MB brass and TrumCor aluminum/copper for louder playing.  I use a Balu wood and MB fiberglass for soft passages.

A Word about Cup Mutes

Whichever brand you choose, get the kind that lets you adjust the distance from bell to cup.  A quarter inch difference in that distance makes a HUGE difference in the sound of the cup.  This adjustability will give your Cup a wonderful range of applications from a muted, smoky dark intimate sound to a bright, tight, perky quality.

My two favorite Cup mutes are made by TrumCor.  They have a metal Cup that comes with two differently shaped cups.  This is wonderfully resonant and I love it for solo literature.  They also have a black fiber Cup that has a fantastic jazz sound and is so light you don’t even notice it in your horn.

A Word about Harmon Mutes

Jazz soloists tend to prefer the feel, and execution that copper Harmon mutes have.  It’s a very characteristic sound and a great “bubbly flow” in fast passages but can also be quite heavy and I have yet to be completely happy with intonation on any copper Harmon.  Miles played a cheap aluminum Harmon and in my opinion, set the tonal standard for what I’m looking for in my Harmon sound.

That being said, I have a favorite Harmon for when I play into a microphone (Charlie Davis Aluminum) and another for when I need to play Harmon acoustically (MB Marcus Bona fiberglass).

Also, NEVER play your Harmon with the stem in unless specifically called for or for a time period effect.

The Wrap-up

There are finally a handful of mute manufactures out there now that are putting the care and thought into mute construction that the trumpet manufacturers have been doing.  As I’ve discussed, there are a few qualities that make one mute “better” than another but with all the subtle variations available you should not be looking for that one do-everything mute.  After all we’re talking about affecting your sound; your most important commodity as a trumpet player.  Put some thought (and money) into your next mute purchase.

2 thoughts on “A Word about Mutes

  1. Tim Durst

    great article, dave. just a note…Harmon is actually a brand-name. harmon style mutes by other manufacturers are usually called wah-wah or wow-wow mutes.

  2. David Cooper Post author

    Good catch, Tim. You are of course right, but I can’t ever remember anyone calling this style of mute anything but a Harmon out on a gig. Even when it is asked for in charts, it is referred to as Harmon, or Harmon, stem in. The only time I’ve seen the wah-wah reference is in music stores. Interesting…

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