In this third and final (for now!) part in my mini-series on mutes I will introduce several more types of mutes. There are certainly a few more than I list here, but these are the most common ones after the standard three. I also mention a few fun and unusual possibilities at the end!
Muting with the hand
Putting the left hand in front of or inside the bell can create a muted effect. The effect is small but noticeable. Putting the hand inside the bell also results in a change of pitch of up to a semi-tone. The dynamic level is only minimally affected.
The plunger mute, made popular by jazz players, is generally used for its wah-wah effect. Some mute manufacturers sell plunger mutes made especially for trumpets, though many players will use a normal plunger head from a hardware store. The mute is held in the left hand and placed in front of the bell. The sound color changes depending on how close the mute is to the bell – or rather, how much of the bell is covered.
- As the left hand is needed to hold the mute in place, this hinders certain other techniques such as microtonal playing and slide glissandi, which also require use of the left hand.
- This is perhaps one of the least favorite mutes of contemporary players because it can strongly effect intonation. Covering the bell will cause a “jump” in the intonation, sometimes as large as a minor second, especially in the upper register.
Whispa Mute / Practice Mute / Hotel Mute
The “Whispa” mute, orginally made by Shastock in 1941, is widely considered to be the first commercial practice mute and was known for its very soft sound. Unfortunately production was discontinued which makes this mute quite rare – very few players own a genuine Whispa. Fortunately there are many modern equivalents to choose from. While originally designed to allow trumpeters to practice without disturbing their neighbors, they are frequently called for in contemporary music. Using a practice mute drastically reduces the dynamic range possible on the instrument and dramatically alters the sound color.
The Melo-Wah creates a warm sound similar to the cup mute. The opening at the end of the mute can be covered with the hand to further dampen the sound or to create a wah-wah effect. The Melo-Wah has a tendency to create intonation problems throughout the trumpet’s range. Not all players have a Melo-Wah, though they are easily obtainable.
Bucket and Velvet Mutes
When it comes to mute taxonomy, nothing is more confusing to me than the difference between velvet and bucket mutes. Bucket mutes come in a few variations: a rounded or cylindrical concave shaped object that is padded on the inside and clips to the bell; an insertable mute which is open on the sides but ends in a bucket shape with padding inside; and a kind of giant straight mute with padding on the inside.
Velvet mutes are confusingly shaped like buckets and, like some bucket mutes, are clipped onto the bell. The inside of the mute can be filled with wood chips or synthetic fibers.
The idea of both mutes is pretty much the same – allow the trumpet to play freely, but subtly dampen the “bright edge” of the sound with some padded material just outside of the bell to absorb higher overtones. The sound color is changed without reducing much of the dynamic level.
I would go as far as to say that bucket and velvet mutes are two names for the same mute, despite the variations. The difference in sound between my three bucket mutes is far more pronounced than the difference between my velvet mute and any of the buckets. Confused? Me too! As usual, always check with your players to see what mutes they have and be as specific as you can in your performance notes.
- Mutes which need to be clipped to the bell take considerably more time to put on and remove than conventional inserted mutes!
An easy way to get a similar result is to cover the bell with a piece of cloth, or – my secret tip – to use a Crown Royal sack:
Crown Royal Sack
The crown royal sack is sold along with crown royal whiskey. It is seldom used as a mute, though it remains one of my personal favorite tricks for ensemble work. If the trumpet is a bit too loud for a particular passage, but no sound-color change is desired, placing the sack over the bell of the trumpet can help. It somewhat reduces the brilliance of the trumpet sound while otherwise barely changing the sound color, helping the trumpet to not stick out of the ensemble sound.
Loosely hanging a piece of aluminum foil in front of the bell can add a bit of “sizzle” to the sound, caused by sympathetic vibrations in the foil when playing. This technique can take a bit more time to set up and remove than standard mutes. Taking the foil on and off can also be quite noisy!
CD as Mute
Holding a CD loosely against the bell while playing produces a similar effect as the aluminum foil, but more of a rattle than a sizzle. Using a CD avoids the potentially noisy set-up and break-down of the aluminum foil mute, but also causes major intonation issues. Use this trick at your own risk – that is, if you can find somebody who still owns CDs…
Mutes for Piccolo Trumpet
Most of the mutes listed here are available for piccolo trumpet. It’s important to bear in mind that playing a muted piccolo trumpet is much more strenuous than open playing, and that intonation is often a problem.
Mutes for Flugelhorn
Until relatively recently there weren’t many mutes for the flugelhorn. Nowadays it is possible to get the “standard three” mutes for Flugelhorn as well a few others. If using mutes for flugelhorn, it is best to check with your player to see what is available!