bobby shew



Clinic Articles




General Information on Mutes Jim Ahrend Jul 17, 2013

One particular area of brass playing that has been overlooked as far as educational materials is the use of mutes. The average listener and conductor never notices the finer points that we have to deal with in the use of each different mute and its individual properties. Perhaps the single most annoying aspect of each mute is in its intonation, but closely followed by the alteration of the resistance of the air stream going thru the horn. Since each works differently, it would be best to discuss each separately.


Harmon mute

Probably the most widely used mute in contemporary music. It blends very well with flute, especially when used in unison, and creates a nice crisp sizzle or buzz effect. In general, this mute will cause your horn to play about one-half step higher in pitch, so you must pull the tuning slide out approx. 1/4 inch, although the exact amount will vary slightly from player to player depending upon the equipment used, and it will also vary according to the register being played, as well as the intensity of the music, i.e., dynamics. In almost all cases, don't use the stem/cup that comes with the mute when purchased, BUT DON'T THROW IT AWAY: If you ever find yourself doing real commercial gigs, Clyde McCoy's "Sugar Blues", or studio work, there'll be times when you'll need it for a special sound. There are many things that can be done to a Harmon mute to alter and improve its sound and playability if you want to take the time and expense of experimenting. In the first place, the original mute of this type was apparently named after the Harmon Company which may have invented it or at least increased it's popularity to a point of the name association, but several other companies are now manufacturing the same basic mute with minor changes, the most significant being the thickness of the metal used. You'll occasionally run across one of the old orange copper Harmon mutes and if so, BUY IT (especially if you can find it for less than twenty dollars)! I recently paid thirty dollars for one and have seen them as high as fifty and sixty dollars in Japan. It's a very heavy and dark sounding mute and while not always the ideal sound, will offer some benefits in soloing into a good microphone/PA system. It doesn't cut as well for section work and unless everyone in the section has one, can cause minor differences in the sound and blend. This isn't something that every listener will be aware of but  I can certainly tell the difference inside of the sectional sound. I personally prefer the thinner metal for sectional work as I think  that it vibrates quicker because of the lightness of the metal and it is also (very important) easier to hear yourself playing in and therefore easier to tune. It also seems to have better projection and less resistance (doesn't feel so "stuffy" when you play into it), and you're more likely to be able to play in the lower registers, even down to the low concert E. In actuality, any arranger that writes something for you to play in that register should be suspended from writing and made to play improperly written material passages for a month or so as a penalty. I prefer the EMO mute of this type which is made in W. Germany and available in most larger cities. If you find one, I suggest that you remove the black sponge rubber and have it replaced with cork. It'll make the mute play better. This next suggestion as regards the Harmon mute will probably make all of the manufacturers cringe and write me nasty letters, but although tricky to perfect, will really get some delightful sounds out of a mute. Buy an extra mute rather than using your regular one. Taking a medium sized screw-driver, insert the tip under the lip of the seam on the side of the mute. The seam construction will possibly vary from brand to brand, but all that you want to do is to LOOSEN the seam. No need to take the mute apart. When fairly loose, you should be able to spin the two parts or at least turn them with relative ease. Stick the mute in your horn at this point and play it. You should feel the entire mute rattling like crazy which is merely an extension of the little buzz which you normally get with this mute. Take a pair of pliers and gently squeeze the loosened seam in a few spots around the circumference of the mute seam. About every inch or so will be OK. You may have to go back and forth on this process until you accomplish the precise settings. What you should be trying to achieve with this is to make the mute vibrate more freely which will give you a little bit brighter sounding buzz and therefore add considerable warmth to the sound. Many mutes have a tendency to sound very metallic and I don't think it's as personal of a sound as with a mute that has been altered. I actually have a basic design in mind for a new type of "Harmon" mute which would offer much more than the current ones but as yet haven't found any millionaires that want to go into production on the project. Another thing that you might find a bit humorous; my wife told me that she always found it funny how BEAT-UP our Harmon mutes looked, full of dents, etc., and that when she first met me and saw me playing, she thought that I was probably a very careless person because of all of the dents in my Harmon. It wasn't until later that she saw me take a brand new mute out of a bag and start systematically knocking dents in certain areas of the mute that upon asking me I was able to explain to her that I was trying to change the sound by hammering on it. In actuality, most new mutes with their perfect shape have a very "hollow" and uncentered sound. It always feels to me as if the air is spinning around inside of the mute and fighting for a resistance center. By flattening the rounded corners and then denting slightly all around the walls of the mute, the air seems to have a better "grip" inside of the mute and the sound centers much better. This also will improve the overall intonation of the mute as well as increasing it's comfortability in playing. Now, let's go back to the stem/cup and discuss it's use beyond the Wa-Wa effects. If you can, get an extra stem and remove the cup from it by carefully using pliers or by sawing it off with a hacksaw. With the cup removed, you'll find that the stem can be re-inserted into the mute and when extended all of the way out, will add an extremely bright center and projection to the mute. It has a very specific sound and won't be something that you'll want to use frequently, but can give you some added projection in a bad acoustical situation or for a special type of solo. This should give you some basic info on this particular mute and will hopefully make you realize that there is a lot more to playing with mutes than just sticking them in your horn and blasting away.


The Cup Mute

Whereas the Harmon mute makes your overall pitch sharp, the cup mute does, for the most part, the exact opposite except that the pitch of each register can vary a great deal depending upon the intensity level being played and the type and/or brand of cup mute being used. This mute can be found made from a heavy fiber-like material much like masonite, from assorted metals although usually aluminum, or from plastics. Perhaps even more drastic than the Harmon mute will differences be noted from mute to mute, and from manufacturer differences. I like to keep at least one of several types available, especially for studio work where a writer is looking for a special sound, my personal favorite overall is the Humes & Berg MIC-A-MUTE, which is the same as the basic cup with a rubber ring around the edge of the cup to control the seal or space near the bell of the horn. This mute also has a soft fuzzy material covering the inside of the cup area, the purpose of which is to soften the "wooden" hardness of the sound of the regular cup. I think it offers a more warm and personal sound and when you learn to control the tightness of the fit at the "bell”, you can still get the intense projection needed in big band situations. The MIC-A-MUTE is also excellent for close miking solos. Another type of cup available is the two-piece metal and fiber Shastock mute which I believe was popularized by famed trumpeter in the forties and fifties, Charlie Spivak. It actually works the best when used very close to a mike for a solo and when adjusted very tightly against the bell. This mute has the advantage of having a set screw to adjust the cup portion's distance from the bell, but has the disadvantage of having a metal cup, which is not a good sound quality for section work or for anything other than the solo situation. There is a company in Sweden that makes the Dizzy Gillespie model mutes which, when you can find them, are worth purchasing although very expensive. The cup in this set is made of a white plastic and separates into two pieces, one of which looks like a straight mute and which could be used as one, and another piece which is similar to a plunger which snaps over the end of the straight to form a cup. It has a surprisingly good sound for being plastic. It lacks the hard, brittle quality which makes the metal mute undesirable, and although not as warm sounding as the MIC-A MUTE, has a very pleasant overall sound and fairly respectable intonation. Speaking of intonation, the cup mute offers some bizarre problems to deal with. Each register has its own pitch, but in general, the cup tends to get flat as you go up the scale into the register above the staff. A high C for Instance, will usually be 1/4 to 1/2 step flat and you must learn how to correct and hold the pitch with your air stream and diaphragm support. A lot of these problems as you must by now realize, vary from player to player and you'll just have to learn to be sensitive enough to them in your own playing to deal with them and correct them as you run into them. No two situations are the same.




The Straight Mute

This mute was probably the first type of mute used in any brass instrument and has very limited application today because of the harsh, brittle sound it produces when played with excess force. It sounds very good in classical, orchestral situations, but its use in modem jazz/big bands is minimal, although I must admit, I've seen the demand for it starting to occur here and there. I use mine a lot with the Capp-Pierce Juggernaut band because the band is styled after the older Count Basic type of music and the mute adds a lot to this style, but aside from that, it collects quite a lot of dust. It tends to be a very harsh mute for soloing with the exception of Latino types of music where it can really sound good and a cup or Harmon really will sound out of place to a point of being ridiculous. The best of these mutes are usually made of aluminum (Alessi-Vacchiano is a good one), and the Tom Crown Co. in the Chicago area makes them with copper and brass bottoms which alter the sound a little bit, adding either brightness or darkness to the sound. Another type of straight mute to get your hands on is the small plunger straight. This is to be used in eon-junction with the plunger for tightening up the sound of the wa-wa effect. It takes some skill and lots of practice and observation to learn how to do this really  well. Suggest that you try to find an opportunity to watch either Snooky Young or Cat Anderson use this system, although there are many players around that can blow the walls down with this combination. The straight mute will generally make you play sharp, although usually not as much as with the Harmon, so a pull of the tuning slide of approximately one eighth inch will suffice. The straight mute also will cause some rather strange things to occur with the resistance. In the lower register you'll feel lots of stuffiness and difficulty centering the tone while in the upper register, the mute will speak very clearly. The mute will generally have a "break zone" which is that spot where the mute just doesn't want to work correctly. It'll feel like you've got a rag in the bell of your horn. I usually find this zone at fourth line D, fourth, space E and Eb, the fifth line F (it is usually OK), and G above the staff. The intonation on these notes can rattle your teeth loose, especially if you're playing unison in a section.


The Plunger Mute

A good way to start is by holding the plunger in your left hand, placing your hand at the bell with the heel of your palm resting against or close to the bell. This should put the plunger near the bell at an angle with the left side about one inch from the bell and the right side further away at about four inches. With this position you should be able to produce the basic sound and then by experimenting with distance and motion, you* 11 learn to listen to the mate in order to determine the best spot for the required sounds. Bubber Miley was one of the first trumpet players to popularize the plunger mute and Cootie Williams was another of  the popular soloists with this mute. If you really want to learn to use the mute to its best, I suggest that you go to a library or a friend's record collection and listen to some of these old recordings, mostly of the Duke Ellington band in the thirties and early forties. The real challenge in using the plunger mute is in developing your awn personal kind of sound with it. This mute has the ability to very nearly emulate the human voice when used properly. I've actually heard some players like Snooky Young and Jimmy Nottingham sound like they were talking through the mute while playing a solo. It just takes lots of listening, practice, and most of all lots of "soul" or feeling.


Well, I think that this has covered the basic areas of mute use and understanding. There is certainly a lot more vital information necessary to a mastery of the art of using mutes and there are many other types of mutes which you'll run across, and I plan on covering some of these at a later time, but for the moment, I hope that this information will be of some help to you.


--Bobby Shew

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