The modern-day keyboard player has literally thousands of sounds at his fingertips thanks to electronics and digital technology. But trumpet players don't have to be jealous - while it may not number in the thousands, we've had many different sounds available to us for much longer! From King Oliver's habit of putting a kazoo in the horn, to the Duke Ellington trumpet section's stellar use of plungers, to Miles Davis' signature Harmon-muted trumpet tone - there are a myriad of different sounds that have been emanating from the bells of our beloved brass instruments.
Exploring and understanding the wide variety of trumpet mutes can play a big role in helping a player find their unique voice on the instrument. More so, it is practically a job requirement for the modern professional trumpet player.
We've compiled a list of the most popular types of mutes available - hopefully it will help you on your musical journey!
The Straight Mute is perhaps the most common mute, and it's used in nearly every style of music. Its simple cone shape fits into the horn's bell, steadied by small pieces of cork that are spaced to allow the sound to flow. Straight mutes give the horn a somewhat nasal tone. Humes & Berg produce the most commonly seen mute, but there are many brands to choose from. The Jo Ral trumpet mute is also highly rated.
The Cup Mute is a very popular mute for jazz, used particularly in big band music. A cup mute looks like a straight mute with an inverted cup at its end. The cup mute's tone is similar to that of a straight mute, but far less bright and nasal and with a softer sound. Once again, the Humes & Berg Stonelined Cup Mute is the industry standard. My personal preference is for the Denis Wick DW5531 Cup Mute because its removable cup allows you to use it as a straight mute, and simply adjusting the mute's position offers you a wider variety of sounds.
The Wah-Wah Mute is more commonly known by the brand name "Harmon" and covers a wide stylistic range. The mute's solid corking forces the entire sound of the horn to travel through the mute. The sound collects inside a kind of metal "bubble" and is release through a small hole in the front. In its original state, the wah-wah mute has a stem with a little bowl on the end. By using your hand to cover and uncover it, you get the tin-sounding "wah-wah" sound that earned this mute its name. One listen and you'll recognize the wah-wah mute's sound from all the cartoons you watched as a child! But, from the "silly" to the "cool" - remove the mute's stem and suddenly your instrument takes the listener to a smoky underground jazz club. This very direct, thin and tin-sounding trumpet tone is best recognized through so many classic recordings by the late Miles Davis. The classic wah-wah mute is by Harmon but, again, you'll have a better sense of your personal preference after trying different versions.
The Plunger Mute is basically what it sounds like: a toilet plunger! It produces a classic jazz sound that is almost human sounding at times! A plunger mute can best be described as the "voice of Charlie Brown's teacher" in the classic animated specials. Adding some flutter tongue to it creates a "growl" that many classic jazz players use to great effect. There are many metal and stonelined mute variations, but my favorite is the Mutec rubber plunger mute because it really is the closest to an actual toilet plunger!
The Derby Mute simply put is a hat! Used by closing over and removing it from the trumpet bell, derby mutes are similar to plunger mutes, but not quite as bold. A derby mute takes the trumpet sound from muffled to bright. When the bell is covered, the horn sounds like it's in another room, then suddenly the horn is in the same room with you when the mute is removed. Derby mutes are available in both metal and stone-lined varieties.
The Bucket Mute when placed over the trumpet bell produces a dark and warm-sounding tone. Bucket mutes are great for small combo jazz playing, but you'll also see them used in big bands. Bucket mutes are available in a variety of forms, from "inside the bell" models to "attached to the bell" models.
The Practice Mute is probably your neighbor's favorite! Using a practice mute is the closest you can get to silencing your horn when you play. Practice mutes are not really used in musical settings and are really intended for what their name implies.
There are several more mutes to consider, and you will have a great time exploring them all and experiencing the wide palette of horn sounds you can get when you use a mute. And remember, all mutes (especially the wah-wah) can affect your pitch. It's crucial to practice with a tuner in front of you when a mute is on your trumpet.
And here's my favorite mute story: I once walked into a music store and saw the somewhat uncommon solo tone mute (it has a very recognizable 1920's-30's sound). The owner mentioned that he didn't know what this mute was called, so I jokingly told him it was called the "Guerrero Mute." Sure enough, next time I went in, and for a couple years after that, the little sign over the mutes read "Guerrero Mute - $35.00." I wonder how many people think that's really the name of the mute they bought there!
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Tony Guerrero is a freelance trumpet player in Los Angeles California. Performing and recording with a wide range of artists ranging from John Tesh to High School Musical, Tony is at home in nearly any style on both trumpet and piano. For more information on Tony including his latest Recording titled "Blue Room," visit www.tonyguerrero.com