Trombone mutes are an essential tool used to create different sound variations in various music genres.
There are several types of mutes, with the most popular being the cup, straight, plunger, bucket, and harmon mutes.
The term "mute" is a little misleading as mutes changes the sound, rather than just making it softer.
You don't have to run out and buy all of them when starting out. Buy when you need them.
Inserting and removing mutes
Composers and arrangers should allow ample time for inserting and removing mutes (but they often don't). It takes a while to insert and remove the mute, and there is really no way around that.
Mutes are often made in, at least, two sizes: For tenor and bass trombone.
If you have a small-bore tenor, you'll find that you will sometimes need to file the cork down a bit to fit the mute in your bell.
Sheet music notation
In jazz and pop music the notation for inserting and removing mutes is generally in plain English. Straight mute and cup mute is pretty self-explanatory. Open means "take the mute out".
You will sometimes see To Open, a reminder that you need to take the mute out after a page turn or rest.
In classical music notation you will often see the phrase con sordino or con sordini (Italian: with mute, abbreviated con sord.). If nothing else is said about the mute, it's a straight mute.
HOB means Hand Over Bell and is the poor man's plunger mute. Used for a simple effect or when there's no time to use a plunger. "o" is used above each note for open (unmuted) and "+" for closed (muted).
Common Trombone Mutes
Each type of mute has its distinct sound and characteristics that can help enhance the player's performance.
Let's dig in and explore each one.
1. Cup Mute
Often used in jazz, a cup mute is basically a straight mute with an umbrella covering the bell. The umbrella, or collar, adds a softer and more muffled sound to the instrument, compared to the straight mute.
I use a Humes & Berg cup mute which is pretty much the industry standard. You'll see them in big bands and show bands all over the world.
I also have a Denis Wick model but I don't like it and haven't used it in decades.
2. Straight Mute
In classical music, this is your go-to mute but it is used in almost all genres of music.
A straight mute acts as a sort of high pass filter, only letting the higher frequencies through the instrument.
3. Plunger Mute
The plunger mute is a hand-operated type of mute that is used to produce unique sound effects.
It produces a muted, wah-wah sound mostly used in jazz.
You can use any kitchen plunger (remove the handle 🙂 ), but it is often difficult to get a good grip on these.
In sheet music, "o" is used above each note for open (unmuted) and "+" for closed (muted) plunger.
I use a Humes & Berg plunger which is easy to hold, even though the top finger ring has broken (they do that way too often).
4. Bucket Mute
The bucket mute, or velvet tone mute, looks like a small bucket attached to the bell. It will dampen the sound, making it more "covered" or distant.
The bucket mute often clips around the end of the bell and contains foam or mesh to dampen the sound.
I use, again, the Humes & Berg bucket mute. I have two of them for different bell sizes. They are a PITA to attach and a little heavy but they get the job done.
Some of my colleagues now use the Soulo bucket mutes which are nice but rather expensive.
I also often use the Jo-Ral bucket mute which doesn't sound as good as the Humes & Berg (in my opinion) but is much quicker to attach and remove.
5. Harmon Mute
The least common of the common trombone mutes. Is often used on trumpets (think Miles Davis). Buy only if you need it.
Also known as a wah-wah mute.
A tube with a small cup, called the "stem" is inserted into the mute and the mute can be played with or without the stem. With your hand over the stem cup, you can make the distinct wah-wah sound.
A much more piercing wah-wah than that of the plunger mute.
While the harmon mute is less commonly used, it is still worth knowing for its unique sound and artistic potential. So, if you're looking to experiment to expand your musical creativity, the harmon mute is worth trying out.
I use a Jo-Ral harmon mute or "bubble mute" as they like to call it.
6. Practice Mute
A practice mute allows you to practice at any time of day or night without disturbing others around you.
The use of a practice mute reduces the volume of the instrument, but it also changes the resistance the player feels, which, over time, can alter the way you play. Therefore, I don't recommend you practice exclusively with a practice mute.
A practice mute can however be very handy while traveling, for warm-up, or for when you just have to be quiet.
I have four different practice mutes, but I only use the Best Brass mute now. It fits inside the bell (also when the horn is in the gig bag or case) and weighs almost nothing.
As with most (all?) practice mutes the intonation is not perfect, especially in the high and low register, but that doesn't really bother me.
For a quick warm-up backstage, the Best Brass practice mute is perfect.
Other (less common) Trombone Mutes
While the straight mute and cup mute are most commonly used, there are other mutes that are lesser known but still provide distinct sounds.
The pixie mute is a small, uniquely shaped mute that is designed to alter the tone quality of the instrument. The pixie mute is excellent for creating a brighter, more nasal sound, and is often used in jazz, often in combination with a plunger.
Hat Mute (Derby Mute)
The hat mute is a fairly large, hat-shaped mute operated by the hand like a plunger or used with a dedicated stand.
Used by Glenn Miller Orchestra and others.