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Mute Classifications


Straight  - The most commonly used of all mutes, the straight mute consists of a truncated cone, open on the top and closed on the end.  These are held in the bell with three corks spaced to allow sound to pass around the mute.  Dozens of manufacturers have made and continue to make straight mutes for every brass instrument from piccolo trumpet to tuba.  Tom Crown’s straight mute is the author’s favorite among contemporary makers.


Cup -  Without a doubt, the second most commonly used of all mutes, the cup mute consists of a straight mute with  a truncated cone fitted over the end which ‘cups” the bell. These are held in the bell with three corks spaced to allow sound to pass around the mute. The earliest cup mute design appears to be that of Charles Kiefer, patented in 1898.


Derby - Originally gentlemen’s derby hats were used to soften the sound of trumpets and trombones and to provide wah wah effects.  Later derbies were made of Aluminum and Fibre to provide a diffuse sound and wah wah effects.  The softening duties were turned over to bucket mutes and Felt mutes.


Bucket - Around the turn of the century the originators of jazz used lard cans and small buckets to alter the sound of trumpets and trombones.  The first mute shaped like a small bucket  which clipped to the rim of an instrument bell was patented by William Mc Arthur in 1922.  Bucket mutes continue in use today - the most common being the Humes & Berg “Velvetone” similar to McArthur’s original design.  Also in use is the Jo-Ral bucket mute, which although it has a shape closer to a straight mute in that it fits inside the bell, gives the same sound as the bucket through its novel design.  Just to prove there is nothing new under the sun, the Jo-Ral bucket looks closely related to a design patented in 1916 by Leroy Allen. Also, the very bizarre looking Saxonette mute by Magin & Mayer (pat'd 1919) gives a similar , if slightly more woofy sound than a Jo-Ral bucket.

Buzz - Early jazz  trumpeters such as Joe “King” Oliver, would insert a toy kazoo in the bell of the cornet to get sympathetic vibrations on the kazoo. This provided a raspy tone.  The 1920’s saw many of these so-called “fussy” mutes made.  The earliest of these appears to be a mute patented by Guy Humes in 1920 marketed as the “Humes Jazzer”.  It which basically bundled three dime store kazoos together and fit them into the instrument bell by means of a cork fitting.  Buzz mutes are rarely used today, but Humes & Berg still makes their variant  known as the “Buzz Wow”.


Open Tube - The basic open tube mute mute is shaped like a long straight mute with a tube running through the center and opening at the end of the mute. This mute accentuates treble frequencies. The sound is similar to the cup mute, with treble accents.  The most famous use of this type of mute was trombonist/big band leader Tommy Dorsey’s “Song of India”.  Generally, it is no longer written for, although it can be common in jazz ensemble music written between 1920 and 1950.   The  Solo-Tone was manufactured by Shastock and the Clear-Tone was (and is still) manufactured by Humes & Berg.  There are several forerunners of these from the 1920's including the Humes mute by Guy B. Humes, and from Shastock  the Voca-Tone, and Meg-a-Mute.


Plunger - It  is unknown who was the first to pick up a plumbers toilet plunger ( for trombone) or a sink plunger (for trumpet) and make the vocalizations first popularized by King Oliver and then later by Duke Ellington’s brass section in the lat 1920s.  There are commercial musical plungers made by companies such as Humes & Berg and Jo-Ral, but most brass players still pick theirs up at the plumbing section of the local hardware store. Plungers can be used alone, or with a small straight mute.  Plunger technique is a wild and fun study for brass players.

Wah Wah -  A modification of the open tube mute, which really is in a class of its own, the original wah wah mute was the “Harmon” mute, patented by George Schluesselburg in 1925. It consists of a short stubby straight mute with a wide mouth at the top, and a concave end. At the center of the end is a hole in which a tube the length of the mute is mounted.  The tube can be slid out to adjust intonation and timbre.  This tube terminates in a a small bowl-shaped cup.  The player can cover and uncover this cup creating a “wah wah” sound.  These vocal effects had been previously done by King Oliver and his imitators by half-cocking a straight mute in the bell and uncovering or covering the remaining open section of the bell with the palm and fingers.  The original Harmon mute is still in production (although the design has changed significantly from the 1920's for Trombones).  Humes & Berg make the “Wah-Wah-Du-All”. Tom Crown, Jo-Ral, Emo, and others produce their version of the Harmon today.

Miles Davis is generally credited with pulling the “stem” (tube) out of the Harmon to get a haunting ballad sound.  While he certainly defined that sound in the 1950s, he was not the first to use it.  A 1925 Vitaphone sound film of Ben Bernie and  His Orchestra clearly shows the lead trumpet playing a Harmon “stem out”.  Also there are catalog pages from that period, which show Harmons for sale with or
without the stem.  Several manufacturers make “stem out” Harmons, including Humes & Berg “Whee-Zee”, and Bobby Shew’s “Soloist” mute.

Felt  Mutes - Felt mutes are the descendants of the original derby hats used as mutes.  After derbies, some used a fedora hat hung over the edge of the bell. Then berets or cloth were used. Since the early 1960's, several companies have made felt mutes which slip over the end of the bell.  These softening the tone, providing little or no resistance and do not adversely affect intonation.


Practice Mutes - Practice mutes are an attempt to greatly design to greatly reduce volume levels without affecting blowing resistance or intonation, allowing the player to warm up or practice without disturbing others.  Some such as the Yamaha practice mute system cost hundreds of dollars.  The first practice mute appears to have been the “Whispa Mute”  made by Shastock under a patent from big band trumpeter Charlie Spivak in 1941.


Combination Mutes - Combination mutes are an attempt provide multiple mute functions with one device.  The most common in use today is the Harmon Triple Play Mute, consisting of an aluminum straight mute and an aluminum plunger. The plunger snaps onto the straight mute, converting it into a cup mute.  There have been other attempts such as the 5 in 1 mute by (?) which apparently provided wah wah functions as well as straight, cup, open tube, and plunger. Shastock, and La Page both made straight/cup combinations. Guy Humes applied for a combination open tube/buzz mute in 1918.

Homemade Mutes - The first straight mute was probably a homemade affair.  Given the creative nature of musicians, it is not surprising then that musicians have been known to adapt everyday household items for mutes.  In publicity photos of the Original Dixieland Jass Band (the first band to make jazz records in 1917) - the lad can be seen using lard buckets sugar cans and the like hung over the bells of their instruments. (Event the clarinetist had one, though the author is fairly sure  that was merely for looks and not used in practice). The most commonly known homemade mute in use today is the plumbers rubber plunger.  Another in the somewhat “common parlance” is an open tube type mute made from a “Renuzit” air freshener container.  The author of this web site uses a straight mute for “Tricky Sam” plunger work which he fashioned from a glass bottle.  He also uses a coffee can mute to unusual effect and has invented a couple of other homebrew devices (pun intended). There several examples which will be shown here in the Virtual Museum.


Other - In the 1920’s it was common practice for trombonists to use a large cheerleader’s megaphone either mounted horizontally on a stand or tilted onto a hardwood floor. (Conn sold such a stand-mounted unit as the “Voca-Phone”).  The bell of the trombone was placed against the mouthpiece of the megaphone and the result was a HUGE velvety tone that could fill a ballroom.  


Specialized megaphones also existed for use with the clarinet, but these were intended more for amplification, rather than changing the timbre.  

A brief look at the US Patent Office web site will make it clear to any observer that there have been, and continue to be, some seriously demented inventors out there for our amusement!