From Wood to Metal: Exploring the Range of Double Bass Mutes

Andrew Kohn offers an overview of 13 various mutes for the double bass.

With Andrew Kohn · Pittsburgh, PA

Andrew Kohn of West Virginia University has accumulated an impressive array of mutes for his double bass over the years. In this article, we provide an overview of Andrew’s insights on the different mutes he possesses and their unique sounds. Throughout this discussion, the double bass solo from Mahler’s 1st Symphony will be demonstrated using various mutes to help readers perceive the subtle differences each mute can bring to a performance.

The Experimental Setup

It’s important to clarify that while Andrew possesses a wide variety of mutes, this is not a comprehensive list! Some mutes, especially the stiffer ones, might not perform equally well on all basses.

Exploring Wooden Mutes

Andrew’s collection begins with wooden mutes, three of which are highlighted:

  • The First Wooden Mute: This mute slides on rather far on the bridge.
  • The Fitted Ebony Mute: This mute fits on less far in comparison to the first.
  • The Flat Ebony Mute: Dating back to the 1960s, this mute hardly fits on at all.

These mutes’ varying depths suggest that there have been subtle changes in bridge thickness over the decades.

Demonstrating the Tonal Characteristics

To illustrate the tonal variations, Andrew plays a passage on his double bass with each mute:

  1. Without Mute: This is the baseline sound of the passage played without any mute.
  2. Rubber Tourte Style Mute: The mute that Andrew demonstrates is manufactured by Glaesel and is widely available.
  3. Rubber Practice Mute: Also manufactured by Glaesel.
  4. Polly Bute Mute: This mute is made out of polyurethane.
  5. Roth Sihon Mute: This mute was common in middle schools across the U.S. fifty years ago but is now rare.

While listening, you might notice a rattling sound when the Roth Sihon mute is used. This noise arises from the mismatch between the curvature of the mute and the bridge.

Rattling Analyzed

The rattling is particularly noticeable with the Roth Sihon mute because its flat surface does not align with the more modern and arched bridge. Such discrepancies in shape can affect the mute’s performance, sometimes resulting in unwanted noises.

Revisiting Ebony Mutes

Transitioning to the ebony mutes:

  • Fitted Ebony Mute: The mute Andrew demonstrates is manufactured by the Glasser Company and is widely available. Andrew uses this particular mute as his other ebony mute does not fit his bridge properly.

Exploring Dennis Roy’s Mutes

Dennis Roy from the Boston Symphony crafts special mutes that fit over one string, unlike the standard two-string ebony mutes. Andrew owns three of these unique mutes:

  1. Walnut Wood Mute: This softer wood provides a distinct sound.
  2. Maple Wood Mute: The sound alters slightly depending on its position on the bridge. Andrew typically centers it over his D string.
  3. Rosewood Mute: This is the hardest of the three Dennis Roy mutes.

Looking at Sienna George’s Mutes

Sienna George from Long Beach, California, produces numerous styles and wood types for mutes. Andrew owns two of the classic shapes from George’s collection:

  1. Mahogany Mute: This is one of the commonly used woods.
  2. Ipe Wood Mute: This mute is slightly larger in size.

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Other Unique Mutes

Several other mutes in Andrew’s collection stand out due to their unique materials and designs:

  • Leather Mute: Crafted by Emma Alter in London, England.
  • Metal Mute: Made by WMutes in Barcelona, Spain, and lined with rubber on the inside.
  • Aluminum Mute: A heavy custom mute manufactured by a metal worker in Pittsburgh, inspired by a score from Elaine Barkin’s “NB suite for flute and bass.”

Conclusion

Mutes can significantly enhance or alter the tonal quality of an instrument, and you should explore and find the ones that best suit your playing style. Enjoy your musical experiments, and happy playing!


About the Author

Andrew Kohn teaches string bass, music theory, and music composition. He holds his Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh and received the only AD in double bass awarded by the Peabody Conservatory. His principal teachers included Eric Moe, Pablo Ortiz, Eugene Levinson, Eldon Obrecht, and Barry Green. The former principal bassist of the National Chamber Orchestra and Harrisburg Symphonies, he is a member of the Pittsburgh Opera and Ballet Theatre Orchestras and an active soloist. His publications have appeared in the book On the Music of Stefan Wolpe (ed. Austin Clarkson) and the journals American String Teacher, Bass World, Double Reed, Fulcrum, Musica Hodie, Muzyka, and Perspectives of New Music; he has read papers at Wolpe Symposia and AMS and SEM conferences and has performed, lectured and adjudicated at international bass conventions. He has recorded and edited for Music Minus One. His compositions have been broadcast nationally.

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