Bob, on the
I bought a cheap violin mute for $2.25, a Tourte, and it sounds great for the muted sound I want to achieve on the banjo (when I want it to be quieter). I think if I buy one more and put them both on the bridge, it will be even better. I mention this because I hear you recommended something like that.
Well, I have recorded with a mute, actually a pair of mutes, as pictured in my Bluegrass Banjo book. It makes a very quiet, sustained, almost velvety sound. The second mute is a small one that just goes on the end of the bridge by the 5th string. Most violin mutes only mute enough of the bridge for a 4-string instrument and so the uncovered part allows that string to sound harsher than the others. I just used a small piece out of an old tire, with a notch cut in it. (My dad made it for me when I despaired about losing my store-bought Jascha Heifitz violin mute, which was a less crude version of the same thing.)
The sound is very attractive, but so quiet it can hardly be heard over more than one instrument. The touch required to get that lovely sound is so light, and the sustain is so full, that you end up playing with a different touch than regular bluegrass three-finger picking. So it is not really good practice for your right hand. I prefer to think of it as a different instrument with the very non-banjo-like quality of sustain, which can allow you to do soulful note bends, vibrato, etc. Something banjo players never get to do. But watch out for getting hooked on it when you really want to be working on your “regular” banjo playing!
When I need to practice quietly, I just take off my picks and pick up my Goodtime banjo. That does sound like a banjo, and you can work on remembering something or making something up, or giving your left hand a workout.
I have long used an Elton violin mute (heavily weighted cylinder with clips mounted on it), plus my little notched piece of tire. Once I thought it would be cool to get two Elton mutes, weld them together and have the clips really cover the whole bridge. It sounded bad. One nice way to quiet the banjo and still retain some normal tone is to put a clothespin on each end of the bridge, parallel to the head. That works nicely, though I like that Elton/notched rubber the best.
That’s my take on mutes!