It’s been just over four years since Gretchen Menn released her self-produced, solo debut album, Hale Souls. It wasn’t her first experience in the studio; Menn’s discography includes original band projects Lapdance Armageddon and Sticks and Stones, and of course Zepparella, the Led Zeppelin tribute band with whom she tours the U.S.
[Cover Photo by Peter Jensen]
Given her passion for the guitar, it’s interesting that Menn did not pick up the instrument until her late teens, when she began working on her music degree at Smith College. Her education focused on classical music — an unusual turn for someone with a great love for rock and roll, but one that has served her well as a composer and arranger.
Upon graduating from college, she attended flight school and became a commercial pilot. Although she enjoyed her newfound career, her heart was in playing guitar. After a year of flying jets, she returned to music full time, exploring jazz, funk, rock and acoustic music. She spent three years covering Angus Young’s guitar work in tribute band AC/DShe, then moved on to Zepparella, with whom she has been mastering all things Jimmy Page for over a decade.
Photo by Eric Shamlin / Layout Design by Max Crace
Hale Souls was released in July 2011. Obviously, the first question is: Do you have another solo album in the works?
Yes. It’s more compositionally involved, so I’ve been working on it all this time. It’s just taking the time it needs. I don’t think I’ll ever be one of those artists who cranks out an album a year, but that’s the nature of the type of music I do. And it allows me more time to grow between albums.
In terms of the amount of time this therefore takes, maybe Mozart could compose The Marriage of Figaro in six weeks, but it takes me a really long time to write a string quartet! Sometimes the ideas come quickly, but I’m still learning the language and refining my technique, so I can’t sit down and crank something out in a short period of time, go into the studio, and record it. Maybe someday, but right now I’m interested in doing something that involves a level of detail, which I love — not to a hyper degree, but I am fascinated with how things work. And that just takes time.
What do you mean by “more compositionally involved”?
I started playing guitar by studying classical guitar. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to study rock guitar; it’s because that’s what was available at my college. But I have always loved classical music, so it’s not like I begrudgingly took classical guitar lessons as a pathway to something else. I loved it for what it was, and I still do. My musical personality comes from both the classical and the rock worlds. I have continued to study composition as well, and so naturally the music that came out when I started work on this next album is reflective of that. It wasn’t just coming up with guitar lines. It was full-fleshed ideas with arrangements and counterpoint. It’s more orchestral, compositional music, but still with a heavy rock influence and electric guitar, so I don’t think the result is going to sound like a throwback to the 18th century.
Photo by Diana Cordero
After eleven years with Zepparella, how do you continue challenging each other, and how do you keep it from becoming repetitive when you’re playing another band’s catalogue?
A few things. One, my extracurricular music is really important. For example, we have a fantastic booking agent, Mary Goree, who has also become a dear friend, and she did such a great job that at the beginning of the year I had to call her and say, “I need more time off!” It’s awesome, it’s a wonderful problem to have, but I realized how important it is for me to have time to work on other things, on my growth outside of Led Zeppelin. Having said that, the more I play in Zepparella, the more I realize what a brilliant idea it was for a whole variety of reasons, one of which is that Led Zeppelin is so improvisatory. You cannot find a live Led Zeppelin song that sounds exactly like the album. It sounds like the same song, but Jimmy Page never played the same solos live.
When we were figuring out how to play their music, at first we wondered, “Are we allowed to do this? Led Zeppelin is holy.” We realized that in order to give it the proper respect, we needed to start with learning the songs accurately. I try to learn them just like the recordings, and then once I’ve done that amount of homework, I reference what Jimmy would do live. That gives us a lot of room to make things our own, but within the language of Zeppelin. I’m not going to do a bunch of sweeping or tapping or techniques that are not appropriate. For a little moment here or there I’ll do something that may not necessarily be idiomatic to Jimmy’s vocabulary, but we try to always keep within the context of Zeppelin. Because Zeppelin does span such a huge spectrum of music, from acoustic to heavy, deep blues, slide guitar, and abusing a Les Paul with a bow, it’s like an amusement park for a guitar player. So there is lots of variety and lots of room to improvise.
Zepparella is really my second band. I was in an AC/DC tribute band, and a few other projects where I played with a group of people in a more casual context for shorter periods of time. There was some overlap between AC/DShe and Zepparella, so when I started playing in Zepparella, it was really my second year of playing in serious bands. It’s kind of crazy to think that I’ve done most of my musical growing up within the context of that band, but kind of cool, too.
Although you have a set list that you work with every night, do you sometimes feel that you’re rediscovering the songs, and the guitar, when you record or perform?
Yes, because every night is different. When we, as a band, don’t feel connected to a song — when it’s been in the set list for too long — we put it aside for six months or a year so that we can come back to it fresh. We’re always trying to play set lists that have the right balance between something that we’re comfortable playing but that we haven’t overplayed. You don’t want to be onstage and be in your head. It’s more fun when you feel confident about the music. But anytime I don’t get that feeling of rediscovery, or when we don’t feel that connection, that’s usually when one of us will say, “Let’s leave that one for a little bit.” When we re-approach it, we play it in a different way, rediscover it, and re-find ourselves as musicians within the context of something we once knew.
Are there some tried and true studio techniques that you swear by?
I know less than you think I know! Here’s what I know: It’s important for me to work with people with whom I love working. It doesn’t mean that I won’t try new things, but I am extremely loyal to things that work for me. Being a guitar player and a writer, or composer, or whatever you want to call it, there’s so much that goes into both of those. I can devote my entire life to doing just one of those things. On top of that, you have to be the master of your social media and other music-business-related responsibilities, and that can take up a lot of time. As much as I would love to get a deeper understanding of engineering, miking techniques, and things like that, the way I’ve always done it is I find somebody I love working with, and when I’m there, I absorb as much as I can. I ask questions, but at the end of the day, I’m not an engineer. I’m learning about it, and it’s another facet of music that I would love to know more about, but right now I don’t know that much. I always love working with Rob Preston at Get Reel Productions in San Francisco, and have recently also been working with Ugo Bolzoni at New Frontiers Recording Studio in Rovigo, Italy.
The bands you played in briefly were a jazz/funk group, Sketch, and a singer/songwriter group, Black Hill Sky. What became of those projects?
The jazz/funk thing was over a summer. I was in college and I had been playing guitar for maybe two years, a very short period of time, so it’s hilarious to think that I was playing jazz — and not well by any stretch of the imagination! I might have taken one solo and it was probably atrocious. I’m still friends with the members of Black Hill Sky. The singer, Brenda Hammond, is a dear friend of mine, and I keep thinking that one day we’ll work together again, because she is a great singer and I love her so much. But those projects lasted only a few months, and I played maybe two or three gigs with each of them. I don’t want to discount them, as they were with great musicians, but they were more short-lived and were nowhere near as intensely gigging as the AC/DC tribute or Zepparella.
Is there any genre you haven’t tackled?
Most of them! I made a brief and pathetic attempt at country, inspired by a love of Albert Lee, but country guitarists are insane! I took a couple of lessons, enough to be thoroughly humbled — not that I went in cocky in the first place. I took a couple of flamenco lessons — enough to realize that I would have to completely rethink my classical guitar technique. It’s easy to assume they’re similar, because they’re both played on nylon-string acoustic guitars, but the techniques are completely different. I haven’t ever played pop, which is also one of those underrated types of guitar playing; the pocket and the feel are a different language. So yes, there are tons of genres that I don’t know anything about.
How has exploring all of those genres helped you develop your own style?
I love different aspects of each one. It’s easy to look at things from the outside and put them in compartments that make it easy for our brains to cleanly categorize. Even as humans, how easy is it to look at another human and think, “Oh, that’s that kind of girl or guy”? But when you scratch the surface, no one is that simplistic. With music, different types speak to different parts of my soul. As much as I’ve done with Zepparella, it might be easy to say, “That’s a blues-based rock guitarist.” Of course that’s part of my personality; I wouldn’t have dedicated a decade of my life to doing it if it were antithetical to who I am. Yet, of course, all of these other influences come in. I am super-detail-oriented and methodical, and I love harmonies and structures, and the incredible details that went into baroque, classical, 20th century, and romantic music. It moves me deeply, so that’s forever part of me. I love the raw emotion, grit, and energy of heavier music. All of these different genres are facets of my personality. I’m sure most people have a lot of genres of music that speak to them.
Early in your career, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced as a musician and how did you overcome them?
I think the biggest challenge was maybe starting late. I hate for anything to sound gender-based, but another big thing was I didn’t have a community of guitar buddies. My guy friends now who are guitar players all seem to have had a group of friends who played instruments, and they sat around and played together. I was totally isolated. I had to look so hard for teachers, other than my classical teacher, and I had to really seek out other guitar players. Maybe that’s true for everybody. Maybe we all seek out our own community. But I came away from college with a degree in music, and I’d never really jammed with anybody. It’s so backwards. I did a lot of things in reverse. Thank goodness now I have a circle of friends and a community, but I didn’t have that built into my learning experience.
Do you think that’s because you started playing in college instead of junior high or high school?
It could be, because in high school I had buddies who played guitar. You’d think all the people who played guitar in junior high and high school would still be doing it in college, but maybe at that point they were on to other things. A lot of people play an instrument for a while and don’t stick with it. And there is a certain amount of isolation built in because you need so many hours with your instrument in order to grow and get basic coordination down. I feel like it’s a very mixed bag because now there’s so much available. You can go on YouTube and someone will walk you through how to play “Kashmir” or “Eruption.” It’s great because there’s so much available, but on the other hand I think a lot can be learned by having to struggle through stuff on your own.
Do you still practice for four hours a day?
I sure try to. Earlier this year, between January and April, I was doing three to six hours a day, which is about as hard of practice as I ever do. When people say they practice nine hours a day, I think, “How is that even possible?” If I play six hours in a day … I know that somehow I have a solid 18 hours that I’m awake, maybe 16 if I slept enough, but I don’t know how six hours of practice somehow takes up the entire day. Maybe we underestimate how much time it takes to eat and shower. When people say, “I practiced twelve hours yesterday,” I think, “How?!” If I practice for six hours — and I mean really practicing, not noodling absentmindedly — I max out. I get to the point of diminishing returns and I have to leave the house. I need to do the kinds of things that make me a full and complete person.
What does your practice consist of?
The practices vary. It’s pretty much based on the project at hand. I’ve been working on my album, and a lot of what I write, I write away from the instrument. Then, after it’s written, I have to sit down and learn it, which I think is different from the way a lot of people do it. I like to write that way because it ensures that I’m neither writing to showcase technique, nor am I avoiding things because of technique that I have yet to develop. My goal has always been to have enough technique to say what I want to say fluently, but not to spend a lot of time on excessive technique that might encourage me to write in order to showcase that. Sometimes the performer and the composer can be at odds. The performer wants to be glorified with all kinds of flash, and the composer is thinking about the music from a wider perspective. Of course that’s a generalization; there are plenty of exceptions to that, but for right now it means that a lot of what I’m practicing is stuff that I’ve written that I don’t yet know how to play. I’m working out fingerings and thinking, “Why did I write that?” I also love gypsy jazz. I love Django Reinhardt to the moon and back, and this year I decided to learn some gypsy jazz. I’m not learning it properly; there’s a whole picking technique, and I’m learning it on my electric or acoustic guitar, so it isn’t like authentic, purist gypsy jazz, but that’s not what I’m trying to do. I’m also not limiting myself to two left-hand fingers — Django was a god, and I’m a mortal, so I need all the fingers I have! Besides, the point for me in transcribing other people’s music is to incorporate some of what I love about it into my own vocabulary. So coming up with my own fingerings or ways to play it is most useful for me. I just love Django’s approach to improvisation, the lines he came up with, and the harmonic language.
But back to your question about what do I practice. The first few years that I played guitar it was a lot of scales and arpeggios. I used to practice sight-reading until a guitar teacher said, “I’m not sure that your sight-reading abilities are what’s keeping you from your musical goals.” I was working on sight-reading for about an hour a day, and I thought, “Am I trying to be the kind of guitar player who has to read a chart perfectly? No, I’m not.” I can read, but I’m not someone who, if you put a complex chart in front of them, says, “No problem.” I’m glad that I do read music, but I don’t work on that anymore. Sometimes I work on different chord voicings, chord shapes up and down the neck, different inversions, connecting them. I do that quite a bit. I don’t have a tried and true routine where every day it’s a certain thing. It rotates with the project I’m working on. For the first two months before we started Zepparella, I worked on nothing but Led Zeppelin, because I had eight weeks to learn the set list and I had never played Zeppelin before.
Photo by Diane Cordero
You are a true believer in earplugs for rehearsals, soundchecks, and gigs. When and why did you begin using them?
My ears are very sensitive. If a police car or fire engine goes by with the siren on, my fingers are in my ears. If I’m at a movie theater, I bring earplugs because it’s always too loud. So pretty much from the first time I ever sat down with a drummer, it was, “Whoa, I’ve got to figure out how to protect myself.” When I was playing in Zepparella and Sticks and Stones, a trio with an incredibly powerful drummer, I ditched my professional earplugs and went with the foam ones. I needed that uneven attenuation because the cymbals were so loud. I went to an audiologist a few years ago because, as much as I love my bands, nothing is worth my hearing. Fortunately, I had no hearing loss at all on any of the spectrum. I was kind of shocked about that, but it made me such a believer. Hearing loss can be very quick. It can happen in a moment and it doesn’t come back, so I’m militant about hearing protection.
Is there a particular type of earplug that you prefer, and was there an adjustment period in getting used to them?
I use Hearos that I get at the drugstore. They’re cheap, 32-decibel-reduction earplugs. If you look at the spectrum, 32 is the minimum, and on the highs and lows it’s not a flat curve, so you get extra attenuations across different frequency ranges. I always have multiple pairs with me in my purse and in my earplug case. A lot of people love the musician plugs that attenuate very evenly, but that isn’t enough for me. With foam earplugs, on certain stages at certain times you can feel like you’re under water, but you get used to it; you calibrate for it. For me, it’s better to have the uneven attenuation, because if the volume is too loud, all it takes is a couple of songs to get to the point where I can’t hear anything. Everything gets squished in my ears. Some people say they can’t hear with earplugs, but you can’t hear well at loud volumes without earplugs, either, because the sound gets compressed and your ears don’t hear properly if it’s ridiculously loud. The foam earplugs are my favorites, and they’re the most comfortable for long periods of time.
How do you keep your sound consistent from venue to venue?
I don’t. It’s such a strange thing. Sometimes I feel like the room is as important as the amp. I don’t like the sound of a guitar through a monitor, so onstage I put my cabinet on top of a road case so that it’s shooting toward my ears, and I use the monitor exclusively for vocal. With Zepparella, regardless of the size of the stage, we like to set up in approximately the same amount of space. If we have a huge stage, we might expand a bit, but I don’t want to be 50 feet away from Clementine. We’re used to hearing each other within a certain proximity. For my own stage sound I try not to rely on monitors at all, other than to hear the vocal. I can play without hearing the vocal, if I have to. I can play a show as long as I can hear the drums and myself. But in terms of things like rooms, it’s incredible how much it can affect the sound. You think you know your amp like the back of your hand, but in a particular room you go to one part of the stage and get totally different feedback characteristics. I try to get to know the stage a little bit during soundcheck, but then people come into the room and that changes things too. There’s a lot of stuff you have to do on the fly. Some rooms have a boomy sound and all you hear is bass. Acoustics are an interesting and bizarre thing. I wish my sound could be consistent from night to night, and maybe it could be more so if I miked my cabinet the same way each time and only used in-ear monitors, but I almost like the challenge of not being persnickety and keeping the more open attitude of “What is it going to be tonight?” I never wanted to be one of those guitar players who are overly high-maintenance: “If I don’t have everything exactly right, then I just can’t play!” If I’ve done my work and done my practice, I should be able to roll with different things — within reason — even if on some nights it’s a little more challenging.
How important is it for you to work with other guitarists?
I love playing with other guitar players. Everybody approaches the instrument so differently. It’s incredible how you can find challenges and be impressed by people at so many different levels. I loved working with Mickael Tremel from Sticks and Stones. I met him when he was taking lessons for music theory. We became friends as a way of trading musical knowledge, and that quickly became a band. The same thing happened with Jude Gold, who I played with in Lapdance Armageddon. From each of them I learned about their approach and techniques, and tried to absorb some of that into my playing. It opens up different ways of looking at the guitar and looking at music. You ask a guitar player to play a particular chord or scale, and of course there are some favorites among guitar players, but you can get so many different answers. Have a guitar player play an E-major scale and I can think of at least three fingerings that most people will go to immediately, but depending on the player and the type of music, you can get so many different ways of looking at things, and that’s just the coolest. Jude has incredible feel, a really strong funk background, so he was always on me about timing issues and stuff like that. He’s got one of the best senses of time ever. So you pick up what you can, and it can be overwhelming because there are so many great guitar players on one block — forget about in one city or in the world. The lesson there can be you can spend your entire life trying to chase other people’s technique, or you can take what you can and do the best to develop your own voice.
Time for the personal questions. How long have you been vegan?
One thing I never want to do is make anybody else feel bad or judged or preached at. To me, being vegan is because I want to cause as little harm to others as possible, and that includes humans. So the last thing I ever want is for any of my decisions to make somebody feel that I’m judging them or that I have a holier-than-thou thing. The reason I say “vegan” is because I think it sounds more judgmental to say, “I will eat eggs if they’re from chickens that are treated the way I think they should be treated.” I have a friend who has chickens, they are in her back yard, and they’re happy. I used to have pet chickens. I know they drop eggs, and you get them, you have a wonderful omelet for breakfast. So if chickens are treated the way I treated my pet chickens, I’m cool with that. I don’t think it’s a crime to milk a cow. I think it’s a lot harder to keep animals in captivity for farming and be in harmony with what I am comfortable endorsing. I first became vegetarian voluntarily when I was 4, which totally shocked my parents. I was born and raised in the Bay Area, but my parents are both from Kansas City, so even though they were health-conscious, the idea that their daughter at age 4 was vegetarian was “What?” (Photo by Max Crace)
People say, “Oh, it must take so much discipline!” No. Imagine a way of eating that summarizes the way you feel. That’s what being vegetarian is for me. Apparently I maintained my vegetarianism for about a month when I was 4. My mom is a good cook, but for her, vegetarian meant boiled soybeans. I know that she was eager for me not to be vegetarian, so I think she would deliberately do things like, “Gretchen, here are your boiled soybeans. Kirsten, here’s your bacon.” At 15, I stopped eating all meat. I’m such an animal lover — how could I justify eating them? I became a hardcore vegan for a number of years, and I was more strict than anybody I had ever known, for a longer period of time. Then I thought, “Should I support a farm with good practices that treats their animals the way I would treat them?” So I will very occasionally eat carefully screened humane/organic/local eggs and dairy. But it’s much easier just to say “vegan,” as that’s how I eat the vast majority of the time.
How difficult is that on the road? It is possible to find a salad anywhere. It may not be a good one, but it’s there.
It’s not easy to eat healthy food in general on the road, and vegan can be challenging. You have to give it a little bit of thought and planning. Fortunately, in Zepparella, nobody wants to stop at fast-food places. They are all health-conscious and have their own mindful ways of eating. Everybody is happy if we find kale salads with quinoa. I’m usually the one on top of finding where we’re going to eat. I look at where we’re going and I do the research. iPhones have revolutionized that. The rigors of the road can be really intense, and eating well is important. You drive all day, you sleep five or six hours, you’re maybe only going to eat two meals in a day. It’s important to be healthy order to get onstage and deliver the best possible show. If it means driving a mile off the freeway or Googling a little bit more, it’s worth it. People are taking time out of their schedules, money out of their pockets, and they don’t need to see somebody who hasn’t eaten or has only eaten cheeseburgers. It’s your responsibility as a performer to take care of yourself so that you can perform the best you can for the people who are coming out to support you.
You grew up around the music industry because of your father [Don Menn, former editor-in-chief of Guitar Player magazine]. Most young women don’t have that experience or guidance, and it’s easy for them to go in blindly and trust the wrong people. We also hear horror stories that could make a young woman fearful of trusting anyone. Do you have some words of advice or caution?
There is a lot to that question. I think the type of music I’ve always wanted to play has insulated me from some of the uglier aspects of the industry. I can’t really speak to what it might be like to become super-famous super-young, or to have that as a goal. Because I grew up on the periphery of the music industry, I had a clear understanding of how difficult it was, especially for the type of music that inspired me to play. But I never felt that there was a dilemma. I never thought, “Do I make these compromises and do these things and trust these people and make a lot of money and become really famous, or do I make art?” I thought I’d just play the music I wanted to play. I didn’t think I would do it professionally. I just knew that I loved music.
But we all learn lessons and encounter all sorts of people. My common sense advice is: Try not to ever be in the dark about practical aspects of music or life. If something seems useful or interesting to learn, I try to learn it. I don’t follow blindly. I try to use good, rational, informed judgment, and if something doesn’t seem right, I pay attention to that. I ask questions and I set boundaries. If I don’t know somebody and they want to work with me, I’ll see what they bring to the table before I commit to anything. I’m open, but I’m not going to put myself in a bad situation. I’m not going to give them my home address. I’m not going to meet with someone I don’t know one-on-one. That’s just sound judgment for anyone. Both genders can be victims —physically, professionally, or whatever — so it’s not just women who need to have good sense and awareness.
Another important point is sobriety. I’m not a complete puritan; I’ll have a glass of wine or a beer, but almost never in a musical or professional context. When I’m playing music, I stay sober for a variety of reasons, one of which is I want to do the best performance I can. I approach playing shows like it’s my job. It’s a job that I love more than anything, but it’s my job. And becoming impaired or unconscious around, frankly, anybody, but certainly anybody other than someone you trust absolutely and implicitly, is just a very bad idea.
This is maybe as deep as I’ll get in terms of “Watch out, ladies,” but I’ve seen a number of instances where younger, talented women are made to feel inferior or incompetent by older guys who want to have a place in their lives or careers. In all fairness, I’m sure it can happen to either gender. It strikes me as a very insidious form of manipulation — mostly because of how it can derail an artist creatively. Being someone else’s musical protégé can make it difficult to find your own voice and identity, shelters you from learning important aspects of managing your own career, and leaves you open to people who may take advantage.
There’s a lot to be said for developing your relationship with your instrument and finding your own way with the resources available to you. It’s sad to see people who can’t navigate the industry because they’ve always been under somebody’s wing. So I caution people to be savvy enough to have good instincts and awareness. Think about what you want as a musician, and don’t become somebody else’s accessory. Make conscious decisions about “This is what I want from music.” Use your brain for that, and make sure that all of your decisions are in line with your goal.
Photo by Mark Mannion
Gretchen Menn Gear List
Pickups, cables, straps:
DiMarzio Silhouettes: Stock single coils in neck and middle position, â€¨Fast Track 2 in bridge position
Les Pauls: 36th anniversary PA
GHS .10 – .52
For more on Gretchen Menn, visit her site HERE.
Cover Photo Credit: Peter Jensen