Gretchen Menn: Whole Lotta Guitar

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female guitarist
Photo by Jack Lue
       

As seen in
Guitar Girl Magazine Issue 22 – Winter 2022

Exploring Gretchen Menn’s love for music, how she keeps a healthy state of mind, her thoughts on musical “imitation,” and her huge appreciation for Jimmy Page, Angus Young, and many other guitar greats.

The Zepparella guitarist has a lot to say about music, performing, literature, and the human experience in general. One of today’s most respected players, having been included on many prestigious guitar lists, Menn plays in the all-female tribute band Zepparella but is also a classically trained musician with a beautiful soul that permeates her music and performances. Like the lyrics in “Tangerine” (Led Zeppelin), she’s a “living reflection from a dream,” whether it’s her solo work or capturing the essence of Jimmy Page’s mastery.

It’s no surprise her guitar journey started off courageously — one of the first guitar instrumentals to capture her attention was the arpeggiated beauty of “Tumeni Notes” off High Tension Wires by Steve Morse — a huge musical influence of the songwriter and composer. Early on, she asked her guitar instructor (Sam Eigen) to help her learn that piece. Reflecting on it now, she says, “Even if something is difficult or beyond your current abilities, if you’re excited to play it, you’ll work harder, practice more, and grow quicker.”

And she didn’t stop there as the following depicts her musical journey and the newest projects unfolding in her life.

woman standing on stairs holding guitar
Photo by Renee Jahnke

How did you gravitate toward guitar?

I had become interested in guitar-oriented music in my early teens — Joe Satriani, Steve Vai — but it was seeing Eric Johnson live that made me decide I needed to pick up the guitar.

At one time, your dad was Editor-in-Chief of Guitar Player Magazine. Do you recall being around his work or reading it? 

My dad started at Guitar Player before I was born and left when I was still very young. I never made much of a connection between my dad being a writer and it relating to music. When I developed an interest in guitar, though, he was quick to remind me that he knew a bit about it and made some great recommendations. He took me CD shopping, picking out albums by Steve Morse, Jeff Beck, and Django Reinhardt.

Was your household a musical one?

I’d say perhaps slightly more than average, but not to the level that children of professional musicians might have. We had a piano, and music was always very much encouraged and appreciated. My mom frequently took my sister and me to the ballet and theater. She loves old musicals, so we were raised on those. My dad is a huge Bob Dylan fan, so we heard a lot of that as well. And whenever my sister or I would express interest in learning an instrument, my parents would rent one from the local music store. Flute was the first instrument I played with any degree of seriousness.

“Music is an endless path, and I never run out of things I want to learn or areas in which I want to improve.”

You’re an accomplished guitarist and composer. How do you grow and push yourself as a musician?

You’re very kind. It’s that ever-elusive horizon of mastery — the more I learn, the more I realize there is to learn. It’s trite but true. Music is an endless path, and I never run out of things I want to learn or areas in which I want to improve. Currently, I’ve been focusing on improvisation and composition. Talk about endless paths!

Did you have a rewarding experience studying at Smith College?

I absolutely loved Smith… pretty much every moment of it. I am in the minority of guitarists who have zero resistance to learning music theory, harmony, and traditional compositional methods. I do counterpoint exercises for fun, if that gives you an idea of how much of a geek I am. The music department at Smith was small, but that meant I got to work closely with the professors, and I had the most amazing classical guitar teacher, Phillip de Fremery.

I want to explore your involvement in tribute bands. It’s a wonderful way to work and perform. Why is it appealing to you? 

It’s paid education and so much fun. There is a common mentality in rock music that playing someone else’s songs is somehow less respectable than playing your own. I don’t entirely agree. Imitation is the first step toward fluency in any language, and how better to develop an effective musical vocabulary than learning from the legends?

Jazz musicians play standards; chamber ensembles and orchestras honor music written hundreds of years ago. Great music is great music, regardless of the genre, and I take learning a Led Zeppelin or Steve Morse or Django Reinhardt tune as seriously as I take learning Brouwer or Bach or Beethoven on classical guitar.

In retrospect, it is a little embarrassing that my first two bands — an AC/DC tribute and, very shortly thereafter, Zepparella — did as well as they did early on, as I was completely green when I joined. I did get a lot of experience early on, though, and learned from my bandmates, all of whom had been performing longer. My attitude has always been to give whatever I’m doing my everything at every stage of my musical development. The sense of accountability to live audiences meant there was no room for being lazy. So even if I cringe looking back at ridiculous, rookie mistakes I made, I at least have the peace of mind of knowing I was bringing the best I could at the time.

Did you love channeling Angus Young’s guitar parts in the AC/DC tribute band? Or were you Malcolm?

I was “Agnes” Young, and I loved it. Though I had initially gravitated toward more technical approaches to guitar — Steve Morse, Eric Johnson, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani — I quickly learned that Angus was not to be underestimated. His tone, his vibrato, his ability to create musical impact, and trying to play what he played while attempting the stage antics for which he’s famous gave me a huge appreciation for him as a musician and performer. I met Clementine in that band, too, and we forged a deep and lasting camaraderie and friendship.

“Led Zeppelin is a guitar
player’s amusement park.”

Then in Zepparella, you dove into Page’s work. Is it amazing performing so many Led Zeppelin songs? 

Led Zeppelin is a guitar player’s amusement park. I get to play aggressive, heavy riffs, beautiful acoustic pieces, slide, and abuse a Les Paul with a violin bow. The song structures are anything but predictable, with odd times and left turns everywhere. Page often incorporates interesting chords and chord voicings, and uses modes outside standard, blues-based rock playing.

Plus, Led Zeppelin improvised extensively, so even within iconic songs, there is space — and the Zeppelin precedent — to have moments of pure spontaneity every time we get on stage. I have learned so much diving into Jimmy Page’s catalog.

I still love playing in Zepparella with Clementine (drummer), Anna Kristina (vocals), and Holly West (bass). We’re very fortunate to have grown a loyal, lovely audience, and it’s an absolute joy to share music we revere with others.

woman playing guitar onstage
Photo by Renee Jahnke

How do you approach Page’s parts?

I always try to learn everything as note-for-note as I can hear it, and that often changes as my ability to discern evolves. I often uncover details I was certain I had learned exactly right, but now I hear them differently. So, I am always making tweaks as my ears grow.

My primary resources are my ears, the track, and the app, Transcribe! by Seventh String. I do also consult other sources — live versions, particularly when there are multiple tracks of guitar, as well as reputable transcriptions, videos of how others play and teach it. Consulting multiple sources is a way of doing your homework and really knowing why you’ve chosen to play a song the way you do.

That being said, how many guitars do you play for each Zepparella show?

It depends on the show. For fly-in gigs, I just have my #1 Les Paul — the cherry burst. For any other shows, I have a backup Les Paul that I keep in DADGAD for “Kashmir,” and recently, at least one acoustic for “Going To California.” If we do “The Rain Song” or other acoustic tunes, I bring a second acoustic in the other tuning, ready to go. It’s quicker to switch guitars than retune and typically leads to better tuning stability. Jimmy used so many different tunings for the acoustic stuff!

“Eric Johnson was my first big inspiration, followed soon after by Steve Morse.”

Who inspired your guitar work? You have classical elements in your playing, too, such as a Ritchie Blackmore influence. There are so many great classical players, from Sharon Isbin to Yngwie Malmsteen and beyond.

Everyone you mentioned is amazing. Eric Johnson was my first big inspiration, followed soon after by Steve Morse. Django Reinhardt was also very early on, even though I still haven’t learned proper gypsy jazz technique. I got into Jeff Beck later, as all my heroes sang his praises, and seeing him live sealed it for me. I was first a Steve Morse fan — he’s the reason I discovered Deep Purple. Blackmore was after I started digging into their early stuff. Yngwie was also more recently, and his technique, tone, and vibrato really are astounding. But the classical elements in my playing are more a direct outgrowth of having studied classical guitar and music from the baroque, classical, romantic, and 20th century.

What is the first song or riff you played or one that really captured your ear?

I know that very early on — like within my first few lessons — I asked my guitar teacher, Sam Eigen, to show me how to play “Tumeni Notes” by Steve Morse. Sam remains one of my close friends, and I still remind him how sweet it was that he didn’t laugh at me. He actually tabbed out the first few measures, and I was fully fired up to learn it, even if it was laughably outside my abilities. But it’s why I always encourage students to play what they love. Even if something is difficult or beyond your current abilities, if you’re excited to play it, you’ll work harder, practice more, and grow quicker.

I loved it when you toured with Nili Brosh and Jennifer Batten. That made me smile because I was like, “yes!”—women doing the “G3 thing.” Will that trio/collaboration happen again? 

It was really cool, for sure. Nili and I are close friends, and I think she came up with the idea of doing some shows with three women guitarists. We brainstormed for only a brief moment about the third guitar player and agreed Jennifer was the obvious first choice, as she is really the godmother of guitar for so many of us. We wrote a heartfelt email asking if she might be interested, and she agreed!

Right now, we are all so busy juggling our respective projects, but I’d love it if we could align schedules again. Nili and I played a show together in Pennsylvania a couple of months ago, and we are always trying to do more projects and shows together.

You are married to guitar player Daniele Gottardo. Have you collaborated much musically? He played on your album Abandon All Hope, right?

Yes! I am very, very lucky. I get to live with the most wonderful human, who happens to be my guitar hero, an extraordinary composer, a true music geek, and my best friend. Daniele and I study scores together, jam together most evenings when we’re not playing shows, and call each other over to our respective workstations to hear new sections of compositions in progress.

And while we do have our own separate careers, we also collaborate. He was the artistic producer on Abandon All Hope and played bass on it. My sister, Kirsten, did the soprano vocals for his albums, Non Temperato and INkBlot.

“I love writing with as many
approaches as possible.”

How do you prefer the songwriting process?

I love writing with as many approaches as possible. The way I tend to internalize new information — a technique, an interesting chord voicing, or really anything — is to write with it. Sometimes an etude I create for myself evolves into a full piece.

Writing in furtherance of a concept or clear goal can be challenging and enriching. That can involve fitting in well as a guest soloist, where I always try to balance what’s appropriate for the song with retaining enough of myself so it still sounds like me. Or it can mean writing to evoke a concept — a place, a person, an emotion, a work of literature…

When creativity is given a focused purpose, I find myself pushed to think beyond my first instincts. And anytime we push ourselves, we learn.

How do you approach soloing?

It really depends on the context. Some solos are considered holy musical statements, as in the case with many of Jimmy Page’s. In those instances, my approach is to honor the solo with reverence and authenticity.

For any solos going on an album — mine or someone else’s — I come up with something and commit to it, as it’s part of the permanent record. I treat it like a mini composition.

For truly improvised solos, I aim to work within the appropriate musical language. Soloing over a major blues is going to mean an entirely different vocabulary from something more hard rock or metal… or gypsy jazz. Becoming truly fluent in any musical language is a very long process. It’s not just about knowing which notes work well over various chords but understanding the gestures and phrases that are part of the style. And then add to all of that developing your own voice within the various musical dialects!

woman holding guitar
Photo by Renee Jahnke

What is at the heart of your tone?

I believe our tone comes first from our taste and imagination, is shaped by our ears and hands, and is enhanced by our gear. Gear often occupies the central focus, as it’s something that can be sold, and it does matter inasmuch as your gear can make it easier or harder to achieve what you envision. So, while Jeff Beck will always sound like Jeff Beck, regardless of his amp or guitar or pedals, I’m sure certain combinations make it easier for him to sound like himself. So, I always encourage people to get whatever gear gives them the least amount of resistance to getting the tones they love.

What is a new project on the horizon for you?

I just got word that one of the greatest honors of my career so far is confirmed — Steven Mackey, a pioneer of incorporating electric guitar into “serious” composed music and one of my biggest heroes — was commissioned to write a guitar concerto to be performed in 2024. He is writing it specifically to be performed by Jiji Kim and me. Jiji is a mind-blowing classical and electric guitarist and will be performing at the premiere in January of 2024. I am set to be the soloist for the second performance of it with the Utah Symphony in April 2024, with guest conductor David Robertson. To say that this is an honor would be a huge understatement.

Lastly, along with that great news, what brings you harmony in life?

I think primarily about my state of mind and attitude. It shapes how I see everything. It can be too easy to lapse into dark ways of thinking — comparing myself (always unfavorably) to others, telling myself terrible stories fueled by my insecurities. I really try to make it a point to keep myself in check. I’m surrounded by wonderful friends, bandmates, a jackpot of a family, a husband who is just the coolest, my adorable cats, books, guitars… and I have my health, which is too easy to take for granted. I can’t imagine being more fortunate.

Gretchen’s Gear

Photo by Jack Lue

Amps
Two-Rock Amps — the Bi-Onyx and a Bill Krinard customized Bloomfield Drive.
Laney Amp — the Lionheart and Ironheart IRT Studio (for fly-in gigs)
ENGL SE 670 el34

Pedals
Providence (Chrono Delay, Phase Force, Silky Drive), Black Country Customs (Secret Path, Steel Park, Monolith, Difference Engine), Xotic Effects Wah, TC Electronics Polytune. These are just a few that I’m using right now. I also recently discovered Mythos pedals, and they make some really cool stuff as well.

Gretchen Menn – Photo by Jack Lue

Go-to guitars
My first guitar was a Music Man Silhouette, which I still have. It’s the guitar in the video for my first-ever single, “Valentino’s Victory Lap,” directed by Eric Shamlin. My #1 electric guitar over the last few years has been my white Silhouette Special with DiMarzio single coils. And recently, I fell in love with the Music Man Sabre. For Zepparella, I use Gibson Les Paul Standards.

I have a number of great steel strings, with a Stephen Strahm Eros being my most prized. I also have some lovely Breedloves, a Martin SC-10E, and a couple of Gibsons.

My classical guitar is a Kenny Hill Ruck, though I am also honored to have Kenny Hill’s personal guitar on loan at the moment. I recorded an arrangement of Bach’s Prelude for Cello Suite No. 1, which I have up on my YouTube channel. It has True Temperament frets, which I’d never played before, but Kenny Hill swears by them. They are pretty cool and give a subtle but very sweet sound.