Tone Talk with Gretchen Menn

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Photo by Max Crace

I’m a guitarist, composer, and constant student of music. I studied classical guitar with Phillip de Fremery and got a BA in music from Smith College. I play guitar for Zepparella, a band honoring the music of Led Zeppelin, and I write and perform my original music with Gretchen Menn Trio, featuring Thomas Perry on drums and Anna Pfeifer on bass. Both projects keep me very busy, and these last few months of the pandemic has meant the most time in one place in my entire adult life. But I’m finding the good—using the time to write, practice, evolve as a musician, and work on various collaborations that I might not otherwise have time to do.

I’m also passionate about sharing the love of music with others at various stages along their paths, and I am gearing up for round two of Jennifer Batten’s Guitar Cloud Symposium, an online guitar camp. I had a book published by Stringletter in conjunction with Acoustic Guitar MagazineHow Music Works—designed to help demystify music theory and show how to apply it to the guitar.

What is your definition of tone, and how has it changed over the years?
Good question, and not an easy one. So many factors contribute to our perception of tone, and what we understand it to mean varies with context. We can talk about the tone of an amp, the tone of a guitar, the tone of a player, the tone of a string, the tone of a room. Everything that participates in the production of a sound or the environment in which it is heard imbues that sound with its character—subtle or obvious. But I believe we are generally most sensitive to the human element. That’s why Jeff Beck always sounds like Jeff Beck, no matter what venue or what gear. And it’s why you can recognize your best friend’s voice from another room or with crappy phone reception or even when they are deliberately trying to disguise it.

Which guitars, amps, and pedals are you currently using and why?

Music Man guitars—my #1 is a Silhouette Special with DiMarzio single-coil pickups. I also have and love the Cutlass model.

Gibson Les Paul Standards for anything Zepparella, also with DiMarzio pickups.

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Kenny Hill classical guitar

Stephen Strahm Eros acoustic guitar

Two-Rock amps and cabinets—Bi-Onyx and Bloomfield Drive

Engl amps—SE 670 EL34

Laney amps—Lionheart and Ironheart

And sooooo many pedals. I love Providence, and have a bunch from them—the Chronodelay and Phaseforce are favorites. Xotic Effects wah is the only wah I could find that comes close to the vintage Crybaby I abducted from my dad (but that reached the end of its life a few years ago). I have been really impressed by Black Country Customs lately, and their Secret Path is one of the most gorgeous and interesting reverbs I’ve ever tried. TC Electronics also makes some great pedals. I could go on and on.

What about strings?
Ernie Ball 0.10 – 0.52

Are there certain recording techniques you prefer in the studio?
I like to have a sense of what I’m going for—some music means a lot of preparation. That was the case with my album, Abandon All Hope, as it was composed down to very small details. I do my best to be very well-rehearsed for music that is difficult, complex, and requires immaculate execution, as I think the frustration of doing a lot of takes can start to come through in the music.

On the other hand, there are situations that benefit from playing very off the cuff, as was my approach with the collaboration with Lockdown Sessions. I did two takes, improvised the solo section, and that was it. Though it can be hard to walk away—guitarists often feel, as a matter of course, we need to do a lot of takes. But overthinking, over-polishing, and overproducing can mean sacrificing something that was honest and real. And Jeff Beck is a master of mojo—nothing he plays feels fussy or self-conscious. It’s all so immediate, so in the moment. It’s something to which I aspire.

How do you keep your sound consistent onstage?
Is that possible? Haha… For me, it’s really about being comfortable with the gear I’m using. I find that sound changes so much from room to room, and rather than drive myself (and the sound engineer) crazy, I am always striving to become more flexible. I’ve considered in-ear monitoring for greater consistency, but I see how much of a hassle it means for my bandmates who use them. So unless I’m at a point where I’m traveling with a dedicated sound person, I’ll probably stick with my earplugs and whatever monitor the venues have.

What does your practice consist of?
It depends on what projects I have going on, but I aim to get in four hours or so on the guitar, and then maybe another hour or two of recording, studying, etc. If I’m under a deadline for a project, I might spend all day on it, but what I keep in my mind as a go-to approach on a typical practice day is four categories, an hour each:

Growth:  This can be anything—a technique, a concept, a song. The idea is to spend time every day on something that is a weak or new area. This tends to be the most laborious section of my practice, but can also be the most fun. Lately, I’ve been working on improvisation, right-hand classical tremolo, and slide playing, as I am dealing with a slight injury and wanted to give my left hand a little time to heal. An important point is you can always rethink your practice… an injury can be an opportunity to focus on something new. Even something that keeps you off the guitar entirely can mean time for working on theory, composition, songwriting, dialing in new gear, learning new music software, or expanding your listening. There are SO many aspects of music, and always something to be learning.

Writing:  I am always working on at least a few pieces, and often have guest solos or projects where I need to come up with something. Composition is not an automatic outgrowth of playing an instrument, and making a dedicated study of it is essential if you want to get good. So I work at it pretty much every day, and like anything—the more you learn, the more you realize there is to learn. It’s endless!

Projects:  This is professional time—guest solos, collaborations, demos, etc.

Review:  Admittedly, this hour often gets swallowed up by one of the other categories, unless I am prepping hard for a performance. But at least a few times per week, I’ll run through difficult parts of songs or pieces I want to keep under my fingers.

What is your advice for young women who hope to work in the music industry?
Protect your love of music ferociously. Keep in sight what drives you to play music, and align your practice with your goals.

Don’t compare yourself to others, but allow outside inspiration to shape, guide, and enrich you.

Enlist mentors who truly have your best interest at heart. Beware of anyone who flatters, panders, or tries to become too involved in your path.

Don’t be opportunistic, but do seek opportunities and rise to the occasion with everything you’ve got.

Work hard, practice hard, but carve out play time, so you never lose the joy of music.

Put yourself in situations that force you to grow. Confront your weaknesses as a warrior and problem solver rather than making excuses or trying to conceal them. But also don’t feel like you have to be good at everything. No one is.

Make the music community better with your presence. Help others. Be honest, decent, disciplined, and prioritize integrity.

Connect with Gretchen Menn

Website  |  Instagram  |  Facebook Twitter  |  YouTube  |  Tumblr  |  Patreon

Enjoy watching Grethen Menn!

Harp Harmonic Prelude/Irish Eyes

Oleo Strut

Scrap Metal

Fading

Zepparella

Immigrant Song

Kashmir

 

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