Photo Credit Max Crace 2018
Rapidly gaining praise in the world of instrumental rock and beyond, Gretchen Menn isn’t your average guitar hero on the rise. She once flew regional jets to support her six-string habit. She has studied, in equal parts, the music of Mozart, Beethoven, Steve Morse, Frank Zappa, and Jimmy Page. (Regarding the latter composer, she performs the music of Led Zeppelin all over the U.S. with Zepparella.) Perhaps Michael Molenda, Guitar Player Magazine’s editor-in-chief, described Gretchen’s solo music best when he said that she “seeks the unknown by blending disparate jazz, prog, and world-music influences into a tasty, guitaristic thrill ride.”
Guitarist Gretchen Menn Interview
Scott - Hi Gretchen, thank you for agreeing to do an interview w/ my website Guitarz Forever.com.
GM - It’s my pleasure! Thanks for having me.
Scott - Give our readers a short but descriptive label for your style of music.
GM - I always struggle with that. Maybe “progressive” covers most of the spectrum? My music has elements of rock and metal, but also of classical, romantic, 20th century composition. My latest album, Abandon All Hope, blends classical instruments with rock trio.
I also play in Zepparella, a band that honors the music of Led Zeppelin. So that is a lot easier to describe.
Scott - Where do you live and hang out with other musicians?
I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and pretty much anytime I’m not traveling for music, I’m working at home… on music. Most of my friends are musicians—not because that’s a prerequisite, but those are the people with whom I interface the majority of the time.
Gretchen’s second solo album, Abandon All Hope, was just released in December, 2016. A concept album based on Dante’s Inferno, it marks a significant evolution in her compositions as well as guitar playing. Since the release of her first solo album, Hale Souls, in July of 2011, Gretchen immersed herself in study to expand her skills not just on the guitar, but in composition and orchestration. The result with Abandon All Hope is an almost double album-length work of intensely compositional, instrumental music which evokes the epic journey through Dante’s circles of the underworld. Accompanying the music is original libretto text from Michael Molenda and haunting images from Max Crace.
Photo Credit Max Crace
Scott - How did you first get into the music business?
GM - I started with Zepparella about a year and a half into playing in a serious band, so getting into the business happened early in my career. I wasn’t qualified at all, but Clementine (Zepparella’s drummer) thought I might be a good investment, and she gave me an opportunity to prove myself. I had studied classical guitar, so I was familiar with hard work and learning music with an intention of precision.
Writing original music has been there since day one, and it was a matter of developing enough technique to get my ideas out, and learning how to get the music finished, recorded, and released.
Scott - What is the name of your band and where do you tour?
GM - My solo project is under my own name. I recently played a guitar festival—City of Guitars, in Switzerland, which was amazing, and I have things planned in 2019 in both the US and Europe.
Zepparella plays consistently all over the US, and we are working to get overseas.
Scott - Are you a schooled guitar player or a self-taught guitar player?
GM - Both. I studied classical guitar with Philip de Fremery for three years, and I have a BA in Music, which I realize sounds very schooled. But so much of music is also about what you learn on your own—the time you spend with your instrument, the exploration, the unique learning experiences that come to you and that you seek out.
Photo Credit Renee Jahnke
Apart from demolishing her mother’s violin with Pete Townshend-like vehemence at age three, Gretchen’s passion for all things guitar didn't fully surface until her early teenage years. It was under the tutelage of classical guitarist Phillip de Fremery, a student of Andrés Segovia, that Gretchen began her path on the instrument. Her father, noted writer and former editor-in-chief of Guitar Player Magazine, Don Menn, was quick to point her in the direction of the greats as soon as she expressed interest in guitar.
Scott - Please introduce the members of the band Zepparella…
GM - Clementine is the drummer, founder, and force behind Zepparella. She also has a number of original projects, and is hitting the road for a couple of weeks with one of them in early November, Beaux Cheveaux (a duo with Adrian Conner, guitarist of Hell’s Belles). Outside of Zepparella, she sings and writes beautiful, often poetic lyrics in her various projects.
Anna Kristina is Zepparella’s original singer who re-joined the band last year. Outside of Zepparella, she play everything from jazz to soul to singer/songwriter material, and she recently released a gorgeous solo album, Soul Truth.
Holly West, Zepparella’s bassist, is our newest addition. She and I were introduced through a mutual friend, Tracii Guns (of LA Guns), and it was a match made in heaven. Holly fronts her own project, and recently released a heavy, very rocking album, Mokita, that is getting her some very well-deserved attention.
Scott - Can you tell us how you got started with Zepparella?
GM - Clementine and I met in an AC/DC tribute band. A little over a year of playing in that project together, she had the idea of forming Zepparella, as we were both huge Zeppelin fans, wanted to study the music, and wanted to play more often than the AC/DC tribute was playing.
Scott - As for your solo career, what is going on there?
GM - I’m working on new material for my third and fourth albums—one will be solo guitar pieces, and the other a continuation and evolution of the approach I took with Abandon All Hope, compositions that combine modern and classical instruments. I have some shows, clinics, and travel in the works for 2019.
Scott - How do you separate each world from a touring band like Zepparella to your own music. It seems like both endeavors keeps you really busy.
GM - I definitely stay busy. I work seven days a week. I have long to-do lists, and try to plan my time carefully. I work on interview questions or writing articles when I travel. I catch up on social media or reading on the elliptical machine. I don’t party, I don’t watch TV, and I prioritize taking care of my body and mind so I can bring my best to whatever it is I need to do. But it’s also important to me to make time for experiences and relationships outside of music. And getting quiet time for myself and for exploring new creative ideas is paramount. It’s a lot of juggling!
While earning a degree in music at Smith College, Gretchen’s adventurous approach to her education would foreshadow her approach to the guitar. She convinced a professor to allow her to launch a special studies project on the music of Frank Zappa. Her analyses of “The Sheik Yerbouti Tango” and “The Girl in the Magnesium Dress” showed an interest in genre-bending composition that would manifest later in her original instrumentals.
Photo Credit Max Crace
Scott - Do you plan putting out more solo music moving forward?
GM - Oh, yes! There is nothing in music more essential to me than creating.
Scott - Give our peeps a quick rundown of your rig when on tour w/ Zepparella.
GM - My #1 guitar for Zepparella is a 2003 Gibson Les Paul Standard with DiMarzio 36th Anniversary PAFs. My amp is a Two-Rock Bi-Onyx through a Two-Rock 4x12 cab. I never thought anything would relegate my 1977 Marshall JMP to a backup amp, but the Two-Rock did. In front of the amp I have a Boss TU-2 tuner, Xotic Effects wah, Providence Phase Force, and Providence Silky Drive boost. A Providence Chrono delay goes into the effects loop. I use Dunlop Jazz III picks and DiMarzio cables.
Scott - So, what type of guitars do you play and why?
GM - My main guitars for my own music and anything outside of Zepparella are Ernie Ball/Music Man. My #1 is my Silhouette Special with DiMarzio single coils. That’s home for me. I’ve also been having fun getting to know the Cutlass, which is my newest guitar. All of their instruments are excellent, though. It’s whatever flavor of awesome is your preference. For steel string acoustic guitars, I’m always raving about my Stephen Strahm Eros—it’s truly a work of art—and my Santa Cruz Guitar Company OM. I have a Kenny Hill Ruck classical guitar, which is just beyond words, and a gorgeous Sadowsky nylon string electric that is totally unique. Can you tell I love my guitars? Hahaha
Scott - You play Jimmy Page's riffs and solos better than Jimmy himself. You have definitely captured his tone, vibrato, and bends. However, what is it like playing those heavy Les Pauls doing all this Zep riffage?
GM - Ha! You are too kind! I aim not to butcher. Playing the music of a band as revered and iconic as Led Zeppelin can feel like treading on holy ground, and it’s crucial to me to do my best by the music. I’m a work in progress, so I’m always striving to learn and grow… to notice new details, to improve both nuance and big-picture aspects in my playing.
There certainly can be an athletic component of playing in a rock band, especially wielding one of the heavier guitars out there, so staying in shape is a necessity. I make it a point to take care of my body—I do resistance training and yoga to keep strong and flexible. So I am not bothered by the weight of the Les Paul. The last thing I want to think about on stage is being physically taxed or uncomfortable. I also use a strap that has really good padding (a Comfort Strapp), and that helps distribute the weight more evenly and prevents pinching of the muscles and nerves that run between the cervical spine and into the left hand.
Photo Credit Max Crace
After college, Gretchen began considering her career path, and how she might prevent a situation she sought to avoid: tainting her love of music with the necessity of paying rent. The solution? She went directly from college to flight school, and two years later was flying regional jets for the airlines. Yet she was never without her guitar, and after a year at the airlines she found the life incompatible with the focus she needed to truly pursue music. So she relinquished her position in the jet and embarked on a more direct approach to her musical goals.
Scott - Do you have any endorsement with instrument and gear companies?
GM - I am very fortunate to work with my favorite companies: Ernie Ball/Music Man for electric guitars and strings. DiMarzio for pickups, cables, straps. Two Rock and Engl for electric guitar amps. Mesa Boogie for acoustic guitar amps. Providence, Eventide, and Dunlop for effects pedals. Stephen Strahm and Santa Cruz Guitar Company for steel string acoustics. Sodowsky for the nylon string electric.
Though I don’t have an official endorsement with Kenny Hill, I serendipitously met him at one of my shows a few months ago. He came up to the merch table and asked if I still played much classical guitar. I started to go on about how I do but wish I had more time, blah blah blah. Then he mentioned he was a local builder and guitarist. I knew we were in Felton, a very small town near Santa Cruz, and I was like, “Wait…. what’s your name?” “Kenny Hill,” he said. I practically lost it and starting gushing about my Kenny Hill guitar. He hadn’t realized that I owned one of his instruments. It was such a funny and beautiful moment.
Scott - What were your favorite recording artists and or bands as a teenager?
GM - So much of what I loved then I still love now: Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani, Eric Johnson, Steve Morse/Dixie Dregs, Frank Zappa, Django Reinhardt. My dad had been at Guitar Player Magazine when I was a child, so I got exposed to a wide variety great stuff early on. He took me to see people like Shawn Lane, Adrian Belew, and Buckethead when I was a teenager. How cool is that?
Scott - Who have been your main influences on your career to date?
GM - A lot of the artists I mentioned—Steve Morse, Eric Johnson, Frank Zappa. More recently I discovered Jeff Beck, Andy Timmons, Daniele Gottardo. There is so much inspiration everywhere you look. Have you chatted with Nita Strauss? Talk about an inspiring person and player!
Scott - What are you listening to these days?
GM - It totally depends on the day. Recently I heard Craig Goldy’s new album, Dream Child, and it blew me away—it’s this wonderful combination of classic, heavy rock, reminiscent of bands like Rainbow and Deep Purple, but with unquestionably modern elements. His chops are insane, but used musically, never gratuitously, and the writing is fantastic. I also listen to Django Reinhardt regularly, and Ravel is a current obsession. And anything from the brain of Tracii Guns is totally badass.
Gretchen joined various musical projects and constantly sought out new challenges. In 2007, she recorded Unbreakable Strings with Sticks and Stones, a high-energy, instrumental trio. In 2010, she played in Lapdance Armageddon, an aggressive acoustic duo with Jude Gold. In 2011 she wrote, produced, and recorded her first solo album, Hale Souls. She continues to tour internationally with Zepparella.
Gretchen continues to study guitar, composition, and orchestration.
Scott - I also don't want to forget this... Tell us about any other things you may be in involved in or any special interest besides music that is close to your heart?
GM - I have an extensive course that was just announced for pre-release on JamPlay.com. It’s 30 lessons that explore various techniques, not as ends in themselves, but as ways of expanding one’s creative palette. I am finishing up a monthly series I’ve been doing on music theory for guitarists for Acoustic Guitar Magazine. I believe the plan is for the lessons to be complied and released as a book. And I have been having a blast being a counselor at some Rock and Roll Fantasy Camps—the Paul Stanley camp was earlier this month, and the Jason Bonham/Joe Perry camp is early November.
“When the Levee Breaks” video - https://youtu.be/xH-_9cwdLug
First album, Hale Souls
“Oleo Strut” https://youtu.be/z1GHf_z0vMo
“Scrap Metal” https://youtu.be/uwnqQw6cr6Y
Second Album, Abandon All Hope
“Shadows” (first track) https://youtu.be/5vXt7dWB9yM