American guitar wizard Gretchen
Menn draws on many genres, including classical, rock and jazz music, to journey
into entirely new terrain.
Menn’s unique composition and orchestration skills on her first solo album Hale Souls (2011) have been surpassed on her most recent Abandon All Hope (2016), where she ventures into Dante’s Inferno, to explore the circles of the underworld, and search for the possibility of redemption.
Among a number of other albums and collaborative achievements, she is guitarist in the all female Led Zeppelin tribute band Zepparella, racking up around 12 million Youtube views for one video alone.
Guitars Exchange catches up with Menn in early November 2018, while she is at her home in California. She has spent the morning planning a tour and preparing for a four day Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp, in which professionals such as herself tutor and coach aspiring musicians who wish to improve their skills, and then ultimately get to jam with rock legends and icons. Menn will practise guitar later, but for now she is sitting on her sofa with her cat next to her, excited to talk about her latest album, being gifted her first guitar by Ernie Ball and the life-changing decision to leave her job as an airline pilot...
GE: How has your latest album ‘Abandon All Hope’ (2016) been received?
GM: Better than I would have allowed myself to imagine, not because I would ever release anything that I don’t believe in, but because it is a long, very compositional instrumental album. It is over one hour; but for me that was what the concept required—it’s a journey, not a sojourn. The fact that I have received so many messages, often very heartfelt or poetically beautiful, is deeply meaningful to me. I’ve also been honoured to receive some lovely press reviews.
GE: The album showcases your rock guitar talent but also your classical training; do you see that as your direction of travel from now on?
GM: I think so. I’ve always loved both so very much. And I realized I don’t have to choose. I think what we should be doing as musicians is to bring to the world that which is genuine and unique within us. I have embraced that duality; it is part of what defines me. So rather than compartmentalizing the realms of modern and classical, I’m working to find where they meet, blend, or overlap, in ways that—I hope—has some sort of artistic coherence.
GE: Do you have a favourite track from the album?
GM: I could never pick one.
GE: So perhaps one that just comes to mind for some other reason?
GM: I can’t pick a favourite but I can say that Grace was the track that I wrote last and it was the one I had most worked out in my mind before I put any notes to paper. I didn’t have every detail worked out - I’m not Mozart! (laughs) - but I did have a really clear idea of the structure, textures, melodic content, and ideas for development. So even though it is long and complex compositionally, I got into a very good flow with that one.
GE: The artwork for your album is exceptionally good; how important is that to you compared to the music?
GM: That’s such a great question, and I have to credit Max Crace, as he did all the photography and design. For a long time I focused on the music just for its own sake and shunned the visual. But then I realized that if I have the opportunity to work with some brilliant visual artists, there is no question of compromising anything musically. If the visuals respect and enhance the music, the scope of the art expands.
GE: May I ask about the importance in your life of Maggie Lewis, who you acknowledge in the accompanying booklet?
GM: What a lovely question. Maggie was my best friend—a sister to me—and she died as I was composing the album. She was diagnosed with leukemia a few years prior and had fought it. As I was in the middle of working on this album, she became ill again. That time was kind of a blur. Within a couple of days it went from “This is going to be a long, slow recovery,” to, “She has a few days more to live.” The night she died, the grief was overwhelming. I remember pacing around my house thinking, “What do I do with this?” The feeling was all-consuming, uncontainable. I sat down and wrote the theme for Weights. That didn’t stop the grief, but it provided a place to put it, a vehicle to express it in a way only music can.
GE: So I guess her love, or her presence, is a part of the album?
GM: I feel it is. The process of making the album was a journey for me, both artistically and personally. When we decided to end the album with a chapter of redemption, that really spoke to me.
GE: Going back to your childhood, when did you first start to play guitar?
GM: When I was a teenager, I had become interested in guitar-orientated music through guitarists like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. Then I heard Eric Johnson, and he tapped into such a joyous place that made me decide I had to pick up the guitar.
GE: And what was the first brand?
GM: My dad had an ESP sitting around the house, which I played a couple of times. But my first guitar, which I still have, was a Music Man Silhouette. It was a very amazing gift from the Ernie Ball family, whom my father knew because he was a journalist at Guitar Player Magazine. One day the Ball family gave us a tour of the factory, and later they called and said, “We’d like to give you that Silhouette.” I was waiting for the “for,” and then the number or the discount amount, but that was the end of the sentence. I was like, “Wait… give me the guitar?!” Sterling said, “Yes,” and in that moment I vowed that if I ever made anything of myself on the instrument, Ernie Ball/Music Man would have my eternal loyalty. So my guitar playing started with this incredible gesture of generosity, and I continually strive to be worthy of that kindness.
GE: If you had to choose three key points in your career what would they be?
GM: First, the decision to become a music major in college; it was a decisive commitment to do what I truly wanted to learn. I studied with Phillip de Fremery, an amazing classical guitarist and brilliant teacher. His confidence and belief in me encouraged me that it wasn’t too late to get serious about music.
The second would be leaving my airline career. I was always aware that music was a terrible financial decision. I didn’t want to worry my parents, be a drain on anyone else, or be so destitute that I wouldn’t be able to support myself independently or be able to get my friends birthday presents without major stress or going into debt. So after I graduated from college, I went to flight school, got my licenses, started teaching, and worked for an airline for about a year. But airline life didn’t suit me. I was bored in four months, and didn’t have the flexibility to pursue music the way I knew I’d need to, so I left. That decision marked my full commitment to music.
A third defining decision was to do my recent album, Abandon All Hope. I have always written music, and I’ve always looked for ways to develop. This album forced me to learn and grow a huge amount in order to see the album to fruition the way I intended.
GE: One of your most popular Youtube videos is Zepparella’s ‘When the Levee Breaks’ - why do you think that struck a chord with viewers?
GM: I have no idea! There are certain things that happen with algorithms on social media that I don’t understand. One guess is that Led Zeppelin did not do that song live, so perhaps when people are searching for it on YouTube, they come across our version. And it made sense on a number of levels: I get to play some slide guitar; Anna gets to kill it on harmonica; Clementine gets to play one of the most iconic drum beats in the history of rock. But the intention behind it came from my 14-year-old self who fell in love with the band through that particular song. If that somehow transmitted into the performance, perhaps it resonated with people… But I don’t know!
GE: To change subject, a recent Fender survey found that half guitar sales now in the UK and the US are to girls; what do you put that down to?
GM: It’s great that things are changing and expanding. My best guess about the why is that the electric guitar is a relatively new instrument, and the world was a very different place when the instrument came into popularity. The role of men and women, at least in the United States, was very different from today. We needed the societal shifts to create the right landscape. We needed the instrument to gain widespread popularity. Then a generation of girls needed to be born into a world where it wouldn’t be totally off the wall to play guitar. Those girls needed to be the types who weren’t discouraged by it being more of a “guy thing.” Then those girls needed the time and practice to get good enough so that we hear about them. The only woman guitarist who was on my radar when I was getting interested was Jennifer Batten—I only more recently learned of pioneers like Emily Remler and Sister Rosetta Tharpe. I was always a bit of a tomboy, so never had misgivings about having mostly men as my guitar heroes. But it’s not like that for everyone. Sometimes we need to see someone who looks like we do to envision ourselves where they are. Now there are so many accomplished female guitarists—too many to name. So with more role models and a totally different societal backdrop, it makes sense that a lot more girls would be taking up the guitar.
GE: You mentioned in an interview that Jeff Beck is a ‘personal god of yours’; which other guitarists do you most admire?
GM: Recently, I stood and watched Andy Timmons, and I was, like, “Oh, my God, how can this get any better?” Nili Brosh, a good friend of mine, is a ferocious and versatile player. Daniele Gottardo is a profoundly brilliant composer and a virtuoso, the likes of which we rarely see. Steve Morse is one of my biggest, most enduring influences as well.
GE: What is your favourite guitar today?
GM: It is still a Music Man Silhouette; the Silhouette Special now. I’ll show it to you now [lifts the guitar]. It plays like nothing else; I just love it!
GE: What gear do you use?
GM: I’ve been loving the Xotic Effects wah wah pedal. It plays the most like the vintage Cry Baby I ‘abducted’ from my dad when I started playing. It needed to be retired last year, and it was pretty painful to find a replacement. But the Xotic wah is great. I also adore the Providence Chrono Delay, Phase Force, and overdrive pedals. The Eventide H9 Harmonizer is an incredibly versatile tool.
Two-Rock amps have been my main amps the last few years. Their sound is glorious, and they have been the most durable, reliable amps I’ve ever used. I have a Bi-Onyx and Bloomfield Drive. I do also love my Engl SE 670 el34, which is perfect for very high-gain sounds that also need clarity and articulation.
My classical guitar is Kenny Hill Ruck, and I have a cool, very unique Sadowsky Nylon string electric guitar. My steel string acoustics are a gorgeous Stephen Strahm Eros and Santa Cruz Guitar Company OM.
I use DiMarzio pickups, straps, cables, Ernie Ball strings (0.10 - 0.52), and Dunlop Jazz III picks.
GE: What advice do you have for guitarists just starting out?
GM: I think the most important thing is to figure out what your goals are. Make sure they are your goals, not someone else’s. Then plan your path accordingly. Keep your mind open, work hard, learn as much as you can, and don’t be afraid to try things that are difficult. And I tell everyone to get a copy of Zen Guitar by Philip Toshio Sudo, and keep that in regular rotation. I’ve read it more times than I can count.
GE: What plans do you have for 2019?
GM: Zepparella is as busy as ever, and that is what is paying my rent (laughs), so I am very happy with my day job. I’ll also be doing more original music with my solo band and working on two new albums. One of them will be a collection of solo guitar pieces, and the other more along the lines of the path I set out on with Abandon All Hope.
The interview closes with Guitars Exchange thanking Gretchen Menn for her time and, polite and generous as ever, she responds: “You guys have amazing interviews; I am honoured that you have asked me.”
Official Gretchen Menn website