Interview: What Makes Gretchen Menn A Fantastic Guitarist

By Andrew Catania

What comes to your mind when you think of a guitarist? Or a pilot? Riddles and jokes abound that play with our expectations, and we are now living in a time where those gender biases and assumptions are becoming less and less relevant. But the popular perceptions have started to change, and it’s quite refreshing to see talented women musicians rocking the industry with competence and fervor.

Photo by Renee Jahnke

Gretchen Menn is one such name – talented, meticulous and high on life! Music is etched in her genes and flows within her veins. From the child who dabbled on whatever instruments her parents allowed her to rent, to the teenager who couldn’t keep her fingers off the fretboard, to a current student of orchestration and large-scale composition, Gretchen is always exploring new areas of music and expanding her skill set.

Photo by Renee Jahnke

Unlike many of her contemporaries. Gretchen Menn didn’t leave her education to pursue her musical passion. She rather made his studies be in furtherance of her artistic tendencies and completed a degree in music from Smith College. During her time there, she studied classical guitar, yet also convinced a very classically-focused department to allow her to do individual studies on the music of Frank Zappa.

After graduation, Gretchen decided to pursue a career in aviation to have a “responsible day job” to supplement the less-than-certain income in music. She enrolled in a flight school. Two years after starting her training, she had obtained some licenses, worked as a flight instructor, and was flying regional jets for an airline. After less than a year, Gretchen’s heart won over, and she oriented toward a more direct route to her musical dreams.

Although Gretchen was never away from her instrument while at the airlines—her guitar had gone with her on every trip—leaving the airline allowed her to make music the main priority. And she dove in. From progressive to jazz, and from rock to classical, multiple genres and a multitude of associations, versatility characterized her interests and studies.

Photo by Renee Jahnke

She has studied classical guitar with Phillip de Fremery, a student of Maestro Segovia. She has delivered Jimmy Page’s lines since the foundation of Zepparella, a noted tribute to Led Zeppelin. She has backed up singer/songwriters, slept on floors while touring with a metal band, was a primary creative force in various instrumental projects, and is producing original music of her own.

Gretchen Menn cites early and enduring inspiration from Steve Morse, Eric Johnson, Frank Zappa, Jeff Beck, and Django Reinhardt.

At present, Gretchen has just released her second album of original, instrumental music, Abandon All Hope, a concept album based on Dante’s Inferno. With accompanying imagery from Max Crace, libretto by Michael Molenda, and co-artistic production by Italian virtuoso guitarist and composer Daniele Gottardo, it is an album that has surprised audiences with its musical scope and compositional depth.

Your new album is out, do you have any plans of touring?

I’d like to. It is such an epically long and compositional record and would mean a larger budget than I’ve got right now to do it properly.  I’m not going to go out and play it with just backing tracks, as that would be encouraging people to hear it guitar-centrically, and it wasn’t intended to be that. I do have lots of shows coming up with Zepparella and a bunch of various other things here and there. I’m always writing new music, too.  Lots of juggling of different projects, but that’s just sort of how I roll.

Photo by Renee Jahnke

How long did it take you to write Abandon All Hope?

It took about four years. Right in the middle of that, I had some pretty intense personal stuff go on, so there was about a year or so where I wasn’t operating at full capacity. I started writing it in around December of 2011, and then it was three or four years of composing, and then a year or so of tracking, mixing, and all of that. So the whole process was about five years, almost to the date.

You’ve got 15 tracks on there.  Do you have any personal favorites or are all of them your favorite?

I could never pick a favorite.  All of them serve a different purpose.  It’s a concept album, so everything was geared to fit the need of the storyline.

I like your cover of Django Reinhardt’s “Minor Swing.” 

That was so much fun to learn.  Django is one of my all-time favorites, and the whole thing came about very organically. I just wanted to hear some of his lines. The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn. Then the Grappelli parts were too cool not to try as well. It was totally an afterthought to record it. I played the Django parts on my Stephen Strahm Eros acoustic, which is not a Gypsy Jazz guitar, but I love it so much. I put on nylon core strings, which gave it a little taste of the gypsy tone. Then I played the violin lines on my Ernie Ball Silhouette Special though my Two-Rock Bi-Onyx amp. Absolute heresy to purists, but I see no harm in honoring the music we love in our way.

That was a very very interesting cover. You’ve got such a virtual background of various types of music that you do which brings me to my next question.  Did you grow up playing classical guitar?

The classical guitar is where I started.  I had the important piano lessons when I was five or so, which meant virtually nothing other than I had seen music in front of me and some very, very basic training.  The most memorable part was after the piano lessons my mom would take my sister and me to 7 – Eleven and we’d get to pick a treat—memorable and delicious bribery. But my first voluntary instrument was the flute, which I played for about three years, starting at around age 10.

Photo by Renee Jahnke

What got you into playing guitar?

The music I was listening to, and I think that’s where the disconnect was with the flute.  Even though I liked playing it, the repertoire wasn’t what appealed deeply to a kid, at least not to me. I was a regular kid.  I wasn’t one to willingly forgo soccer or skateboarding or running around to sit inside practicing a bunch.  I enjoyed playing the flute to a point, and I liked my music lessons. But I’d pick it up when I felt like it and had zero discipline around it. I got into music at the age I think a lot of people do—around 12, 13, 14. I was listening to Led Zeppelin when I was around 14 or so, and by the time I was 15, I was listening to Django Reinhardt, The Dixie Dregs, Frank Zappa, Jeff Beck, Eric Johnson.  Not what was the current music of the day—but good stuff passed along by cool parents.

Did your dad have any influence on your music career?

It’s such a common assumption, and it makes tons of sense that people would naturally assume so. But my dad never pressured me to do anything. I didn’t even really know what he did until later. As a kid, you never sit down and grill your parents on the fine points of their jobs. You’re just like, “Okay, my dad’s a writer. Whatever, I’m going to go play now.” So I knew my dad was a writer, and I knew the stationery we had said GPI with a guitar logo, so I think if pressed I would have been able to tell you his writing had something to do with guitars.  But it wasn’t until I got into music on my own that dad was like, “Hey, I know something about this. If you’d like Led Zeppelin, check out Jeff Beck. If you think Steve Vai is the man, then also check out Steve Morse.” He was quick to be helpful once I got interested on my own. But he’s never urged me or directed me in any way. He just wanted me to figure out what it was I wanted in life and was ready to help cheer me on, whatever that was.

That’s Awesome!  Learning classical guitar, did that help you as playing rock music as a musician?

I think it’s a mixed bag because there are a lot of things that maybe do help—it’s good for left-hand finger independence and placement. A lot of electric guitar players will use their pinky like once a week. But I think probably more than anything else for me, studying classical guitar helped with learning how to work.  I’ve never been a patient person, and with the classical guitar, you don’t have the option of not being patient. You may be told to only work on four measures of music in a week, and to get those tests perfect.  So it helped develop an area of personal weakness—focus and patience.  On the other hand, there’s a lot that is very different between classical and electric. Initially, one of my biggest challenges was not to approach electric guitar with too much of a traditional attitude—to throw caution to the wind sometimes, rather than become rigid or stiff when attempting to nail something perfectly. Not that my classical teacher would have ever endorsed a stringent performance! But in playing Jimmy Page, being overly surgical is not the right approach.

Photo by Renee Jahnke

 

You’ve been a guitarist and an airline pilot which you know there’s not a lot it’s more like a male dominated areas and all that do you have to have a typical type of mindset to succeed in a male-dominated industry like those? 

You know, it’s so funny the gender question never even entered my mind until much more recently—and mostly because of how much I get asked about it. I’ve always had as many guy friends as girlfriends. I’ve approached things with the mindset that if I wanted to do something, I just tried or worked or studied hard until I could do it. Gender being a factor in the acquisition of ability never even occurred to me. Do people go around like all day long thinking about their sex?  I can only speak for myself, and I certainly don’t and never have. For me, the times it did enter my consciousness was in situations like realizing I was the only girl in my ground school class for airline training. But that didn’t make me uncomfortable beyond the fact that it made some of the guys uncomfortable. So I just tried to make it clear that it was all fresh and they didn’t have to be on eggshells around me. I’ve always been comfortable hanging with guys. I have wonderful male friends; I have wonderful female friends. I’ve got an amazing dad.  There are heroes and allies of either gender.

Is there something that as a musician most people wouldn’t know about you?

Yes, I’m trying to think of what that thing might be… I’m super boring (laughs). After shows, people are often like, “Hey are you going to party?”  “No, I’m going to go back to my hotel room and read a score or a book and go to sleep so I can practice tomorrow.”  So I think from the standpoint of people who might associate playing rock music as being a lot of fun at a party, I’m a big letdown. I am totally not a lot of fun at a party. I’m not at the party!

(laughter)

Wow! 

(laughter)

 Regarding your rig, tell me your rig set up

Okay, I’ve got a couple of different things going on for various projects.  My Zepparella rig is guided by Jimmy’s sounds and iconic guitars. I have two Gibson Les Pauls and a Danelectro. My pedal board has a Cry Baby Wah Wah, a Boss TU-2 tuner, a Providence Phase Force, an Xotic Effects AC Booster, and a Providence Chrono Delay.  My Les Pauls have DiMarzio 36th Anniversary pickups. The amp is a Two-Rock Bi-Onyx. I had used using an old 1977 Marshall JMP for a long time, which I still have, but then I fell in love with this Two-Rock.  They had lent it to me for the She Rocks Awards when I played in the house band for the event a couple of years ago. It just happened to look like it was made for me—it had this white Tolex, and Zepparella wears all white on stage. I plugged into it, and was like, “Oh My God!” They were kind enough to let me borrow it for quite awhile, and eventually, I coughed up some money so I could keep it forever. For all my projects I use Dunlop Jazz III picksDiMarzio cables, and Ernie Ball strings gauge 0.10 – 0.52.

Photo by Renee Jahnke

I was going to say your rigs must differ for your albums like Zepparella and then your latest stuff I would imagine

 Yes, exactly.  I mean the pedals are the same.  I don’t use a ton of pedals even though I’ve got more than I ever use. For my original music, I use almost exclusively Music Man Guitars regarding electrics—I have two Silhouette Specials, a Silhouette, and a Majesty.  My main Silhouette is the one that is white with a black pickguard, and it has stocks DiMarzio single coil pickups.  I love that guitar. It’s the guitar I play like 90% of the time… obviously except for with Zepparella.  For amps, I have a ’66 Fender Deluxe Reverb that sounds amazing. It is what I used for “Limbo” on the new album, Abandon All Hope.  My Engl SE 670EL34 was used for virtually all of the electric stuff on the album.  What I do to save money, which is imperative on an album of this scope, is I do my guitar tracking at home and reamp it in the studio. I have my Engl in my garage all mic’d up, and then I run a direct line, so I’m getting both a take with a tone that’s going to be pretty similar to the final sound as well as a clean, direct signal. Then I can go into a pro studio and bring all my amps—the Engl, the Marshall, the Two-Rock, the Fender—and I run that right signal through each of the different amps and audition tones. I can hear objectively which one is giving the best sound for the mix—blending properly or cutting through or whatever is the goal.  I ended up using the Engl for almost everything on Abandon All Hope, as it just fit what I was going for. I used my Kenny Hill Ruck classical guitar on “Hellward Swoon,” “Lake of Ice,” and “Grace.”

Do any of these products endorse you?

Yes—Ernie Ball/Music Man, Two-Rock, Engl, Providence, Dunlop, DiMarzio, Stephen Strahm. I only work with a company if I love what they’re doing, and if what they’re doing fits me. I don’t like having a lot of stuff.  I’m not at all a gear collector, so if I’m using something, it’s because I genuinely love it. I’d rather invest time in improving my abilities. At this point, if I can’t get my rig to sound good, it’s not my gear’s fault!

Photo by Renee Jahnke

 

What are your plans for 2017?

Ah, that’s a good question! Zepparella has a bunch of stuff on the books.  I’ve got some things that are coming up that I’m going to be releasing soon regarding some other videos and stuff that has to do with Abandon All Hope.

You can follow Gretchen Menn @ http://www.gretchenmenn.com 

and http://www.zepparella.com/

Special thanks to Renee Jahnke for the fantastic photos!

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