When I first encountered Gretchen, she was a toddling around her home in Palo Alto, California. Her dad, renowned music journalist Don Menn, had just hired me as Guitar Player magazine’s new Assistant Editor. On the wall of Don’s office at GPI was a gift from Pete Townshend, a numbered Gibson Les Paul that had been smashed onstage. Some months afterward, three-year-old Gretchen pulled a Townshend on her mom’s violin, demolishing it beyond repair. It would be a dozen years before she’d get a guitar.
Following graduation from Palo Alto High School, Gretchen attended Smith College, where she studied classical guitar with Phillip de Fremery, a former student of Andres Segovia. Her website notes that “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 intricate and unclassifiable music of Frank Zappa. Her analyses of ‘The Sheik Yerbouti Tango’ and ‘The Girl in the Magnesium Dress’ showed a love for epic, melodic, genre-shattering rock and roll composition that would manifest later in her original instrumentals.” She drew additional inspiration from Eric Johnson, Steve Morse, Django Reinhardt, Louis Armstrong, B.B. King, Deep Purple, Van Halen, Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Jeff Beck, as well as Baroque, classical, romantic, and 20th century music.
Earning a music degree from Smith College in 1997, Gretchen launched her first band, the jazz/funk ensemble Sketch. Then she segued into two years of flight school and a year as a commercial jet pilot. This career choice was not altogether unprecedented: With the breakup of the Dregs, Steve Morse had also trained and worked as a commercial pilot. Like Morse, Menn found the lure of music too strong, so she hung up her wings and strapped on an electric guitar. In 2001 and ’02 she delved into the singer-songwriter scene with the Tori Amos- and Fiona Apple-influenced Black Hill Sky. Then she abruptly changed course.
Gretchen has recently signed on as an endorser for GHS Strings. She’s also getting plenty of exposure as a DiMarzio Featured Artist. “I kind of like to think I have an eye for talent,” says Larry DiMarzio. “Gretchen has a marvelous history, being Don’s daughter and having the Guitar Player magazine connection. But my first concern with artists is always, can they play? And Gretchen has got natural talent, with no prima-donna vibe. She’s charming, she’s smart, and she’s amazingly hard working. Everybody who meets her loves her. She’s creative, new, and different, and she represents the new wave of what’s coming into the marketplace – women who play guitar.”
I suspect you’ll be seeing a lot more of Gretchen Menn. At the time of our mid-July 2010 interview, she was hard at work on her as-yet-untitled solo album. That album, Hale Souls, came out in 2012, and I subsequently reviewed it here: Hale Souls. Here’s a sample of the music:
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What do you enjoy most about playing guitar?
It’s endlessly challenging, yet instantly gratifying. It has taught me patience, as my love of guitar required that I learn to deal with my propensity for frustration. I’m really a better person because I fell in love with the guitar.
Was there a specific moment in life when you decided to devote yourself to the instrument?
My dad has often told me that, when I was born, he made it one of his main parenting goals to help me determine what is was I most wanted in life, and then help me get the skills to achieve whatever that might be. I don’t think he expected that music would necessarily become my path, and I am sure he would have been completely supportive of whatever I decided to do, provided I followed my heart and my conscience and employed some common sense.
In terms of the specifics of being a guitar player, my dad never tried to steer me in a particular direction. He has always been candid that playing guitar is a labor of love, not a path to fame and fortune. He is an incredibly positive person, though, and I inherited a lot of his wiring and brain chemistry. I play guitar because I love to play guitar, and I don’t ask anything more from it. I think where people get into trouble and disappointment is they expect their passion to pay off. I feel lucky to have a passion! Not everyone does. So while I have never expected any sort of payoff, I have always felt that true skill and artistic integrity can’t go unnoticed forever, and will always have a place somewhere, if even on a modest scale. Therefore, my focus has been to continually strive to become the musician I aim to be.
Has anyone along the way given you enduringly beneficial advice?
My classical guitar teacher, Phillip de Fremery, is a true master and an enduring inspiration. From my first lesson and still, as I make occasional pilgrimages to the East Coast to study with him, he has taught me some of the best practice techniques and skills for listening deeply. He has incredible patience and discipline, and a profound love of the instrument – all of which he imparts to his students.
Okay – whose style is harder to master, Angus Young or Jimmy Page?
Great question. I don’t have an easy answer, and I definitely don’t consider myself at master at either – maybe just a diligent student. Both present their own challenges.
Angus’s playing can seem deceptively straight-forward. The blues-based licks feel familiar enough, as they are so rooted in a style that has become part of standard rock guitar vocabulary, but his attack and energy and feel – the things that make Angus sounds like Angus – are much more elusive. AC/DC is a freight train of a rhythmic machine, and that kind of tightness within a band is not something to take for granted. I would challenge anyone inclined to dismiss Angus’s playing to try playing what Angus plays while doing what he does. As someone who did it for a couple of years, incessant head-banging, duck-waking, running around in circles, riding on shoulders, and general Angusing can make solos that feel easy enough in your practice room significantly more difficult. Even the simplest blues lick becomes beastly while rolling epileptically on your back.
How did you go about learning their tones, techniques, and specific parts?
I listened as carefully as I could, and practically wore out the “Pause” and “Rewind” buttons on my CD player. Videos were less helpful, as neither Angus nor Jimmy plays the recorded versions of their solos live. There were a few places with the Zeppelin tunes where I consulted transcriptions, which were helpful. An important discovery I made toward the beginning of Zepparella was the Tascam CD GT-1, a phrase trainer that slows down a CD, without altering the pitch. I also have a few valued guitar geek friends, and I bounce ideas and questions off them.
To recreate this music, do you feel compelled to chase down period-perfect equipment?
Well, my budget prohibits it, but I am certainly open to playing any vintage Les Pauls, Telecasters, or Plexis that anyone would care to donate to the cause. I do have two newer Les Pauls with DiMarzio 36th Anniversary PAF’s, a newer Danelectro, and 1977 Marshall JMP. My CryBaby wah-wah pedal and Phase 90 are from the mid ’70s.
It draws crowds, but do you sometimes get tired of imitating others?
I never get tired of playing great music. Tribute bands have been a fantastic way to gain experience – if the first step toward fluency is imitation, then tribute bands are paid education. My only concern about them, especially having played in a couple that have had a decent degree of success, is getting pigeonholed. No musicians want their creative endeavors to be upstaged by re-creative endeavors.
Both bands have been amazingly educational and rewarding. Mickael Tremel and Sam Adato in Sticks and Stones and Jude Gold in Lapdance Armageddon are some of my biggest inspirations, influences, and dearest friends. Sticks and Stones, my first instrumental rock project, allowed me to write and play in a genre I have loved since before I even picked up a guitar. One of the main challenges was negotiating the unusual ensemble — two guitars and drums. Our basslessness wasn’t by design – we just didn’t find the right fit, and didn’t want to wait or to compromise. Not having a bass player completely changed the way I composed guitar lines. I drew heavily on my classical guitar training, putting in bass-like lines while also playing leads, resulting in some interesting contrapuntal and polyphonic lines. It is really cool when a limitation leads to enhanced creativity, because I doubt I would have given those sections as much thought had someone else been covering the lower register. One of the greatest joys of Sticks and Stones is playing music entirely written for ourselves. Yet the fact that we found that some other people enjoy it is a delightful bonus.
The biggest challenge of Lapdance Armageddon is playing in an ensemble that’s so exposed – an acoustic duo. There is no room for error and nothing to soften mistakes. Despite my years on classical and electric guitar, I had never performed on steel-string acoustic before Lapdance Armageddon. Our first official gig was opening for Adrian Belew, followed shortly thereafter by two shows opening for one of my biggest influences, Steve Morse – it was incredibly intense, to say the least. Both of those guys are legends, and their audiences are made up almost entirely of serious musicians. But Jude is a world-class guitarist, and there is nothing like playing with someone that good to bring your playing to another level. There is tremendous purity in making music that requires just your fingers on a fretboard. I am more accustomed to showing up hours before a gig to load, unload, set up, and check gear, so to arrive with just a guitar is as liberating as it is intimidating. Another great joy in this project is how accessible it seems to be, despite being instrumental. Perhaps the lower volumes and the intimacy of just the two guitars help draw people in.
Would fans who’ve seen you onstage be surprised to hear the music you play when you’re by yourself?
Maybe. A few vigilant observers have pegged me as classically trained, even when playing Zeppelin tunes. My tastes are eclectic, and I am always working on new things in my practice – everything from Bach preludes to Jeff Beck solos. Recently, I’ve been focusing on writing, developing, and executing my own music. I often seem to write beyond my immediate abilities, so my own music requires a significant amount of woodshed time.
How do you compose?
I compose in various ways – with my guitar, without it. Sometimes melodies will come to me in my sleep, and I am able to remember them. I keep staff paper with me to scribble down ideas, and I use the voice recorder on my iPhone. Sometimes I give myself a writing assignment, where I’ll challenge myself to write something within certain parameters. Other times I’ll sit down and just write freely, with no preconceived notion of what is supposed to come out.
Bob Marley believed that all songs are in the air, and they just find someone to flow through. Do you ever feel this happening to you?
Absolutely. I’ve given scratch titles, like “Something I Never Would Have Written,” when I really have no idea how I came up with an idea. I have also had tunes seem to write themselves, and melodies I worry I must have inadvertently ripped off. Some things feel so natural, you feel certain they already existed.
Are you a disciplined musician?
I don’t feel that I am overly disciplined, but I think I am perceived by my band mates, friends, and family as being very disciplined. I’m not someone who practices eight hours a day. I am focused and driven and consistent, but not monomaniacal. I do take lessons periodically, and am always striving to improve weak areas in my playing. But to me, creativity is enhanced by life experiences. I have interests and activities outside the guitar. That means every time I sit down to play, practice, or write, I am really excited to do so. In general, I probably play about four hours per day.
What would you most like to improve about your playing?
I am working on improvisation. In classical guitar as well as tribute bands, accuracy and consistency are highly valued. The music has been written, and your job is to replicate it to the best of your ability – taking liberties is not generally encouraged. This means I’ve had little opportunity to just jam and compose spontaneously.
Describe your dream gig.
Gig as in show or as in job? My current dream gig, as in job, would be to get to play with Jeff Beck. I would love to be in a place musically where I could actually have something to offer in that situation. I also would have loved to work with Frank Zappa. Both Jeff Beck and Frank Zappa have such deep musical integrity and adventurousness.
My dream gig, as in show, doesn’t involve a specific venue or location or band or even audience size. What makes a gig wonderful to me is when I feel I play my music with conviction and the audience is there with me, listening with open ears, understanding it, resonating with it, and enjoying it.
What’s coming up in the near future?
I am in the middle of working on my first solo record. It will be instrumental, and features some great players – John Mader on drums and Stu Hamm on bass. There may be a few other people on there as well, but I won’t name any names until the tracks are done. Jude Gold is co-producing it. Lapdance Armageddon, our acoustic duo, plans to do a full-length record in October, so we’ll be back to doing more live shows and touring after that. Zepparella has been keeping very busy with shows – we travel quite a bit, and make it all around the country. You can check my website for the latest: http://www.gretchenmenn.com/.
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© 2010 Jas Obrecht. All rights reserved. This interview may not be reposted or reprinted without the author’s permission.