April , 2011
By Michael Beers
California Beauty Guitar Virtuoso
A JAM Magazine Exclusive Interview
It's one thing to fall in love with a guitar at a young age. It's a whole other matter when you take up the instrument in your late teens, and decide you need to play like the masters. When the styles you wish to mimic pertain to the likes of Jimmy Page, Eric Johnson, Angus Young, Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton, well, your search for perfection stops there. Meet the incomparable Gretchen Menn. The virtuoso is currently fronting the all-female Led Zeppelin tribute band, Zepparella, as well an acoustic duo dabbed Lap Dance Armageddon, that also features the editor of Guitar Player magazine, Jude Gold.
The Northern California beauty was no stranger to the guitar growing up. Her father is Don Menn, the former editor-in-chief for Guitar Player magazine. As a young child, Gretchen would ask her dad what he did at the office. His reply was simple. He interviewed Jeff Beck today, or Clapton, or Jimmy Page, or Frank Zappa. Sometimes little Gretchen would tag along with her father when he conducted his one-on-one interviews and meet these icons of the guitar she would one day copy note for note.
As a teenager her musical leanings were more toward the classics. After she graduated high school, Menn attended Smith College. While earning a degree in music, 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.
After graduation, she went directly from college to flight school. Two years later, the now responsible Mell was flying regional jets for the airlines. A year after that, the calling of the guitar was greater than the wide open skies, and she gave up her job flying planes. Playing with tireless passion and constantly seeking out new challenges, her projects have spanned the genres of jazz, funk, rock, progressive and metal. In a recent on-line poll, Gretchen Menn was voted as the best female guitarist.
JAM: You rest the guitar on your left knee while playing, which tells me you are classically trained. Who tutored you on guitar, and do you listen to any of the classical masters today?
Gretchen Menn - That's very astute of you to notice. I am classically trained and studied under Phillip de Fremery (a former student of Andres Segovia). As far as classical composers I enjoy to listen to, right now I can't get enough of Mozart, as well as Haydn’s string quartets. I also enjoy listening to Beethoven and Stravinsky.
JAM: How old were you when you first started playing guitar?
I was 19, although I had wanted to play guitar a couple of years earlier. In my first year of college I started really playing the guitar. I took to heart the fact Frank Zappa didn't start playing guitar till he was 19. It showed me that you don't have to start learning the instrument when you are seven years old to become skillful on the instrument. What matters most is the desire to play and to become proficient at your craft.
JAM: Name some of your influences / hero's who influenced your guitar playing?
I attended a Joe Satriani show when I was 17. His opening act was Eric Johnson. When he played the song, "Cliffs of Dover," it was the most beautiful, triumphant and melodic songs I had ever heard played on the guitar. It was at that point I knew I wanted to get into the game. So Eric Johnson definitely has been an influence, as have Steve Morse, Jeff Beck, Djanago Reinhardt and Frank Zappa. Someone else I have totally gotten into the past few years has been Eddie Van Halen. Although I’ve missed seeing Van Halen perform, over the years I have grown to appreciate his playing more and more.
JAM: With Zepparella, you play Les Paul and Danelectro guitars. Is there a preference?
That's a very easy question. I am such a total Music Man girl, I love it. It was my first electric guitar that I bought and I used it exclusively on my solo album!
JAM: Being proficient on both electric and acoustic, if you could only play one of the two, which would you prefer?
Each has their own challenges and rewards; but where I am at now I would have to say electric guitar would be my priority.
JAM: With Zepparella you play some great slide on "What Is and What Should Never Be." The instrument can be tricky.
I have never played pedal steel guitar, but the challenge is what drove me to it. Jimmy Page, Steve Howe and Jerry Garcia all dabbled with pedal steel, and maybe down the road it is something I would consider as well.
JAM: Art, whether it’s motion pictures or music, have interesting similarities. In film, you have actors, screenwriters and directors. Creating a song, you have the musicians, songwriters, sound engineers and producer. Do you see any type of parallel between the two?
In my younger days I used to act. Interesting question I’ll answer this way. Musicians who write their own songs are like film directors starring in their own movie.
JAM: If you were to be reincarnated as a musician other than a guitarist, what would you like to come back as?
You mean I couldn't come back as an otter or dolphin? (laughter) Being a frustrated violin player, it would have to be a violinist!
JAM: The Grateful Dead performed in Egypt at the Great Pyramids and Tangerine Dream played the Acropolis in Athens. With Zepparella's popularity growing, is there a specific location in the world you'd like play your music?
That's a good question. First off, who wouldn't want to play at the Great Pyramids or the Acropolis; that would be awesome! Seriously, being that we are a Led Zeppelin tribute band, I think it would be more apropos if we could play on a stage that Led Zeppelin had played, like possibly the Royal Albert Hall or at Knebworth.
JAM: Jimi Hendrix played "The Star-Spangled Banner." Jeff Beck performed "A Day in the Life" and "Under the Rainbow." Is there a song out there that has lyrics to which you would just play the guitar on?
Few people have noticed, but during my solo on "Dazed and Confused," I play some music from the Young Frankenstein movie. It’s the violin piece Marty Feldman's character, Igor, plays to lure Frankenstein back to the castle. (Gretchen hums the entire violin piece.)