Gretchen Menn, Guitar Goddess
EUGENE, Ore. - If the rugged and robust rock and roll sounds of Led Zeppelin came together with the delicate and orchestrated crescendos of Mozart, their love child would certainly be Gretchen Menn. At five feet three inches, when Gretchen sits with the classical guitar pressed against her, it covers most of her frame. She takes a breath, and without warning, the soft melody of Adagio from Sonata No. 8 by Beethoven emerges from her six-string. After a few riffs, she sets the classical guitar down and picks up her Les Paul. Crisp sounds vibrate from the amp in the corner of the room as Gretchen’s fingers dart across the frets. It’s hard to believe that two such completely different sounds can be produced from the same two, tiny hands.
Gretchen grew up in a musically oriented household; her father is the former editor-in-chief of Guitar Player magazine, her mother plays the violin, and her sister is a singer and musician. “I think that everything was in place for me to fall in love with the guitar,” Menn says.
Gretchen first picked up the electric guitar at 15, but didn’t become serious about her commitment to music until her first year at Smith College, in Massachusetts. There, she studied under classical guitarist Phillip DeFremery, and graduated in just three years with a degree in music. A dedicated servant to her instrument, Gretchen continued to pursue her passion for the guitar.
“When you fall in love with something like music,” Gretchen says, “you realize that any raw talent you have might propel you for the first few months or it might mean that you understand things quickly; it doesn’t even come close to comparing discipline and hard work. But it doesn’t feel like discipline and hard work if you love what you're doing and if you’re excited, not just about the goal, but about the path, too.”
Sitting beside her electric Les Paul, Gretchen discusses her passion for playing guitar.
Gretchen’s path has been a busy one. After college, she continued to play music while attending flight school, where she was trained to fly commercial airplanes. She played solo and group gigs, backtracks to vocals, and in 2003 she signed on as lead guitar player of an all-female AC/DC cover band, AC/DSHE. Two years later, she and drummer Clementine Ross left the band to pursue their dreams of working with the music of Led Zeppelin. And so Zepparella was born.
“Every type of music poses its own challenge, but AC/DC songs don’t even begin to prepare you for some of the intricacies of the structures of Zeppelin songs,” Gretchen says. “They didn’t follow predictable song structures. There would be all these weird twists and turns, not to mention having to go in on some guitar solos which are really long. So it was definitely a whole new challenge, it was a whole new language, and a whole new vocabulary for me to learn.”
Gretchen and Clementine hit the ground running. “She handed me a list of 15 songs and said, ‘Our first gig is in 8 weeks.’ We had, I think, two or three rehearsals before our first gig,” Menn says.
Gretchen and her band mates were taking on the challenge of covering one of the most iconic rock bands of all time in an all-female ensemble, which was relatively unheard of at the time.
“I would never take credit for being within the first few female tribute bands, but I think I definitely started it in a time when it was much less of a common thing,” Menn says. “We try to do it like disciples, and hopefully that respect comes through in what we give.”
After nearly ten years of working with Zepparella, Gretchen has played countless shows and had her share of strange and exhilarating experiences onstage. They’ve had gigs of all kinds; from opening for huge names like KISS and Weezer to playing a gig at a construction site while the workers were on lunch break. She’s had audience members storm the stage and try to kiss her, and even invited fans to travel with her and the rest of the band. In Gretchen’s experience, the unconventional nature of an all-female hard rock band draws all kinds of attention.
“I think there’s always a plus and minus to being a minority in any group,” says Menn. “The plus to being a minority is that you’re more visible. The minus is that you get looked at more carefully than other people would, I think.”
Gretchen and the members of Zepparella are part of a surge of female musicians integrating into the historically male-dominated rock world, and their job isn’t an easy one. The greatest challenge, Gretchen says, is trying to get people to see the band for their music, and not for their appearance.
“I feel like people spend way too much time thinking about how women present themselves,” she says. “There’s kind of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t thing. I have friends who are female guitar players who wear jeans and a t-shirt, and they rip on guitar. I have friends who are female guitar players who wear borderline bondage gear on stage, and they rip on guitar. And guess what? Both are okay.”
Gretchen effortlessly moves her fingers across the fret board.
For Gretchen, though, it’s never been about people-pleasing or making it big in the music industry. She came out with her first solo album, Hale Souls, in 2012, and is currently working on a second one. For this next album, Gretchen says she is unabashedly exploring her interests in musical composition, and is working on becoming more fluent with her instrument along the way. Gretchen has been writing and playing music for nearly twenty years, but says she’s still got a long way to go.
“I’m still so far from where I hope to be that it’s hard to look at myself currently and not just look at all the things I want to work on,” Menn says. “The ceiling is so high, and I feel like an infant with my instrument.”
This devotion to grow with her craft fulfills Gretchen, and is constantly improving her sound. Sitting across the room plucking at her guitar, she’s visibly content in her own world. Her face is soft, her gaze fixed, and her mind is present and concentrated.
“I never thought there was any making it as an artist and it’s not because I’m pessimistic at all. I think it’s because I never expected my passion to be my whole source of income. I feel so lucky to have a passion,” Gretchen says. “The fact that I have something that every day I am excited to do is a treasure.”