“Staying in control while looking like you’re out of control… it’s really hard!” Zepparella’s Gretchen Menn on playing like Jimmy Page
Gretchen Menn grew up loving Led Zeppelin, but she never actually learned how to play one of the band’s songs until she had to – and then she had to learn a whole boatload of them, and fast. It was in 2005 when the Bay Area guitarist, then portraying Angus Young in the all-female AC/DC tribute band AC/DSHE, accepted an invitation from that group’s drummer, Clementine, to form a similarly configured Led Zeppelin cover outfit – Zepparella. Clementine even went ahead and booked shows, which meant that Menn had to immerse herself in all things Jimmy Page, with no time to spare.
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“I was so green at first,” Menn says. “I think I had played the riff to Black Dog, but that was about it. I had eight weeks from the time Clementine said that I could be in the band till we had our first show. And as everybody knows, Zeppelin songs aren’t like AC/DC songs. They’re not just cool riff, guitar solo and a few parts. There’s a lot of curveballs in Zeppelin’s material. There’s so many different sounds and song structures to consider. The Lemon Song alone has so many things going on. You can’t gloss over any of it. You can’t just play something and go, ‘Oh, it’s kind of like this.’ You have to get it really right.”
Over the past decade and a half, Zepparella (which also includes singer Anna Kristina and bassist Holly West) have established themselves as one of the most popular and in-demand Zeppelin tribute acts around. Their video rendition of When the Levee Breaks has amassed a staggering 18 million views on YouTube. “That’s just remarkable,” says Menn. “We did that video to show promoters and venues what our deal was. We had no idea it would blow up like that.” For Menn, who earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree in music from Smith College in Massachusetts, the experience of playing Led Zeppelin’s music night after night has brought with it the kind of musical education she couldn’t have gotten in school.
“The amount of practice that I’ve had to put into learning Jimmy Page’s parts has been very intense but also extremely rewarding,” she says. “Beyond that, Zepparella has really forced me to kind of grow up on stage. We’re a band, and we go through everything any other band experiences. We have onstage mishaps and gear meltdowns, and we’ve had to learn how not to get thrown by that stuff. You have to toughen up fast to do what we do. The audience demands a professional show, and that’s what we deliver. So being in Zepparella has prepared me for whatever might come in whatever else I might do.”
As it was for every other performing unit in the world, the Covid pandemic wiped Zepparella’s dance card clean for 2020, and it wasn’t until last summer that they could resume touring on a limited basis. The time offstage afforded Menn, who has previously released two solo albums (2011’s Hale Souls and 2016’s Abandon All Hope), the opportunity to begin work on a third album, tentatively titled Purgatory. It’s even given her some time to brush up on her technique.
“Right now, I’m working on improvisation,” she says, “and what I mean by that is, I’m concentrating on authentic improvisation. So it’s not just moving my fingers through familiar patterns and knowing that it sounds OK, but I’m actually trying to construct ideas and phrases that have little of an intention behind them. Which sounds a little funny, but it’s kind of like you’re speaking and you don’t know what you’re going to say, but you know the next idea you want to convey. You’re kind of taking out the random nature of improvisation.”
She laughs and adds, “Whether or not any of that winds up in Zepparella, we’ll have to see.”
Let’s talk about your playing history. When did you start on the guitar?
“I was a teenager, maybe 15 or 16, like an older teenager.”
Is it true that your dad used to be editor of Guitar Player magazine?
“No, that’s correct – he was. My parents just kind of let me decide what I wanted to do, but they were always encouraging. I didn’t really know much about what my dad did. He actually left Guitar Player years before I started playing, but when I did pick up the guitar, he was like, ‘Honey, I do know a little bit about this…’ To me, it’s a testament to how non-intrusive he was in my development, but he was certainly more than happy to take me to the right areas of the CD store when I was like, ‘I like Led Zeppelin’. He was like, ‘Well, you should check out Jeff Beck then’.”
So was Zeppelin your gateway drug into liking guitar music?
“They were, but so were other bands. I just found that I loved the energy I heard in guitar players. When I was 15, I started listening to Django Reinhardt on my dad’s recommendation. I liked Extreme and Mr Big. People who weren’t in the know thought they were ‘chick bands’ because of their ballads, but I was like, ‘Uh, have you actually heard their albums?’ I was so into the guitar playing and the solos.”
At this point, were you already seriously studying the guitar?
“I was, but as soon as I got into it – toward my junior and senior years in high school – I had to pause because I was dealing with college applications and stuff. Although I was pretty serious in my listening. I was way into Steve Morse and Steve Vai.”
As a player, were you a natural, or did you have to really labour over it?
“I had a couple teachers who told me I was really quick to get started, but I didn’t let that affect me. I kind of realised early on that, while I might have some natural ability, I had a lot of work ahead of me.”
On your solo records, you can hear influences like Steve Morse and Steve Vai, but also hear Ritchie Blackmore…
“Definitely Blackmore. I love the classical element in his playing.”
What about traditional blues? Did you get into that?
“Sure. I had the Robert Johnson box set. I always loved BB King and Robben Ford – they were big for me. Currently, I think Derek Trucks is about as untouchable as you can get.”
Even though you’re into guitarists who can shred, it doesn’t sound like you got into the ‘math rock’ guys.
“No, I didn’t get into that, really. I do write stuff in different time signatures and odd-time, but to me, the trick is that it should still sound like music. I mean, listen to Zeppelin’s The Ocean. That’s all over the place in terms of being odd. But it shouldn’t sound… cerebral. Stravinsky is one of my favourite composers, and I study the scores all the time. To me, his stuff is like prog metal.”
How did you start learning about gear – how to pair which guitar with which amp?
“To be honest, I’m lazy about that. I was lucky in that the first guitar I got was a Music Man Silhouette, which is the same guitar that I play today. I have different guitars, but I love the Music Man. When I started playing in Zepparella, it was like, ‘Well, I’m going to have to get Les Paul and a Marshall’. When I plugged in, I said, ‘Yep. That’s that sounds way it’s supposed to sound’.”
Being in a tribute band offers more of an immediate chance for employment than, say, being in a band that plays original music. Did you find that alluring?
“There’s certainly a lot to that, but there was also a musical part to it – getting a paid musical education. I was going to learn my favourite songs and solos, and I would play them night after night. That was true to some extent in the AC/DC tribute band. You can’t be lazy in a tribute band. People watch you and judge you very critically. The prospect of public humiliation is a real incentive to get things right.”
Gretchen Menn’s pedalboard
Beyond studying Zeppelin’s music, how much research did you do into the kinds of guitars and gear that Page used? You said you got a Les Paul and a Marshall…
“For me, getting the Les Paul Standard was a big investment. I couldn’t geek out totally – I just didn’t have the budget for it. So I figured I would just try to get the essentials, and then if anything was lacking, I would try to make up for it by just becoming a better player.”
You use a Danelectro for Kashmir – at least that wouldn’t have been financially ruinous…
“No, it wasn’t. I use it on Kashmir, Nobody’s Fault But Mine and In My Time of Dying. I have it set up for slide. If we play fly-in gigs, I can’t take multiple guitars with me, so I try to do as much as possible with the Les Paul. But that guitar isn’t set up for slide, so it can be tricky.”
You guys stay pretty close to the original records – is that what fans want?
“Yeah, we try to. On the other hand, nobody took more liberties with Zeppelin than Zeppelin, so one could make a great case for making the songs completely wacky. But you know, it’s great music and we try to honour that. I’m always a fan first. At times, we improvise, and I think that’s important. Zeppelin were improvisatory, so if we didn’t uphold that tradition, we’d be missing the point. Sometimes I extend sections, and there are places in which I haven’t learned parts note for note. I weave a little of my own stuff in there, but I always try to stay within the Zeppelin universe.”
What about a song like Heartbreaker? Page’s solo is a little, shall we say, not precise.
“It’s interesting you bring that up. The Heartbreaker solo is ridiculously hard to play. It’s way easier to play anything by Ritchie Blackmore or Randy Rhoads or Eric Johnson. But with the Heartbreaker solo, it’s like you’re watching a Charlie Chaplin movie. He has those moments when he’s falling, but then he steadies himself. That takes such control and aptitude. Staying in control while looking like you’re out of control, but at the same time you seem graceful… it’s really hard.”
After playing Zeppelin’s music so much, do you ever have to “de-Page” yourself when you go back to your own music?
“It’s funny you would ask that. In fact, it can be the other way around. When I have to go into Page-land, I have to try to remember to put aside all the other stuff that doesn’t belong there. It’s easy for me to snap back to being myself. Actually, when I did my second album, Abandon All Hope, it occurred to me that it didn’t sound even remotely like I had listened to Led Zeppelin. I had to actually give myself permission to be like, ‘It’s okay to let a little bit of the Zeppelin show through’.”
No, it doesn’t sound like Zeppelin. It’s almost as if Kate Bush decided she wanted to make a guitar record.
“Oh, my god! That’s like the best compliment ever. She’s one of my favourites. I’ve studied her concept albums and picked up a lot from her.”
Let’s talk more about guitars and gear. What are your go-to pieces?
“Well, for, for Zepparella, it’s the Les Pauls. I have two Les Paul Standard reissues with DiMarzio pickups in them. Then I have the Danelectro. As for my amp, I have an old Marshall JMP, but I fell in love with the Two-Rock Bi-Onyx, and that’s what I’ve been using for the last few years. It’s just a gorgeous-sounding amp, and I fell in love with it the second I played through it. I’m shocked at how little grief I get from people who see me playing it on stage. Zeppelin cans get picky about that stuff sometimes. I’ve also started using a Laney Ironheart, which is great for fly-in gigs. It’s got an effects loops, and it fits in my carry-on luggage, so I can’t beat that. But I try not to get all stressed about gear. At this point, I feel that whatever is standing between me and that sounds I want to make is me. It’s not gear.
“For my solo stuff, I use my Music Man Silhouette Special with DiMarzio single-coil pickups. For amps, I use a Two-Rock Bloomfield Drive, along with an Engl Special Edition 670 with EL 34s. My acoustics are a Stephen Strahm EROS model and Kenny Hill Ruck model.”
The last question is maybe the most important one: have you ever met any Led Zeppelin members?
“I met Robert Plant very briefly, and he was perfectly delightful. I haven’t met John Paul Jones or Jimmy Page, and honestly, I’m okay with that. My feeling is, I don’t ever need to meet my heroes. I don’t see how them meeting me could make their lives any better. Why do they need yet another person to be like, ‘Hi, you’re Jimmy Page.’ Cool! Now what? Now I can just brag to people that I’ve met him. Of course, now that I say that, if the situation ever presented itself, I would be there with bells on. [Laughs] Who am I kidding?”
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