Gretchen Menn Rethinks the Concept of an Instrumental Guitar Album

This is the story of an experiment. On December 8, 2011, I sat down with guitarist Gretchen Menn at a Peet’s coffeehouse and asked her, “What if you did something as different as possible from your last album, Hale Souls, and, perhaps, even unlike the typical guitar albums I receive at the magazine every day?”
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This is the story of an experiment. On December 8, 2011, I sat down with guitarist Gretchen Menn at a Peet’s coffeehouse and asked her, “What if you did something as different as possible from your last album, Hale Souls, and, perhaps, even unlike the typical guitar albums I receive at the magazine every day?” I pushed a scrap of paper towards her with an album and theatrical concept sketched out for a modern retelling of Dante’s epic poem, Inferno.

What Menn accomplished with that basic idea required five years to complete. The creative journey necessitated an intense study of classical orchestration, involved serious overhauls of her guitar technique, caused her to evolve her approach to composition, and it also entailed the weathering of a personal tragedy. It was almost like being devoured by one of Dante’s hellish beasts, but the resulting album, Abandon All Hope, is a vivid, unique, and magnificent piece of musical drama (including a libretto—which I contributed—and gorgeous and spooky photography by Max Crace). By forsaking the “lead guitarist’s ego” to place her guitar playing in complete service to the story line, the other instruments, and the compositions, Menn was freed to conjure a sonic landscape of emotion, salvation, and dread. As a song cycle, it’s an experience of near-cinematic wonder.

I watched it all happen from the wings, so to speak, and, biased or not, I obviously consider Abandon All Hope a stunning achievement. Hopefully, it also will be an inspiration for other guitar players looking to create works that transcend conventional guitar instrumentals in execution, performance, composition, and/or marketing. Although, considering the pain, effort, and artistic self-examination involved, I doubt that Menn—or any other guitar player for that matter—will accept an invitation to have tea with me any time soon…

For a project of this magnitude, how much time did each discipline require—from the composition to the arranging and orchestrating to the actual recording?

The guitar playing was a small portion relative to the rest—although I was continuing working on becoming a better guitar player. I didn’t want my imagination limited by my technique, either as a guitar player or as a composer. I spent a few months out of five years on the guitar performances, and probably three years composing and orchestrating. I’d say that life got in the way for about one year, where things got derailed a bit, because my best friend passed away.

What were some of the challenges you faced as the composer and orchestrator?

It was just getting the technical craft of composition more together—getting comfortable with writing four-voice counterpoint, being able to write well for a string quartet, understanding what lines work on a cello, and what’s reasonable to expect out of a piano player. The creative process was challenging in a cool way. Before writing Abandon All Hope, I had approached music from a place where I’d go, “This seems cool—I should develop it.” But when you’re writing to serve a concept, the concept directs everything. So if something didn’t evoke the necessary theme, I rejected the idea outright.

Did you find the thematic concepts through composing with your guitar, or writing the music on paper?

Generally, it was the composition without the guitar. The guitar came in towards the end. I had an idea of what each piece should sound like—things such as general adjectives about the feel, rough tempos, keys, dynamics, instrumentation, and vibe. But I rarely wrote the pieces on paper. I make way too many mistakes, and I would have wasted a lot of staff paper composing that way [laughs]. Most of the melodies started off in my head, and then I’d document them in Sibelius [music notation software] using MIDI sounds, and then work out the greater details of counterpoint, arrangement, and so on. Of course, the string sounds in Sibelius do not sound like real strings, so I knew another challenge was going to be critically assessing the timbre and tuning of my guitar once the actual live strings were recorded.

Is that why you decided to track your guitar parts after all of the other instruments were laid down?

Yes, because I didn’t want string players adjusting their gorgeous tones to fit my electric guitar. So I made sure that I was happy with the string sounds, the piano sounds, the drum sounds, and the bass sounds. Then, I played along with the different tracks until I found a guitar tone that allowed everybody to be heard.

This is the question of balancing yourself as the composer and as the performer. The performer wants to have all the solos and to be featured. But when you write for all of the instruments, that activity provides a good system of checks and balances, because you end up caring about the cello line as much as you do about the guitar part. Your inner guitar player will say, “More me! More me!” But the composer—who has put a lot of time into the piece—is going, “No—that cello line needs to be heard.”

In addition, I paid a lot of attention to fingering. Daniele [Gottardo, album co-producer] was very helpful here, because he had already made an album with guitar and strings, and he knew how to best approach some things. At times, I would do really weird fingerings that I would never do live, because the sound was better against the strings. A lot of the things I changed for the recording were due to the fact that the fingerings blended better with the live instruments. These were things I couldn’t work out beforehand. I needed to hear exactly how the strings were recorded. In a lot of cases, it was deciding what not to play. For example, I had guitar lines for some tunes where Glauco Bertagnin [violinist] played so incredibly well that there was nothing I could do to make it better. The violin was so beautiful on its own that my silence was the best thing I could offer.

Can you detail the gear you used for the Abandon All Hope sessions?

I used three guitars on the whole album. My Kenny Hill Ruck nylon-string classical was used for the acoustic passages, and the overwhelming majority of the electric parts were done with my “number one”—an Ernie Ball Music Man Silhouette Special with DiMarzio single-coils. I did two tracks on my Les Paul, “Beast” and “Hound of Hades,” as well as the rhythm parts for “Shadows,” because those songs just needed that Les Paul sound. Also, I knew I was going to do some stuff with a violin bow for “Beast,” and the shape of a Les Paul lends itself to being able to angle the bow a lot better. That was the first time I’ve been brave enough to take Jimmy Page’s technique and completely abduct it, but I felt it was right for that piece. My strings are Ernie Ball, gauged .010-.052, for the electrics, and Savarez Yellow Card for my classical.

For amps, I tracked most of the guitars at home with Pro Tools using an Engl SE 670 EL34, but I also took a direct line with the intention of reamping tones while we were working with [engineer] Robert Preston at GetReel Productions in San Francisco. We auditioned a bunch of amps in the studio, but the Engl ended up working for pretty much everything. I did use my 1966 Fender Deluxe Reverb for “Limbo”—which was tracked in the studio. The only pedal I used was a Providence Chrono Delay that I set for a 100-percent wet signal. When we reamped the guitars, we recorded the Chrono on its own track so we could precisely blend the wet guitar signal with the dry guitar track.

As the project progressed, and it was obvious that Abandon All Hope wouldn’t be wall-to-wall guitar, did you ever worry that, “Oh boy, I just destroyed my career as an instrumental guitarist”?

Oh, no. I was thrilled my guitar wouldn’t take center stage all the time. I’m not someone who goes, “Hey, check out this instrumental guitar record.” The vast majority of my listening is to classical, baroque, romantic, and 20th-century music, so I realized, “Okay, a ‘one-person play’ can be really cool, but I’m more interested in the interactions of players, whether they’re actors or instruments.”

But that’s the very thing that is a bit of a “disruption” about this album. It’s not the typical “all guitar, all the time” focus that many think about when they listen to a instrumental guitar album.

I think it’s easy to have preconceived notions of what we’re supposed to do, or what’s expected of us, and rather, than have that be a voice of wisdom guiding us, it can become a burden and a creative limitation. I just wanted to do something that I thought was interesting. I wasn’t worrying about what people like to hear in instrumental guitar music, or even whether this project was commercial or not. I put myself in service to the concept, and what I wrote what was true for me. I’ve always believed that if you can do something you really stand behind, do it to the best of your ability, and keep the integrity of your vision intact, there will be people who appreciate it. One of the worst offenses an artist can do is pandering. I feel like it insults you, it insults your audience, and it insults the art.

How would an instrumental guitarist pander?

For me, it would be doing something specifically in the hopes that it would elevate me in some way that isn’t consistent with what I want to be doing artistically. For example, I can play in a Led Zeppelin tribute band and recognize that people show up to watch women play Zeppelin, but I love Led Zeppelin and every moment that I’m onstage playing their music. It would be pandering if I thought, “Well, this is such a bunch of crap, but I want to get paid.”

Abandon All Hope was quite a journey for you. Did you ever worry that you’d be crushed under the weight of what it was requiring of you from a creative standpoint?

Definitely! [Laughs.] But what I do know is that it’s really easy to create your own limitations. I think the surest way to render something impossible is to believe it to be so.