“When Van Halen’s first record came out, I was so proud of them – it was awesome. But did Eddie Van Halen affect my playing style? No”: Dave Meniketti on turning down Frampton, and how Y&T might’ve been bigger if they’d opened for themselves

Dave Meniketti performs onstage
(Image credit: Rob Monk/Classic Rock Magazine/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

“If you opened for us, it was a sure sign you were going to make it,” Dave Meniketti says. As guitarist, singer and all-around main man for the Bay Area hard rock stalwarts Y&T, he saw a lot of up-and-comers breeze by during the late Seventies and into the Eighties. 

“Van Halen opened for us, and so did Metallica. Poison opened shows for us. As a matter of fact, back in 1981, Mötley Crüe played their first gig ever when they opened for us at the Starwood in LA. It’s in their book.”

He laughs and adds, “We used to have a saying: ‘We know how we’re going to make it big. We have to open for ourselves!’ It seemed like there was a time when every band that went on before us wound up going platinum.”

For a while, it appeared that Y&T were on the fast track for success. Formed in 1972, the band, then called Yesterday & Today (after the 1966 U.S. Beatles album), went through a few members before solidifying the lineup of Meniketti, bassist Phil Kennemore, rhythm guitarist Joey Alves, and drummer Leonard Haze. 

They gigged around, playing shows with Journey and other local acts, and in 1976, after opening for Queen during the band’s A Night at the Opera tour, they scored a deal with London Records. The group’s first two albums, 1976’s self-titled disc and 1978’s Struck Down, received solid notices but failed to sell.

Shortening their name to Y&T, the quartet signed to A&M Records in 1981 and began a stretch of albums that included high-energy gems like 1982’s Black Tiger, 1983’s Mean Streak, and 1984’s In Rock We Trust. With each release, the band inched closer to mainstream stardom – tracks like Midnight in Tokyo and Sentimental Fool garnered significant FM play – but breaking into Top 30 proved to be a code they couldn’t crack. 

Then, in 1985, Y&T released a live album, Open Fire, that included a brand-new studio cut, Summertime Girls. An irresistible nugget of pop metal ear candy, the track was accompanied by a tongue-in-cheek video, full of sand and bikini-clad volleyballers, that clicked on MTV. “It was a real double-edged sword for us,” Meniketti says. “After a song like that, you’re expected to repeat it over and over, and that just wasn’t us.”

The group’s next album, Down for the Count, stalled on the charts, and it would be their last release featuring Haze. With new drummer Jimmy DeGrasso, Y&T signed to Geffen Records and attempted to navigate their way through a music scene now ruled by hair metal. 

“It was a frustrating time,” Meniketti says. “The label could have done better things for us, but c’est la vie – stuff happens.” After two more albums, (1987’s Contagious and 1990’s Ten) and another lineup change – guitarist Stef Burns replaced Alves – the band called it quits in 1991.

Meniketti took an extended time out from the music industry (he even turned down an opportunity to form a supergroup with Peter Frampton), but by 1995 he was ready to give Y&T another go. 

Over the next 16 years, the band toured the world with lineups that would, at various points, include both Kennemore and Haze. Sadly, one by one, members of the classic group began passing away: Kennemore succumbed to lung cancer in 2011, Haze died in 2016 after a battle with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and a year later, Alves died from ulcerative colitis and inflammatory bowel disease.

“It’s been devastating,” Meniketti says. “I lost my best friend, Phil, and a few years later Leonard and Joey passed. It took the wind out of my sails for a while. But I remember something Phil told me. He was on his deathbed, and he said, ‘Don’t stop. We’ve accomplished a lot over the years, and you’ve got to keep it going.’ It was nice that he felt that way. I would have said the same to him if the situation were reversed.”

Meniketti himself has faced the prospect of his own mortality. Last year, he revealed he was undergoing treatment for prostate cancer. For a time, he put all touring plans on hold while he underwent radiation treatment. He happily reports that he’s been given the all-clear from doctors, and he’s resumed gigging, playing limited sets of shows with a new lineup of Y&T that includes guitarist John Nymann, drummer Mike Vanderhule, and bassist Aaron Leigh.

“If there’s one good thing about being the surviving member, it’s that I’m the lead singer, the lead guitar player, and the principal songwriter,” Meniketti says. “You’re still getting the same sound of the voice and the guitar from the guy who wrote the songs. You’re getting a lot of what Y&T has always been about.”

I know I’m not a household name like Slash, and I can live with that. I get all the recognition I deserve

Y&T always seemed like the perennial underdogs. Do you feel as if the band has been under-appreciated? And how about you as a guitarist? Do you feel somewhat unnoticed?

“I don’t actually care. Honestly, it’s not a contest to me. People say to me, ‘Y&T should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,’ and I tell them, ‘If you want to be an advocate for that, fine. But it doesn’t really matter to me.’ Winning awards has never been a motivator for me.

“As for my guitar playing, I get all the praise I need. Other artists say nice things about me, which is terrific. Sometimes it’s an artist I don’t even know, so I’m especially blown away when they praise my playing. I know I’m not a household name like Slash, and I can live with that. I get all the recognition I deserve.”

Dave Meniketti (left) and Phil Kennemore perform live onstage in 1983

Dave Meniketti (left) and Phil Kennemore perform live onstage in 1983 (Image credit: Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

You have quite a bluesy flavor in your playing. Who would you say are your major influences in regards to soloing and tone?

“When you’re first starting out, that’s when your biggest influences hit you. That’s certainly true in my case. From the bluesier side of things, I listened to a lot of players. I was a big fan of Duane Allman and Dickey Betts. 

“The same goes for Leslie West; I was way into Leslie. There’s a guy who never got the recognition he deserved, in my opinion. There are so many people I listened to and loved – Jeff Beck, of course. That was a sad day when he passed.”

In our genre, maybe the two musicians closest to us were Sammy Hagar and Ronnie Montrose. There weren’t a lot of heavy rockers yet, but we had tons of great players

What was the Bay Area music scene like in the early Seventies? Were there a lot of great players?

“We’ve always had a very diverse thing happening here. If you went to Southern California, there were a ton of groups following whatever was popular at the time. Here in the Bay Area, we were kind of isolated from that bandwagon thing. It was such a different scene back then. 

“When we first started in the early Seventies, we had kind of our own thing as the hard rock band of the Bay Area. In our genre, maybe the two musicians closest to us were Sammy Hagar and Ronnie Montrose. There weren’t a lot of heavy rockers yet, but we had tons of great players.”

Was it a competitive scene? It wasn’t New York or L.A. It wasn’t Nashville. Those were the three big cities for music.

“It was competitive, yes. Our first legitimate manager also managed Journey, so Neal Schon and I spent a lot of time together. We played a ton of shows together, too. There was a bit of competition between the bands, sort of brought on by our management. They would tell me, ‘You should play more like Neal.’ Funnily enough, they told Neal, 'You should play more like Dave.' [Laughs] Our styles were so different back then. I was more of a melodic shredder, and he was much more into a melodic thing.”

We sat there and watched Eddie, and of course, his playing was completely different from what anybody else was doing on the guitar. But did he affect my playing style? No

You were already a gigging pro by the time Eddie Van Halen made his mark in the late Seventies. Did he have an impact on your playing at all?

“I won’t say he had an influence on me from a stylistic standpoint – I had kind of cemented my style at that time. Van Halen opened up for us at the Starwood in LA – I think they got signed soon after. That was the first time we saw them – they played four shows with us. 

“We sat there and watched Eddie, and of course, his playing was completely different from what anybody else was doing on the guitar. I thought it was really interesting and cool. When their first record came out, I was so proud of them – it was awesome. But did he affect my playing style? No.

“In fact, at one point I remember some of the guys in the band asked me, ‘Why don’t you start doing some of those tapping things?’ I said, ‘Fuck no, man. I’m going to do my own thing, and Eddie can do his thing. I’m not going to copy him.’ I enjoyed what he did and I appreciated it, but I couldn’t see trying to incorporate it. I was much more of a straight-ahead kind of guy.”

Y&T went through three different major labels. Did record companies know what to do with the band?

“No, not really. The first two record companies that we signed with – actually, the first three, which is London Records, A&M Records, and Geffen Records – they all had the best of intentions. But we would get on the roster and most of the A&R staff were like, ‘We don’t know what to do with these guys.’ It was kind of one of those things. A lot of bands have those issues, but our situation never got better.”

Summertime Girls was a home run for the band. With a title like that, it’s hard to miss.

“I suppose so. It’s one of those songs people either love or hate. That was just a moment in time. I went to the rehearsal studio, started messing around with some chords, and the song sort of wrote itself in an hour. It’s a cool tune, but it’s the kind of thing you wrestle with – ‘Is this too commercial for us?’ 

“We weren’t actually trying to come up with a single, but it became one. To some degree, it was great – we got major airplay, our video was in heavy rotation, and we were on a big tour with Mötley Crüe. The song wasn’t really representative of our style, though.”

Predictably, the label wanted a sound-alike follow-up single.

“Of course. They wanted a song that had the same vibe. They even got some writers to submit a song called All-American Boy. I was like, ‘Oh, boy, here we go…’ It was difficult doing our next album. The label was saying, 'You should do this, you should do that…' There was a lot of fighting going on among the band and with the label. That was sort of the catalyst for us getting another deal.”

Back in the day, your guitar and gear were pretty consistent – a ’68 Les Paul and a ’74 Marshall amp.

“That’s right, an MK II Marshall. The combination just worked. It did exactly what I wanted far as the tone and sustain. Years later, I switched to amplifiers that had much more gain, such as Mesa/Boogie Rectifiers or what I use now, the Diezel VH4, and I noticed that I ended up playing with a lighter touch. 

“I then went back to my Marshall, and I quickly found that I pulled more tone and character from my hands, because it wasn’t so over-amped. I was like, ‘Wow, I really play differently with a Marshall.’”

What’s the story with you turning down Peter Frampton’s invitation to form a supergroup?

“We did two albums for Geffen and got dropped. At that point, the band was so disgusted and disappointed by the industry, so we decided to go our separate ways. Our A&R person at Geffen, John Kalodner, was a big fan of mine and wanted me to have success. 

“One of his fortes was putting together supergroups, and he told me Peter Frampton was looking for another lead singer and guitar player, somebody who was a little different from him and someone he could write with. Peter called and we talked for a few minutes. 

“I told him, ‘Peter, I just got off from 17 years with one band and beating my head against the wall with the industry. I don’t know what to do right now, and it doesn’t feel right to just move right into something else. I need some time to give me head space.’ He totally understood, though he wished I would’ve at least come down and rehearsed with him.”

I’m surprised you didn’t try jamming with him, just to be sure.

“I probably should have, but I didn’t. I was dead broke at the time. Six months later, his manager called me and said, 'Look, we’ve been through 60 different guys, and you’re the guy. They’re going to give us a deal if you join. Just do it.' And I still said no. 

“He got really pissed at me – the manager. I saw Peter eight or nine years ago. He came down to play a show. I just wanted to say hi in person and tell him, ‘I’m sorry about way back when – and now I kind of wish I would’ve done it.’ He was gracious, of course. He’s a sweetheart.”

Instead of forming a band with Frampton, you eventually reunited Y&T.

“Yeah, it was the band that had broken up. We did a couple of independent records. It was a tough time because our style of music wasn’t popular; the grunge thing was happening. We signed with a Japanese company to do two records, and we toured Japan. 

I’m not one of these guys who’s constantly writing. I have to make time for it. Once I get in the groove, things start happening

“We didn’t play a whole lot more than that. We did some local shows here and there. After that, I did two solo records. It was kind of back-and-forth. I did shows with my own band, then some Y&T shows.

“Then in 2003, the Sweden Rock festival had us come and play, and that kind of kicked us back into gear. We found we had a huge following in Europe, which was kind of strange. From that point on, we played as much as we could and toured quite a bit more for a while.

The band hasn’t recorded an album in 13 years. Will there ever be another one?

“It’s been a plan for the last eight years. I’ve been lagging on that for a couple of different reasons, mostly just getting the impetus to crank up the songwriting again. I’m not one of these guys who’s constantly writing. I have to make time for it. Once I get in the groove, things start happening, but I just haven’t done it. I don’t know how to describe it or what my reasons are. I will say I have every intention of making it happen.”  

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Joe Bosso

Joe is a freelance journalist who has, over the past few decades, interviewed hundreds of guitarists for Guitar World, Guitar Player, MusicRadar and Classic Rock. He is also a former editor of Guitar World, contributing writer for Guitar Aficionado and VP of A&R for Island Records. He’s an enthusiastic guitarist, but he’s nowhere near the likes of the people he interviews. Surprisingly, his skills are more suited to the drums. If you need a drummer for your Beatles tribute band, look him up.