On December 8, 2004 Dimebag Darrell took the stage with his recently formed band Damageplan, before getting started he followed his lifelong ritual, he addressed his brother and drummer Vinnie Paul, and greeted him with their war cry, “Van Halen!”, all ready to begin their second last performance of the tour. It turned out to be their last, some asshole, whom I don’t want to name, jumped on stage and shot Dimebag four times, killing him, then tried to finish Vinnie Paul off as well, and although he didn't reach his target, he managed to kill three more people, and wound another seven before being brought down by the police. The guitarist who had redefined metal forever in the 90s, died at 38, but his place in rock heaven was more than guaranteed.
It was never made clear the reasons behind such an event, over time it was suspected that the crazed fan blamed the Abbott brothers for the demise of Pantera, the fact that he did it on the anniversary of John Lennon’s death also raised red flags. Nothing can justify an act like this, and much less on a fellow like Dimebag, who never did anyone any harm. This was the sad end to one of the best metal guitarists of all time, someone who, had he not died a martyr’s death, would have still been at the top, alongside his beloved Eddie Van Halen and Rhandy Rhoads, as one of the most influential guitarists of the last 40 years.
Darrell Abbott came into the world on August 20, 1966 in Texas. Son of a country musician, he turned to rock and roll after hearing Kiss, and became a fan for life, especially his favourite Ace Frehley. He got his first guitar at 12, a Hondo Les Paul and a couple of years later his ability won him a guitar contest competing against over 100 people from all ages. The prize was a Dean ML guitar which he sold to luthier Buddy Blaze. He would fit a Floyd Rose bridge on it, and paint a lightning bolt on it as well, then wound up giving it back so it would become the legendary “Dean from Hell” he used on the most iconic albums of Pantera, the very one that appears on the album cover of Cowboys from Hell.
It just so happens that his father bought him another Dean ML which he played on the first Pantera records. The band got together in 1981 together with his brother Vinnie Paul on drums, his mate Terry Glaze as lead singer, and Rex Brown, who would arrive a year later, on bass. Their first records linked them to the glam metal scene of the 80s, contributing not much more than the incredible talent of Abbott, who was called Diamond Darrell at the time, on the 6-string. Things started to change when in 1986 Master of Puppets by Metallica, and Reign in Blood by Slayer hit the scene, pushing ‘thrash metal’ into the light, with a darker sound, stronger and based less on melody. The Abbott brothers were lured by this new sound and that supposedly made Glaze quit the group, who by then was calling himself Terence Lee, and the hunt for a substitute was on.
They found the perfect replacement in Phil Anselmo, from New Orleans, who gave the band a new push. After a transition record, Power Metal, they found their sound and revolutionised the metal world with Cowboys From Hell in 1990. It was the first of a trilogy of albums that defined the genre of the decade and would turn Dimebag into something like Tony Iommi in the 70s, and Eddie Van Halen in the 80s, the metal guitarist to follow in his decade. His galloping riffs and wicked concise solos would form part of the DNA of new genre known as ‘groove metal’.
Vulgar Display Of Power was the highpoint of their career. The opening riff on Mouth of War is what turned Pantera, the once imitators of Glam Metal, into the beasts they became with 100% of their own sound, and also may be the reason why Metallica decided to switch to alternative music... here is where you can also see that Anselmo no longer aspires to be the next Rob Halford, and his scream is truly his own. You could say that Vulgar Display of Power was to the 90s what Paranoid was to the 70s, the gold standard for the whole metal world. There wasn’t a band that came after that didn’t look at those powerful riffs of Dimebag and Anselmo’s shrieking. Walk became the official hymn of the new Groove Metal and there wasn’t a single band that didn’t show their influence later, from Korn to Limp Bizkit, from Slipknot to Avenged Sevenfold.
Pantera had become the new face of metal and Dimebag Darrell (his new handle from that moment on) was, as a matter of fact, the go-to guitarist. At a time when the rock world was living an explosion of alternative and grunge, Pantera was the visible face of metal and they got even more into it, it seemed that success was going to domesticate them, but whoever thought that was sadly mistaken. Far Beyond Driven might not have out-dazzled the amazing Vulgar Display of Power, but it’s even wilder. Pantera contradicted the theory that says bands become more tempered with age, and each record they released was stronger and more aggressive than the one before. The incredible thing is that whereas during the 80s they had followed the trends, they were now absolutely in their zone, in a certain way, against the trends (their music couldn’t be farther from what you were hearing on MTV), the group achieved peak commercial success, reaching #1 on the Billboard charts, which makes it, without a doubt, the heaviest record in history to go that high.
That same year, in 1994, Dean stopped making guitars, and Dimebag signed with Washburn, with the ‘Dean From Hell’ becoming Dimebolt. However, things were not going well in the band, their enormous success was starting to fracture from the inside, mainly the singer, Phil Anselmo. During the ‘95 tour tensions between him and the Abbotts were flaring, when he went from drinking to shooting heroin and the brothers figuring success had gone to his head.
The next release, The Great Southern Trendkill left it quite clear that things weren’t working, with Anselmo recording the vocal bits from his hometown New Orleans, while the rest of the band was recording in Texas. Still, songs like Floods show that Dimebag remained in his zone, on a solo that Guitar World magazine put at #15 on their alltime great solos list.
To complicate things further, Anselmo overdosed one hour before taking the stage in Texas. Things would never be the same, despite the immense popularity of the group, headlining venues alongside Ozzy Osbourne, Black Sabbath, and Marilyn Manson, the friendships in the band were broken. So they recorded one last record called Reinventing the Steel. After the promotional tour, Anselmo was getting more and more into other projects and the Abbotts started to accumulate new material.
In 2003 Dimebag hooked up with his friend Jerry Cantrell from Alice in Chains, and showed him some demos he had made, they were well received and the Abbotts figured it was time to finish waiting for Anselmo. They announced the breakup of Pantera and formed Damageplan with Bob Zilla and Pat Lachman. The next year they released their debut album, New Found Power and started the infamous presentation tour which brought them to that concert on December 8.
The last words he spoke before the killer took the stage shooting were “Van Halen”. So despite the tragedy of his early death, we can feel some relief in what happened at the funeral when Gene Simmons took it upon himself to send one of the limited coffins from his beloved Kiss to bury Dimebag in, according to his wishes. But what he might have likely been more excited about was the appearance of Eddie Van Halen at his funeral with a very special gift.
The two guitarists had just met weeks before the incident, where Dimebag got to even play one of Van Halen’s guitars and when he left with his lifelong girlfriend he said, “If I die tonight, I don’t care because I’ve done it all, I’ve met Eddie Van Halen!”. Not only had they just met, but they had ended up partying together and Dimebag asked him for a reproduction of Bumblebee, the famous Van Halen guitar he wore on the cover of the second album of the band. After his death, Van Halen called his girlfriend to ask what he could do, she recalled his wanting a copy of that guitar, but when Eddie came to the funeral, he didn’t show up with a copy, he had the original, his words to the family were as follows: “Dime was an original, he deserves the original”. So Dimebag was buried with his favourite guitar.
Terry Glaze, Pantera’s first singer, conceded that if when they were teens someone had told Darrell that Eddie Van Halen was going to leave his guitar on his grave, his exact words would have been “kill me now”. So we won’t weep for Dimebag, we raise a bottle of whiskey to the sky and toast him, and consider that he’s playing Bumblebee in Metal heaven (or would it be Metal hell?).