The news came in that Dimebag Darrell had been shot dead. The next night I wrote this obituary, just as a way to mark my thoughts on the event.
Over the years on Metalireland a piss-take attitude has developed around the metal culture that Pantera pretty much ushered in. That’s fair enough. But we have to separate it from celebrating a guitar genius.
Maybe you agree: maybe you don’t. But a significant metal musician lost his life in utterly tragic and unnecessary circumstances.
It was a big, big deal, and it pays to remember it.
Two days ago on December 8th 2004, former Pantera and Damageplan guitarist ‘Dimebag’ Darrell Abbot was murdered while onstage with his bandmates at a concert hall in Ohio.
In a chilling sequence of events that doubtless needs little retelling courtesy of the wildfire rumour mill that is the internet, Darrell, along with two fans and a third as yet unidentified person perished brutally at the hand of a crazed gunman, purported at the time of writing to be a demented fan and former US marine.
The shockwave that has reverberated through the metal world has been enormous and profound. And for once, the power of this shock has been all the more charged with the force not of hysterical fawning, but of pure reason and respect.
That reason was that as a guitarist and songwriter, Darrell Abbott turned not only heavy metal but rock music in general completely on its head in the colourful decade that was the 1990’s. With his distinctive rhythmic style, searing lead work and trademark focus on total tautness in execution, he left a legacy that was far reaching even in his all too brief lifetime.
It is hard to comprehend that Darrell is no longer with us: despite being past his creative prime, and with his most canonical work largely happening from ‘90 – ’95, those five years for many people summed up what it meant to
be a metal guitarist; every element of his playing gave something to aspire to whether one played an instrument or merely watched the magic with which he controlled it.
Anecdotes have been in abundance over the last fifteen years concerning Darrell’s precaucious talent. Banned, as the metal lore has it, from every guitar competition in his home Texas by his late teens because he simply won too many, the scene was set for an emergent talent.
Constantly paying homage to his hero Ace Frehly of Kiss, which included a brace of much aped tattoos, his guitar playing was the result of a life’s education from both the aforementioned and the equally inspirational Eddie Van Halen.
Fusing the inherent feel of the first with the technical wizardry of the second gave Darrell the best of both worlds from which to work, and his constant references back to both would be apparent to the end.
Pantera, no matter what the diverse and clamourous opinions these days, was a group of substance. Many overlook the fact that the same four (extremely close) people built the band from scratch to the multi million selling metal Titan that it became; despite the rancour and animosity that accompanied the band’s eventual dissolution, they enjoyed thirteen years of almost unparalleled critical and popular acclaim in the mainstream rock consciousness.
They did this by virtue of solid and inventive musicianship; but they also attained the stature and respect that they amassed through having a nascent star in their ranks. The classic mould of controversial frontman and guitar wizard would not come to dominate Pantera as it would with others through rock history however.
The inherent and obvious power of their collective contribution would indeed rarely be overlooked. It was, though, Darrell’s compelling and groundbreaking guitar work that became the focus of the band’s media presence, and the yardstick by which its releases would be judged.
The triumvirate of 1990’s Cowboys From Hell, 92’s Vulgar Display of Power, and 94’s Far Beyond Driven remains to this day the definitive expression of the potential and power of what it meant to be at the bleeding edge of heavy metal in the 1990’s.
By that statement I emphatically do not mean the type of Heavy Metal sanctified and rightfully revered by genre addicts and underground enthusiasts; after all we count ourselves among them; I mean the Heavy Metal that was still able to be mainstream without losing either power, conviction or intensity. Even in the million selling bracket, Pantera were markedly not a band pandering to the market savvy executives at television channels, and are not even comparable to those same acts that dominate the mainstream market today.
In short they were a band of integrity. But with these three seminal albums, Darrell made immortal his ability and creativity on the six strings. With these three albums he brought to those millions of people that heard them a new expression, and an expansion of the possibilities of guitar and its role within the band.
In the era of high Grunge, it is important to view Pantera, and Dimebag’s role, in its correct place. After the melodrama of the eighties, the Grunge revolution was instilling in the youth of the day, myself and many others reading included, the slacking and unpretentious mentality that would come to be spearheaded by the likes of Mudhoney, Nirvana, Tad and all their contemporaries. While a good time for unaffected songwriting, it was a low one for flashing rock guitar.
Old Fender and Gretsch guitars were for a time all the rage, eminently suitable for those who only knew four chords. Beginning with Cowboys but literally exploding with the tome that was Vulgar Display of Power, Dimebag brought the standards of theatre, colour and pure unadulterated ability back to the arena of rock guitar. While eighties flashmasters like Paul Gilbert, Vinnie Moore and even Mr. Van Halen himself were by 1992 almost a memory, if not a veritable a skeleton in the closet, Dimebag showed that technical talent and genuine musical expression were not mutually exclusive.
In gracing the cover of every single guitar magazine on both sides of the Atlantic with his trademark (and remember at that time highly faux pas) pointy guitar, he inspired a whole generation of errant youngsters to rethink what they wanted to do with their instruments, which was of course to play as well as they could. And nine times out of ten, as fast as they could. An unlikely prophet, he was the figurehead for rock guitar over the entire decade.
From my own point of view I am both proud and glad to say I was part of the legion he inspired, and like many others, heavily so. As an impressionable twelve year old in 1992 when Vulgar thundered its way into the popular consciousness, I saw in him a representation of everything that I and thousands more aspired to: the beard, the hair, the attitude, the swagger and most importantly the sheer talent and tone.
So deep did the affection run at this time in my life that I harassed my mother to buy me a pair of grey ‘Champion’ exercise shorts, logo on the left hand bottom side, just to get the look; and in a mildly more embarrassing admission of youthful fashion aping, I also wore my grandfather’s white long johns under my cut short army bags to a school non-uniform day.
Tattered converse and a plaid shirt were again standard. Looking back now I’m not even remotely ashamed; this man was a lifestyle as well as a musician to any rock-minded youngster of the day. We all have our stories.
After the Vulgar explosion, things got markedly more serious. By 1994, a little older, the darkened pummel of Far Beyond Driven was an electrifying assault for those of us whose immersion in the likes of the two previous tomes had led to greater extremities. For my own part, having been educated in the intervening two years by a healthy quantity of Death and the Florida scene in general, the more brutal and forceful tones on this record were a gift in mainstream metal.
For Darrell’s part, he was still forging new ground. With the track “Becoming” on this cd, Darrell re introduced the world to what would become known as the Whammy Pedal; a device marketed by effects makers Digitech allowing ear piercing squeals and warbling dives. It was another component of an already formidable creative arsenal with which this man was able to take his flair to the masses.
He may not have been the true first user, but he was certainly the most high profile and doggedly utilitarian. It showed again the respect in which fledging guitarists everywhere held him that the device became an industry standard, largely on his behalf.
His chopping, abrasive and at times engine-like rhythm tone continues to impress and confound. A lifelong advocate of solid-state amplifiers (still despised by many for their lack of warmth and grace), he single handedly resurrected the fortunes of the Randall company, whose amps he endorsed when no-one else would go near them with a barge pole.
But aside from the inexplicable power of his tone, it was his non-reliance on a second guitarist that marked his genius. Because there were four in the band, many often overlook the fact that instrumentally they were actually a three piece. Darrell, his drumming brother Vinnie-Paul and, crucially, the lynch pin bassist Rex Brown forged a watertight and unique riffing machine based entirely around this man’s ability to embellish and harmonize the seemingly impossible.
Where any other guitarist would need immediate backup to prevent the arse falling out of their sound, Darrell was able to soar – to counteract the drums and bass in such a way as to both feed off them and to somehow nourish them in so doing. His lead and rhythm playing were as paradoxically brilliant as that.
As was said earlier, this man’s genius was both recognized and applauded in his lifetime. For this he is lucky. Many tributes will be paid both in the print and online media in the coming weeks, and doubtless many will refer to his personal qualities.
This article is not about that; obviously enough, never knowing the man gives no authority to say such things. This obituary is intended as a mark of respect to a genuinely trailblazing and energizing guitarist of superb and unparalleled influence that was the guiding metal guitarist of the last decade and a half. No other contemporary guitarist has enjoyed the critical stature that Darrell not only enjoyed, but earned.
Darrell Abbot’s life has been cruelly and horrifically ended. But his was a rich and well lived life, as anyone who has had their ribs cracked by the Pantera road movies can attest.
In purely material terms, Darrell was able to not only make a living from Metal, but make more of a living than any of us can ever dream of. With millions of albums sold, his was a life that was able to be dedicated to music, free from financial worries. He will have seen more of the world than we will ever see in a lifetime; tours brought Pantera across at least five continents.
In this respect his was a life well lived and full of experience. The remainder of his years have been robbed of him, and for this we can only bear sadness and anger. He has been one of a lucky few to make a wonderful living from the music we fanaticise over and such deserves credence for this alone.
Summarising this piece is an extremely difficult task, not least because by this stage the writer’s drunkenness is hampering typing to the extreme. The poison is wine rather than Jack, but the point remains. Much has not been said that could perhaps have been well said, and many a tale or insightful point may have been omitted.
In short, Darrell Abbot was a Guitar Hero. This, readers, is no mean undertaking and not an accolade handed out with flippancy. When I speak on behalf of guitarists of a certain age everywhere, I mean to say that he was the next in a line presided over by the likes of Hendrix, Page, Clapton and Van Halen; Darrell was the next link in the chain, and to the date of writing, not one person has yet appeared to either continue his lineage or steal his crown.
It is as simple or as difficult as that. He was the complete rock guitarist – fearsomely able in his scorching leads, and yet, almost more importantly, the creative backbone of a band whose rhythms and riffs were to define a generation of metal guitar; indeed his rhythm work, which formed the bulk of his oevre, may in time come to be regarded as the more impressive of his wares in the long run.
I am not blindly eulogizing, and this article is a statement of pure fact. Darrell Abbott, in his audacious and spellbindingly articulate guitar work, was the figurehead of a generation of metal guitarists.
We may have all grown up now and become immersed in the trivialities of what is or is not extreme; what is or is not ‘true’; but what is important and the end of the day is the music and how it makes you feel. And I wager that whatever the reader’s stance toward Pantera and their music, at the very least, a respect for the purity and honesty of their metal enterprise and Darrell’s integral role in it must be forthcoming.
Groove need not be a dirty word. Though the so called “nu metal” musical farce borrowed much from his legacy, Darrell’s pioneering of what he termed throughout his career as “power-groove” was infused with honesty, metal muscle and total dedication to the power of the guitar. His vulgar successors in this day and age cannot even claim nearly the same distinction. Pantera, in my opinion, were the last Metal band who truly deserved the multi million sales and critical respect that they deserved. The lion’s share of this was Darrell’s doing.
Musical legends pass, regrettably. Cancer and heart failure have deprived us of two of the genres leading lights in the last five years alone. But murder is an entirely different matter. Whereas the first is ultimately saddening, a reason can at least be found and some heart taken, no matter how difficult. The second circumstance however is almost incomprehensible.
A Guitar Legend, in the most authentic a truest sense of the world, has been cruelly robbed of us.
His place in rock and metal history however is both assured and deserved.
Rest in Peace: a true innovator, inspiration and unequalled talent.
– Earl Grey ::: 11/12/04