"Larger than life" are perhaps the words that best describe guitar legend Darrell Abbott — a.k.a. Dimebag Darrell — who was shot and killed onstage Wednesday night in Columbus, Ohio (see "Dimebag Darrell, Four Others Killed In Ohio Concert Shooting").
From the moment he and his brother Vinnie (who went by Vinnie Paul) formed Pantera in Dallas in 1982, Abbott lived to be a heavy metal hero and strived to take guitar playing to a new place. And when Pantera took off, he gleefully indulged in the spoils of rock stardom, launching his own strip club and endorsing his own line of guitars. But what he'll always be best remembered for is his mastery of his instrument.
For more than 15 years, Abbott's playing crackled and burned like a dangerous brushfire, first with Pantera, and then, when that band publicly exploded in 2000, with Damageplan, which he co-founded with Vinnie last year. He also worked on an album with country maverick David Allen Coe and guested on records by Nickelback, Anthrax and others. While he came of age in the '80s thrash-metal scene, Abbott had tremendous influence with the recent crop of metalcore and nü-metal acts.
"After Eddie Van Halen, you had Dimebag Darrell," said Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian. "He was the next guy that came along and did something as original and important on guitar."
"Dime's music gave me so much to live for when I was younger, and he truly changed the face of metal with his unique style of guitar playing," Chimaira frontman Mark Hunter said. "There isn't a metal band I know that hasn't borrowed a riff or three from him."
Indeed, Abbott's playing was powerful, innovative and unpredictable. He was equally capable of churning out crunching, staccato riffs as ominous textural arpeggios, and while he was metal to the core, his Texas roots and love for ZZ Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd gave his playing a southern swing that, in the early years of Pantera's success, was dubbed "power-groove." In addition, Abbott flavored his songs with squealing harmonics and tuneful lead licks that became an integral part of his rhythms. However, he may be best known for his searing, virtuosic leads, which were filled with lightning-fast runs that cascaded from his amplifiers like torrential rain.
"He could take a riff that would take somebody a year to master and he could rip it off in seconds," added Slipknot's Corey Taylor. "He made everything look like he was playing 'Smoke on the Water' with one finger."
Abbott's musical abilities playing were matched only by his outsized personality, which, as much as anything, resembled that of a professional wrestler. In 1999, when I was an editor at Guitar magazine, he agreed to an interview for a cover story — but he had some very clear and specific conditions. He wanted a fifth of Seagrams 7, two six-packs of Coors Light and a six-pack of Coca-Cola before he'd talk to me. And if the cans weren't cold, he'd walk. Once his terms were met, he was as cooperative and enthusiastic as a kid in sex-ed class, and gave me an interview that was colorful, funny and revealing.
It's important to note that Abbott wasn't being a jerk with those requests; he was just being Dime. He cherished being a rock star, was always "on," and lived to have a raucous good time. And he always made sure everyone around him was as pumped up, comfortable and/or inebriated as he was.
"He's the type of guy that would do anything for his friends," Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian said. "He really did put his family and his friends first, and for him everyone was his family. Once you came into contact with Dimebag and became friends with that guy, it was a sacred bond. Once you shared drinks with that guy, you became a part of his extended family."
Dime's adopted family included Dallas group Drowning Pool, just one of several bands the guitarist embraced and helped out by taking on tour and plugging in interviews. "Darrell inspired our lives and how we carried ourselves, not just as musicians out on the road but also as friends in everyday life," the band said in a statement.
"Him and Vinnie were at every show that we did from '99 all the way until the last time I saw him," Slipknot's Taylor said. "Every time we played Dallas and they were in town, they were there, and we would hang out every night."
Abbott was born on August 20, 1966, in Dallas, the son of country & western songwriter and producer Jerry Abbott. From an early age, he watched his dad in the studio, an experience that inspired him to be a musician. "I used to go down there as much as I could to see anybody play any kind of music," he told me in 1999. "I was lucky enough to get to see guys like Bugs Henderson, Jimmy Wallace, all those great Texas blues players."
He started listening to music by Merle Haggard and country maverick David Allen Coe, and as he got older, Abbott discovered ZZ Top and Skynyrd. But it was Kiss, and especially Van Halen, that turned the young Abbott on to rock music. Like Eddie Van Halen, Dime had originally played drums, but his older brother Vinnie showed more aptitude for the instrument, so at age 12, he switched to guitar. He quickly learned Boston's "More Than a Feeling" and Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water," after which his dad taught him some scales and music theory, but he said that his mistakes served him best on his road to musical discovery. "When I tried to play something and screwed up, I'd hear some other note that would come into play," he said. "And then I started moving it around and trying different things to find the beauty in it."
Three months after picking up a guitar, Abbott could already play better than most people who'd been hacking away at it for years. His brother was as much of a natural on drums. After winning several local guitar competitions, Dime and Vinnie formed Pantera with singer Terrence Lee and bassist Rex Brown in 1982. But that incarnation of the band had little in common with the blazing group that later created heavy metal landmarks like 1990's Cowboys From Hell and 1992's A Vulgar Display of Power. At first, Pantera more closely resembled a second-rate Def Leppard or Kiss, and for most of their career, the bandmembers distanced themselves from their first four albums, which were all released when Abbott was in his mid-teens.
The turning point for Pantera came when vocalist Phil Anselmo joined in 1988. His abrasive, hardcore vocal style encouraged the Abbotts to play a more aggressive form of music that had more in common with thrash bands like Metallica and Slayer. Two years later, Pantera were signed to major label Atlantic's Atco Records imprint and released the breakthrough Cowboys From Hell. Pantera toured exhaustively and quickly built a reputation as one of the most exciting live acts on the heavy-music circuit.
Even when Nirvana ushered in the alternative revolution and heavy metal faded from the charts, Pantera continued to thrive through the '90s, releasing uncompromising, uncommercial albums that connected with their dedicated fanbase. At the same time, Abbott was routinely elected as one of the top metal axemen in numerous readers polls, and the band continued to pack 'em in at shows. "People that love this form of music have loved it from way back — Sabbath, Zeppelin, the early days. And we still get those kind of cats coming out to our shows," Abbott said in a 2001 interview with MTV. "Once you're into it, you're into it for a lifetime. And maybe it's not the coolest thing when it comes to what's on top of the charts, but that sh-- that's been on top of the charts — on and off, on and off, a million times — and we're still standing strong. So we'll be here forever. United and hard we f---ing stand."
Pantera reached the end of the line in 2000. After releasing Reinventing the Steel, the band played Ozzfest for the second time, a tour about which Godsmack frontman Sully Erna commented, "I'm just glad we're going on before Pantera — that's a hard act to follow." But while the band remained as tight as ever onstage, offstage a rift was growing ever wider between the Abbott brothers and Anselmo. After two years on indefinite hold and scathing comments from both camps, Pantera officially broke up, and the Abbotts eventually formed Damageplan with singer Patrick Lachman, who'd formerly been a guitarist with ex-Judas Priest singer Rob Halford; he'd become friends with the Abbotts in 2000 during a Dallas tour stop. When Halford rejoined Judas Priest, Lachman was out of a job, and called up Dime. "I said, 'Well, I got the guitars handled,' and he said, 'Dude, I can sing. Let me take a shot at it,' " Abbott recalled in an interview in January. "So, we gave him a couple [tracks] to try, [and] he nailed them, and it was on."
The band's debut album, New Found Power, came out in February of this year, and proved that not only could Dimebag still rip, he also could evolve. In addition to crushing grooves, the record was packed with atmospheric flourishes and a combination of caustic and melodic vocals. Damageplan spent most of this year on tour, and were planning to spend much of 2005 on the road before going back into the studio to record new material.
The mark that Abbott left on heavy music and its community is indelible. He was a stellar player, a true character and an unforgettable friend to many. "He was one of the coolest people I've ever met," said Slipknot's Corey Taylor. "The guy just loved to laugh and he loved to make you laugh. And he loved to make you do something that you would never do in a million years. He was a guy that lived in the moment. His philosophy was, 'Let's do something that is gonna make us remember tonight for the rest of our lives.' And that's something I'm gonna f---ing miss for the rest of mine."
For more artists' reactions to the death of Dimebag Darrell, check out "Ozzy, Dave Mustaine, Jonathan Davis Remember Dimebag".
For fans' reactions, check out "Hundreds Of Fans Gather At Club Honor Dimebag Darrell" and You Tell Us.
Click here for more on the tragic death of Dimebag Darrell and the Ohio club shooting.
For much more on Dimebag Darrell's life, music and influence, tune in to a special edition of "Headbangers Ball" premiering Saturday night at 10 p.m. ET on MTV2.