'Dimebag' Darrell: 10 Years Later, a Look Back at the Murder of the Last Guitar God
On Dec. 14, 2004, "Dimebag" Darrell Abbott, former guitarist of influential metal band Pantera, lay in repose at the Moore Funeral home in Arlington, Texas, head resting on the pillow of the gaudy Kiss Kasket he had once asked to be buried in. A black-and-yellow Charvel "bumblebee" guitar -- a parting gift from his hero and colleague Eddie Van Halen -- lay in the 38-year-old's arms. Unopened bottles of Seagram's Seven and Crown Royal whiskey rested beside him.
Abbott so famously adored Crown Royal that as the mourners -- many of whom were deeply distraught members of at least 15 prominent metal bands like Alice in Chains, Anthrax and Slipknot-- filed past him, a number added miniature booze bottles to the casket. "I was worried that his coffin stand was going to collapse," remembers Rita Haney, Abbott's longtime companion. "The pallbearers complained about how heavy the coffin was." Haney had known Abbott since he was 8, when they rode bikes together in the same Texas neighborhood. "It was such a weird day, but the feeling of family was so wonderful. It was like Darrell was there, throwing one more party."
Six nights earlier, Damageplan, the post-Pantera band Abbott formed with older brother Vinnie Paul, headlined the Alrosa Villa, a 700-person club in Columbus, Ohio. The groove-metal foursome had just kicked off its opening song, "Breathing New Life," when a 25-year-old man in a hockey jersey stormed the stage and headed directly for the guitarist, firing a Beretta 9mm handgun at the back of his head, as Paul looked on from behind the drum set. (Paul, who currently plays in the metal band Hellyeah, declined to be interviewed for this story.)
"He was like Blutarsky in Animal House," says Wylde of Abbott, shown photographed at his home in 2003.
Initially, witnesses thought the commotion was firecrackers, or a novel bit of rock theater. But when Abbott went down, his guitar shrieking feedback, the gunman, a former Marine named Nathan Gale, kept shooting while crew members struggled with him. Security-camera footage of the incident exists on YouTube; a voice onstage pleads, "Call 911, somebody!" amid frantic screams. That night, Gale killed four people, including Abbott, and injured two others before police officer James Niggemeyer arrived and killed the suspect, who had taken a hostage (John "Kat" Brooks, Paul's drum tech), with a 12-gauge shotgun. The attack occurred Dec. 8, the same date Mark David Chapman murdered John Lennon in 1980. The motive? While it was initially reported that Gale blamed Abbott for breaking up Pantera, his favorite band, the former semi-pro football player was a schizophrenic convinced that Pantera was stealing his thoughts.
Almost 10 years later, former Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley, whose face Abbott had tattooed on his chest, still remembers being at his Westchester, N.Y., home when he heard the news. "It was like a Twilight Zone moment, where I pinched myself to see if I was dreaming," says Frehley, who dedicated his 2009 solo album, Anomaly, to Abbott. "He was the last guy in the world you would think something like that would happen to, because everybody loved Dimebag."
Everyone did love Abbott. Guitar World called him "The World's Most Dangerous Guitarist," and he has appeared on nine of the magazine's covers. Beloved for his cartoonish wild-man image, he landed product-endorsement deals with gear companies like Washburn and Dean Guitars, all of which manufactured special "Dimebag Darrell" signature lines. Van Halen revered Abbott's talent so deeply, the guitar he put in his coffin was a personal 1979 vintage model, telling Haney, "An original should have an original."
"Dime was as groundbreaking with his riffs as Tony Iommi was with his," says Zakk Wylde, Black Label Society leader and former Ozzy Osbourne guitarist, who had been one of Abbott's closest friends for more than a decade. "Pantera was the Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath of that genre of music, the Beatles and Stones of that music. You have great bands -- and then you have bands that changed the game."
Pantera was certainly the latter. With four Grammy nominations, the band has sold 9.1 million albums to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan; its 1994 album, Far Beyond Driven, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, has sold more than 1.5 million copies. "Walk," one of the band's most popular songs, regularly blasts at MLB and NFL games. The metal titans have become such a cultural touchstone that Madonna has performed Abbott's riff from Pantera's "A New Level" live, and in 2013, a children's music company released Lullaby Versions of Pantera. But without Abbott, none of that would have been possible. Ten years after his death, it's increasingly clear he was more than a game-changer -- in fact, he may have been the last guitar god.
Abbott's gravestone in Arlington, Texas.
Born on Aug. 20, 1966, Darrell Lance Abbott grew up immersed in music, watching his father, Jerry, record local blues and country artists at his Pantego Studios outside of Arlington, Texas. Abbott and Paul both took up drums when they were 11 and 13, respectively, but Abbott switched to guitar when Paul proved superior on the drum kit. Frehley was one of Abbott's earliest heroes; in a short amount of time, Abbott was able to duplicate Frehley's licks with stunning proficiency.
By his teens, Abbott had become good enough to blow away older musicians. Buddy Blaze, a luthier from Texas, recalls seeing him around 1981, playing cover songs at a club. "He was maybe all of 85 pounds," remembers Blaze, then 21, whose wife worked with Abbott's mother at an oil company. "The guitar was enormous on him. He looked like this twig with bushy hair."
Abbott was so talented that local guitar contests disqualified him. "I had heard stories about this f---ing kid who was so badass that he kept winning this contest every year for the best new guitar player," remembers Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell, who met Abbott after moving to Houston in 1984. "He won it so many times in a row they f---ing kicked him out and made him a judge. Like, ‘You can't do this anymore, man. Nobody else has a shot!' "
Inspired by Eddie and Alex Van Halen's partnership, the Abbott brothers formed an early version of Pantera in 1981, with Paul adopting his middle name as his stage surname, and Abbott taking "Diamond" in tribute to David Lee Roth's "Diamond Dave" persona. At first, Pantera was a glam band, self-releasing three records, but by 1988, with the addition of singer Phil Anselmo, the group began incorporating thrash-metal covers into its sets.
Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine was so impressed by Abbott's shredding that he offered him the lead guitar spot in his band. "He goes, 'Alright, man -- can I bring my brother?'" recalls Mustaine. "I was like, 'I don't get it -- what the f---? He's got to bring his brother? Is it like Rain Man or something?' " Megadeth had just hired a drummer, so Abbott, ever loyal to Paul, declined the opportunity.
In July 1990, Pantera released Cowboys From Hell on Atlantic subsidiary Atco, and the record fully showcased the band's distinctive "power groove" sound for the first time. Marked by the swinging, thunderous rhythm section of Paul and bassist Rex Brown, Anselmo's hardcore bark and the percussive chords, rapid-fire runs and harmonic squeals of the newly dubbed "Dimebag Darrell" -- so christened because he was always hooking Anselmo up with small amounts of marijuana -- it was "extreme metal" before the term existed.
"They changed everything," says Wylde, who still dedicates the song "In This River" to Abbott at every Black Label Society show. "Production-wise, you can use those Pantera records as a Model-T Ford for extreme metal; it's like, ‘This is how these records in this style of music have to be made.' "
Pantera had a well-deserved reputation for partying, but the forceful attack of 1992's Vulgar Display of Power, an album that peaked at No. 44 on the Billboard 200, testified to the countless hours that Abbott spent in the studio, ensuring that every pick stroke was synched with Brown's bass and Paul's kick drum.
"You've got to remember, those were the days of actual tape," says Anselmo. "There was no Pro Tools. So them being very meticulous in the studio could be almost maddening. But Dimebag was all business in the studio, and it showed."
At a time when metal had been almost fully eclipsed by grunge, Pantera's 1994 Far Beyond Driven debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, and may be the heaviest album ever to top the chart. The record went gold within six weeks of its release, and spent 29 weeks on the chart.
Abbott's ferocious playing was a major factor in its success. Growing up in an era where technical proficiency was king among guitar players, he had all manner of tricks in his arsenal, from squealing harmonics to lightning-fast arpeggios to vertigo-inducing whammy-bar dive bombs. But something that set Abbott apart from his contemporaries was his ability to absorb the techniques of his idols -- including Van Halen, Iommi and Randy Rhoads -- and mash them into something soulful, personal and rhythmic. Live, his tone was so thick and distorted that he could shake an arena with a single chord, yet he also played with such precision and dexterity that his single-note passages never got lost in the thunder.
"His playing was so massive," says Eddie Trunk, host of VH1 Classic's That Metal Show, "that he certainly sounded like more than one guitarist was playing."
"As a musician, he was always striving," adds Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford, who used Pantera as a backing band for his 1992 contribution to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer soundtrack. "If you listen to his playing on Cowboys From Hell, and then Vulgar Display of Power and Far Beyond Driven, it's going to places that no one had previously ever heard."
Pantera released two more studio albums, 1996's The Great Southern Trendkill and 2000's Reinventing the Steel -- both peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 -- but tension between Anselmo and the rest of the band, including the singer's widely reported heroin use and habit of disappearing, gradually pulled apart Pantera.
In early 2003, the Abbotts announced they were leaving Pantera to found a new project, Damageplan, whose 2004 debut album, New Found Power, proved a difficult sell. That same year, Anselmo was quoted in the December issue of Metal Hammer magazine as saying that Dimebag "deserves to be beaten severely." (He has always claimed he was joking.) That was the same month that the brothers, who once headlined arenas, toured the small clubs Pantera played in its Cowboys From Hell days. The Alrosa Villa was one of them.
Ten years after Abbott's death, heavy metal is still very much alive, even without his input: Black Sabbath and Avenged Sevenfold both topped the Billboard 200 in 2013, and Slipknot debuted at No. 1 in November. But in a culture that has become increasingly subdivided -- where arguments over what constitutes, say, melodic black metal versus symphonic black metal rage in perpetuity on the Internet -- Pantera was the last band upon which everyone could agree.
"They're one of those bands that we're very proud to call an influence," says Mark Morton, lead guitarist for groove-metal veterans Lamb of God. "We still have to check ourselves and make sure what we're doing isn't sounding too Pantera-y."
Abbott's influence has grown since his death. Hot Topic sells "Dime" T-shirts; Activision's Guitar Hero II video game included the "Dimebag Darrell Award" achievement; and Dean Guitars' sales have doubled, thanks to the popularity of their Dimebag models. "The company was like a $15 million company," recalls founder and former owner Dean Zelinsky, who is no longer affiliated with Dean Guitars. "Two, three years later we're doing $36 million. The company had hundreds of models, and the Dime line was doing the lion's share."
Cries for a Pantera reunion still swirl, with Wylde usually cited as Abbott's stand-in. But if Abbott had lived, there's a chance the band might have already reunited. "If he was still alive today, he and I would have buried the hatchet a long time ago," says Anselmo. "Pantera absolutely would have continued on and we would have made new records."
"It's so hard to believe it's been 10 years," says Haney, who today runs Dimebag Hardware, a website that sells clothing she and Abbott designed. "The first three years or so were a definite blur. People would say things like, ‘Oh, it gets better after a year.' But in many ways, it never really does."
Additional reporting by Richard Bienstock and Christa Titus.
This article first appeared in the Nov. 29 issue of Billboard.