Ten years after the onstage shooting of Pantera legend “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott, Billboard spoke with the guitar god’s friends, family, and fellow rock icons about the hole the 38-year-old shredder’s death left in metal and in their lives. Here, former Pantera frontman Phil Anselmo remembers his bandmate, their good and bad times and why he knows that had Dimebag lived, they would’ve “buried the hatchet a long time ago.”
When did you first become aware of Pantera?
Playing in local bands in New Orleans, I did a very similar circuit. Their reputation was somewhat legendary. They were considered the band that would be signed to a major label, and they would be the next big act to come out of the South. But things didn’t really get interesting for me personally until [former Pantera vocalist] Terry [Glaze] quit and they were searching for “that guy” to take his place. Then I started to check out the records.
What was your initial impression of Dime as a guitarist?
He was absolutely awesome. There was no doubt about that. As a matter of fact, there was a band from New Orleans called Lillian Axe, and they had a guitar player who was pretty much a shredder. His name was Steve Nunenmacher, better known as Stevie Blaze. There was this ongoing, “Who’s better — Stevie or Darrell?” thing. In truth, although I was friends with Steve, it was clear to me who the better player was, and it was Darrell. But the first time I went and jammed with Pantera it was very clear that not only were the three of them — [bassist] Rex [Brown], Vinnie [Paul] and Dime — the tightest guys I had ever had the luxury to jam with, but as a player Dime was as absolutely badass. He was insane. He was always an incredible player. And I’m talking about 1987 here. The first time I ever watched him play was really mind-blowing.
It’s often been said that it was your influence that brought about Pantera’s shift from the more glam-oriented metal they played with Terry Glaze to the harder, more ferocious music the band eventually became known for. But was that musical shift happening before you came aboard?
The first day I met the guys, we ended up back at Dime and Vinnie’s house, when they lived with their mom. We listened to some new demos that they were doing and it was pretty obvious that it was very, very aggressive compared to the other records. So people might look at the Power Metal record [Pantera’s first album with Anselmo] and snicker under their breath, but I pretty much defy any guitar player out there to this day to play the “Power Metal” riff correctly and with as much vigor as Dime. It’s an insane riff, man.
But either way, we had a conversation that first night about the direction we were going in, and what they were looking for. And they were all aboard the heavy metal express and the idea of moving in a heavier direction. I just think that they weren’t as informed as I was as to what was out there and how progressive things had really gotten. And that’s where I came in. That ended up being part of my job: To educate them and turn them on to more underground acts — and to the power of the thrash-metal movement at the time.
What was Dime like outside of the music? Was he pretty much the same guy that, as fans of the band, we all came to know from interviews and various footage in the ‘90s?
That’s a complex question. Dimebag, when I first joined the band, had taken on the role of the leader because [Pantera] had lost their lead singer, who was a very dynamic personality on and offstage. So Dimebag took on that role — and there was nothing wrong with that — but it came to a point where there was a tremendous blowout between he and I and the rest of the band, and basically I had to tell him to lay off bragging about winning guitar contests at 13 years old: “Quit bragging so much, you motherfucker! We’re still sitting in the backstage of this shitty club!” You know? “We need to pull together and have a little more of a brotherhood here!”
Honestly, after that blowout, much to Dime’s credit, he heard me, he saw the argument very clearly, and he adjusted his attitude and really opened his mind. That shows great character. As far as him being that same guy that everybody knew and loved? He was always, always, always a comedian. Always a trickster. Always a handful. My God. He was a friggin’ handful. And, how do I say this? He was always the guy to go to: If you were bored on a Thursday night, or if he was bored on a Wednesday night, you’d get a phone call out of nowhere and that was it.
What about when Pantera would go into the studio? Was Dime a hard worker? Was he a perfectionist?
All those guys were insane perfectionists. You gotta remember, those were the days of actual tape. There was no Pro Tools or anything like that. So them being very meticulous in the studio could be almost maddening to a certain degree. But Dimebag was all business in the studio, and it showed. And really, at the end of the day, all my worries pretty much went out the window with the success of the band. It just goes to show you, what the fuck do I know?
Do you still hear Dime’s influence in current bands?
Of course. Especially his tonality. I think Dimebag has had a lot to do with modern tonality. There’s this sub- sub-genre of metal out there called “djent.” But these bands, they really just took one element from Pantera — well, I’ll say two elements: guitar tone and drum tone. In my opinion, they use those elements in a minimal way — Pantera was made up of a lot of pretty damn complex blues-oriented riffs, Texas rock and roll riffs. Case in point: If you listen to something like “By Demons Be Driven,” sure, we have the chugging chorus and the whining guitar, but the meat of the song, where the verses are, is one gigantic blues riff that never occurs in the same way twice. And that’s a talent. That’s something that these djent bands seem to have left out. The talent part of it, really. [Laughs.] And the groove.
Every once in a while you do see Pantera’s music pop up in the mainstream in an odd sort of way. Like, for instance, Madonna performing part of “A New Level” onstage at her shows.
Yeah. That was [pause] strange. She’s never reached out to any of us, so I appreciate her homage, but I just don’t understand it. But props to her for doing it.
What do you think Dime’s ultimate legacy is? How would he have wanted to be remembered?
Oh, shit, Dimebag would want to be remembered as the greatest heavy-metal guitar player of all time. That’s always going to be up for debate between folks out there with opinions, which is a whole lot of them. But I think that’s how he would want to be remembered.
But Dimebag was also a multifaceted guy. He loved having a damn camera in his hand. Everyone’s seen the footage on the Pantera home videos and that’s an area where he would have grown severely. Dimebag was the type of guy who, if he put his mind to anything — even something outside of the guitar — he would flourish. He could have done anything he wanted. I say this knowing the source, man. I was there. He had it all. He was the entire package, no doubt about it.
Dimebag had an enormous influence on heavy metal throughout his life. But did his death alter the course of the music in any way?
I’ve always said that if he was still alive today, he and I would have buried the hatchet a long time ago, and Pantera absolutely would have continued on and we would have made new records. And you know, if Pantera were still making records we would still be trying to be innovative in heavy metal. So the answer to your question is a probable yes — 95 percent yes.
Ten years later, is his murder something you’re still struggling with?
I can’t speak for other people but, honestly man, for me every year it gets tougher. Every year it gets harder to swallow. I’m honest-to-god dreading December , really. And it’s not just losing him, it’s that he was murdered. That’s the big gyp — when you feel like you’ve had something stolen from you. It never really quite sits right, man.