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, Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford remembers his friend, “Dime.”
You first crossed paths with Pantera in 1990, right?
Before we go there, let me just tell you something that was really cool that happened just a few days ago when [Judas Priest] was in Dallas. [Abbott’s older brother] Vinnie [Paul] came to the show, and I hadn’t seen Vinnie in years. Vinnie was standing there with some friends, backstage — and we talked about how I was in Canada rehearsing for the Painkiller tour, and I saw Dimebag on MuchMusic wearing a British Steel T-shirt. I called the studio and said, “Is that guy still there? This is Rob from Priest!” They went and got him. They said, “He’s freaking out, you know; he would love to meet you!” I said, “Ask him to stay, if he can, and I’ll just jump in a cab and come over to the studio.” So I did and that was the first time we met. We became instant friends. That was the great thing about Dime: He was an approachable guy. He loved metal, and he loved meeting everybody who was into that kind of thing!
Did you jam with the band that same night?
I did. That night, I went along to the little club that they were playing in Toronto — there were a handful of people there — and I went onstage and jammed “Metal Gods” with them. That was the start of what they call a beautiful friendship! We were very close, pretty much up to the time that he was taken away from us.
Would you say there was no real division between Dimebag the rock star and Dimebag the fan? It was like he never lost touch with his metal-crazed inner teenager.
Yes! He was so thrilled to be able to do something that he loved so much. He was just constantly playing that guitar — he loved the experience of being onstage and performing. But he kept it real. Pantera was climbing and climbing and climbing, but he kept his feet firmly on the ground. He was still Dimebag: No matter where you bumped into him — at a show, on the street, in a club — he would always have time for you. That’s something to be treasured in our world because of course it can get very dysfunctional when you achieve success — things can change, sometimes for the worst. But with Dimebag, he kept it real.
How well did Pantera go over with Priest audiences on that European Painkiller tour in 1991?
Oh, it was mindblowing! We have an expression in the UK: “Gobsmacked.” [Laughs.] It means you ram your hand to your face, like, “Oh my God, what the fuck is this?” That was the effect that Pantera had consistently through the European tour. I think the fans appreciated witnessing something really revolutionary in metal, which is what Pantera were — especially Dimebag! I would put Dimebag in the same territory as Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Eddie Van Halen, all the guitarists that we think about when we think about rock and metal. And that’s how Pantera were: They would go out to an audience that was pretty cold and unreceptive, and they would have them jumping and screaming and going absolutely fucking crazy by the time they finished their set, 45 minutes later.
Tell me about “Light Comes Out of Black,” the song you recorded with Pantera for the Buffy the Vampire Slayer film soundtrack. How did that come about?
I was away from Priest, and it was kind of a rush job. I’d been asked by Sony Pictures to do this song, and I didn’t have anybody to turn to. I thought, “Only Dimebag can help me,” so I picked up the phone and called him. He said, “Yeah, man — can you come down to Dallas?” I went down the next day, and they put the song together so quickly and efficiently; they produced a really spectacular rendition of the demo I’d put together. It was professionalism on a very easy level, but with an absolutely top-notch, top-standard attitude and complete dedication.
Dime had such a reputation as a partier that people forget just how meticulous he was when it came to recording — and how serious he was about his art.
Yeah, he was able to balance that really well. He loved to go out and party — after every show, as I remember! It’s a dream come true to be part of a band that’s becoming successful and when you come offstage, you don’t want to go to your hotel room, close the door, sit there and be by yourself. You want to keep the excitement — the vibe and the energy roaring — and Dimebag was doing that consistently. He loved to be around people, whether it was musicians or fans; he just loved to live the life of a rock-and-roll star.
You said you consider Dimebag on the same level as Hendrix, Page and Van Halen. What was it about his playing that elevated him to that rarefied plateau?
If you watch Dimebag play — and I had plenty of opportunities to do so — he has his own distinctive way of using his hands. The dexterity, the clarity and the diction in his playing is remarkable: Every note is clean, and cutting through, precise and aggressive and focused. When Dimebag stepped out, people were just going, “What is this guitar player doing? I’ve never heard anything like it!” And he absolutely maintained it. Their records got progressively more brutal and more intense and more volatile, up to the point where the band unfortunately crashed and burned, and Dime went off to do Damageplan. It was a real shame that happened, but I understood why it happened. I could completely relate to it.
Do you think he would have taken his guitar playing even further had he lived? Or had he already peaked?
He left us at nowhere near his peak. I think that, by now, he would have left the world even more “gobsmacked.” [Laughs.] Gobsmacked past eleven! As a musician, he was always striving. 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.
I’m just blessed that he was a real, genuine friend, and I’ve got wonderful memories inside me that I’ll always have. We may not live forever, but the music does, and that’s where Dimebag will always be. His guitar-playing will be eternal.