Jerry Abbott: Father Dime

Originally published in Guitar World, January 2010

Five years after Dimebag Darrell’s death, Jerry Abbott, the legendary axman’s father, opens up about his son’s childhood, his early passion for the guitar and his life as “one hell of a dude.”

Dimebag Darrell Abbott's death on December 8, 2004, was one of music’s most shocking and saddening losses. In one tragic moment, his life was taken as he performed onstage, and one of metal’s best-loved and most influential guitarists was silenced.

In the five years that have passed since then, many of Dime’s closest friends and peers—including his brother and lifelong bandmate, Vinnie Paul—have paid tribute to his talent and larger-than-life hell-raising personality. While all of them have given us insight into Dimebag’s personality and talent, only one person really knows what shaped and influenced Darrell’s love of music and the guitar: his father, Jerry “LD” Abbott.

Jerry was a professional musician, as well as a recording engineer, a role he performs to this day at his studio in Nashville. He also played a vital role in both Dime’s and Pantera’s all-important formative years. In addition to kick-starting Darrell’s career as a guitarist by giving him his first batch of lessons, he managed and engineered/produced Pantera from their formation in 1981, right up to the band landing a major-label deal in late 1989.

Jerry Abbott’s own lifelong involvement with music began at age eight, when he started taking piano lessons and continued when he picked up the guitar at 15. At 18, he turned his passion into his profession by joining a band that toured around Texas. After a few years, Jerry came off the road and worked as a member of resident bands in various clubs. “During that time I also went to school and got a business degree,” he says. “Then I ran into a fellow who owned a recording studio who was looking for an engineer. Even though I’d never done that before, I took the job, and it all worked out in the long run. That was around ’73, and Darrell had been born in ’66. So by the time he got to eight or nine, he was hanging around the studio quite a lot.”

GUITAR WORLD When did it first become apparent that Darrell was interested in pursuing music as a participant rather than just an observer?

JERRY ABBOTT He would’ve been somewhere around 11 years old. Prior to that, even though he enjoyed hanging around the studio, he was just a little, free soul that enjoyed skateboarding and riding his bike a lot—you know, things that any normal kid would do. He gave no indication of what was to come. [laughs]

GW Dime initially wanted to be a drummer though, right?

ABBOTT Yeah, but Vinnie hogged ’em and wouldn’t give his brother a shot. [laughs] So Dime decided he wanted to play the guitar. It was literally an overnight thing. All of a sudden we had another guitar player in the family.

GW What was his first guitar?

ABBOTT It was a Hondo Les Paul copy we bought him for his birthday, which happened to fall right around the time he decided he wanted to play.

GW I remember Dime telling me it was a choice between a guitar and a new bike.

ABBOTT Yep. He definitely made the right call on that one. [laughs]

GW Was he serious right from the very start?

ABBOTT Yeah, he was pretty doggoned serious right out of the gate. I still remember him at a talent show they had at his school when he was about 12 years old. They opened the curtain, and there he was—him, his guitar and a little amplifier, wearing Ace Frehley makeup and the Kiss costume that he and his brother had come up with. I think he played “Rock and Roll All Nite,” and the kids just loved it. Yeah, he was hardcore into it quick.

GW As you were a guitarist yourself, how long was it before he was bugging you to give him some lessons?

ABBOTT That happened pretty much right away. The first things were pretty simple—you know, basic open chords and barre chords. Then, after that, he started asking me to show him how to play songs.

GW Can you remember the very first song he wanted you to teach him?

ABBOTT Well, the first song that Vinnie and Dime actually played together was “Smoke on the Water.” They just fell in love with it and played it for three hours straight. I don’t remember showing him that, though. The first one I recall showing him was “Runnin’ with the Devil” by Van Halen.

By that time his mother and I had separated, but I didn’t live far away, so Dime would get on his bike and come over pretty darned regular. I can still remember him knocking on the door one day with his guitar in one hand and the first Van Halen record in the other. He wanted to learn how to play “Runnin’ with the Devil,” so he asked me to help him. A lot of the stuff in that particular song is simple enough for someone who’s a relatively new player to make happen. It’s not terribly involved, although to play it exactly like Eddie does is.

GW Can you remember any of the other songs he asked you to teach him?

ABBOTT It was either Van Halen, Ozzy Osbourne, Kiss or stuff by other popular hard rock bands that he took a liking to. Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads and Ace Frehley were his favorite players, for sure.

GW Did being his father as well as his teacher make any of those lessons difficult?

ABBOTT You know, we never had a father/son relationship, ever. We were friends. I treated my kids with respect and treated their talents the same way. I helped them every way I could as a friend. I didn’t candy-coat anything or keep anything from them; it was always straight up and out front. And they treated me the same way.

GW How often did Darrell come to you for lessons?

ABBOTT For a while it was an every-other-day kind of thing. Then, after about six months, he began to pick up the knack for doing it by himself. From there on in, he was able to do it on his own and do it well.

GW When did you realize that he had something special as a guitarist?

ABBOTT I realized that he had a knack for it for pretty much straight away. It wasn’t until he started going to guitar competitions and winning those just hands down, left and right, that things really changed in my mind. That’s when I thought, This is heading somewhere, and we can do something with this, for sure. This isn’t something that might happen if we work on it—it’s a for-sure thing. So when Vinnie and Dime got a band together and it had a name—Pantera—we started looking for gigs. Dime was 14 or 15 at the time, and Vinnie was 16 or 17.

GW Were you band manager at the time?

ABBOTT That’s right. I dealt with things like getting them club gigs. So I put them in the studio, made a demo of cover tunes and then started sending them out or going to booking agencies as the go-between for the clubs that worked that way. So, one way or another, they got gigs through me or because of me. A band’s also got to have musical instruments, a P.A. and a place to rehearse, so I went to the bank, borrowed some money and got ’er done.

If it needed to be done, I did it, and it was something that anyone in my positiowould do because of their kids’ potential. Plus, my whole life had been spent dealing in the music business, so I knew a lot of the ins and outs. As far as I was concerned, though, if the band ever got to major-label level, I’d step aside. And that’s exactly the way it went.

GW Dime would always refer to you as “LD ” whenever he talked about you with me. What does LD stand for?

ABBOTT Dime was real big on nicknames. When I first started working with the boys, because they were all so young, I jokingly referred to myself as “The Eld’n.” Darrell immediately changed that to “LD ,” and it stuck.

GW In addition to managing the band, you produced all four of the Pantera albums that were put out on the band’s own label, Metal Magic—Metal Magic [1983], Projects in the Jungle [1984], I Am the Night [1985] and Power Metal [1988]. How long after Power Metal did the band transition from their glam roots to the Pantera that the rest of the world came to know?

ABBOTT It was pretty quick, and some of it had to do with what Phil [Anselmo, the band’s second vocalist] did best vocally. The other factor was this: a fella who worked for a small record company in New York wanted to sign the band, but I politely told him, “Sorry, I’ve never heard of your label, so with all due respect, we’re gonna pass.” He said, “Well, would you like to hear what’s wrong with the band?” I did, and what he basically said was, “Your band is too good. It does too many things well and it’s too diversified. They need to decide what they want to do. Do that one thing and somebody major will sign this band.” That was the only time that someone pointed something out to me that made a difference. I thought enough of what he said to tell the boys. They all smiled, looked at each other, and each one of them knew exactly what they wanted to do—and that’s what you hear on Cowboys from Hell.

GW When the major-label deal with Atco finally came, was it hard for you to walk away after all that time?

ABBOTT No it wasn’t. The glam-rock thing that they were with Terry [Glaze, Pantera’s original vocalist] worked in the clubs. But when Phil came along and they took the more hard-edged approach, the thing they became, if you will, made them into a much bigger venue band. So it became hard to book them into the small local clubs they used to play because they just didn’t fit there anymore. So once again, it was meant to be. They needed to go to the next level, and along came a major label that allowed them to do so. Did I have a difficult time letting go? Absolutely not. I was never more thrilled that they’d gotten there…that we’d gotten there.

GW Pantera went on to enjoy multi-Platinum success on a global level and play some of the biggest venues in the world. Dime also won a host of “Best Guitarist” polls. What was your proudest moment?

ABBOTT The thing that made me most proud was the fact that he found his way in life early on and had all the things he needed to enjoy it. He also had a nice home that I really enjoyed going to. In fact, I always told him, “When I grow up I want to live upstairs in your house.” [laughs] In addition to all his success, he had the respect of everybody. Everywhere Dime went he was treated with the utmost respect, and that’s something people just don’t give up unless you’re somebody really special. That also made me very proud.

GW What songs do you think represent Darrell’s best work?

ABBOTT That’s a tough question, because he had so many tricks up his sleeve, including a great guitar tone. Even going back to the early days, I think there’s something different on every record for players to get into it. An awful lot of magic was captured.

GW Do you have a favorite Pantera song?

ABBOTT That’s another tough one, because I honestly like them all. I love the power of that music. The only thing I didn’t care for was the lyrics, but I never really listened for those. I just enjoyed the music’s power. When you’re sitting there in a control room and it welds you to the back wall, it’s a good feeling.

GW What would you consider were Dime’s biggest strengths as both a guitarist and a songwriter?

ABBOTT His biggest strengths as a guitar player were his precision, timing and speed. Speed is definitely a gift. And I don’t care what style you play, it’s important that you can blaze that neck when appropriate. His strength as a songwriter was a never-ending flow of riffs that set the world on its ear.

GW He was a pretty extraordinary performer as well.

ABBOTT Yes sir, even as a 17-year-old kid in the clubs. he would light people up. When it came time for him to play his solo you’d better brace yourself for anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes of magic. They’d put a spotlight on him. He’d play on people’s tables, and they’d go nuts. He had a gift. He gave the public what they wanted, and it worked.

GW Dime had a pretty formidable reputation as a hard-drinking hell raiser. Did that ever worry you?

ABBOTT Not really. I was around in the early years, so I was there when he had his first beer. Being a performer myself, in my opinion there’s nothing wrong with having a drink or two before you get onstage to get your juices flowing and get ready to rock and roll. While I knew their fans were kinda rowdy at times, I was never really worried about it, and I never saw him do anything that affected his performance whatsoever. He always gave 110 percent. He was there to put on a great show, and he damned well did every single night. I kinda figured that he’d eventually outgrow the drinking and hell raising, because people do tend to mellow as they mature. I’m not sure he would have [laughs], but I always thought he might.

GW How was Dime in the recording studio when you worked with him?

ABBOTT He was very professional. He knew what he wanted, and he knew how he could get it. Darrell would play two rhythm tracks, and he would play those things so damned tightly that you honestly couldn’t tell that it wasn’t but one guitar.

GW Was he able to do that right from the start?

ABBOTT That definitely came with time and experience. Those rhythm patterns that he and Vinnie would do so tightly together came from years of practicing with each other, literally standing two or three feet apart and going at it for hours.

GW Was he quick at recording leads?

ABBOTT Yes he was. That said, he was a perfectionist, so he’d redo an awful lot of things that anybody else would’ve walked away from and said, “That’s it.” He didn’t leave anything undone, and if there was a certain part he felt could be better, we’d work on it until he nailed it the way he wanted.

GW How did you learn of Dime’s death?

ABBOTT A friend of mine was on the internet that night, and as soon as he saw a news flash regarding what had happened, he immediately called and told me. Like a lot of people, I initially thought, Yeah, right…that can’t have happened. So the first thing I did was call Rita [Haney, Dime’s longtime girlfriend] and Vinnie, and they unfortunately confirmed that it was indeed true.

GW Darrell’s funeral was a testament to how much he was loved and respected—not only by his fans but also by his peers and idols.

ABBOTT I don’t think I realized how truly huge Dime’s impact was on the world of rock guitar until then, to be honest with you. I mean, Eddie Van Halen was at the funeral, and I never thought I would meet Eddie Van Halen in my lifetime. I remember early on in Darrell’s playing years, probably when he was about 13 or something, I sent an invite to Eddie Van Halen to come to Darrell’s birthday party. [laughs] It was one of those things that you know is not going to happen, but you take a shot anyway! And yet, there he was, in the flesh, at the funeral. That struck me more than anything, that Eddie thought enough of Darrell to come to his funeral. And, as you know, Eddie even went so far as to bring Dime’s favorite guitar of his with him [the black-and-yellow model featured on the back of Van Halen II], and that guitar was actually buried with Darrell in a Kiss coffin. If those aren’t true gestures of love and respect, I don’t know what is.

Another moment that really hit me was when Dime was inducted into the Hollywood Rock Walk of Fame after his death. I’d automatically assumed that the people there were going to be fans but, as it turned out, the overwhelming majority of them were his peers. I can’t name them all off but there was Ace Frehley, Zakk Wylde, Jerry Cantrell, Kerry King, Scott Ian…the whole place was full of people who were there out of love and respect for Darrell. And boy, those two things are special—love is hard to find, and respect you have to earn. Dime had both, and the people there were the people that he loved and respected, too.

GW If Darrell hadn’t been killed, what do you think he would have gone on to achieve?

ABBOTT Well, they were working really hard on Damageplan, and that was a very difficult thing to make happen. As you know, when anybody changes bands it’s always a struggle, even when the music is wonderful and the players are as talented as they come. I remember Chet Atkins, one of the greatest players in the world, once saying, “Nashville will only let you be one thing. You’re either a guitar player or a fiddle player. You can’t be both.” And the same is true of the general public and bands. People just don’t want to accept change. If they love you the way you are then they don’t want you to change. To the fans, Darrell and Vinnie were Pantera, so accepting them in another band was difficult. And that’s what the boys were struggling with more than anything.

As far as that band went, I felt that Vinnie and Dime had a new-found freedom. I honestly believe they were onto something special again. It just takes time for that to jell, not only within itself but also with the public. If Dime had lived, they would’ve certainly carved themselves another deep notch in their style of rock and roll with that band.

Beyond that, Darrell was pretty much a free spirit. I mean, he once told me, “You know what, Dad? When this is over I’m probably gonna get me a couple of pawnshops and just sit back and watch the world go by.” I don’t know that he would’ve ever really done that, but I know that he loved going into pawnshops and wheeling and dealing with the owners. [laughs]

GW If Dime had lived, do you feel that a Pantera reunion would’ve ever happened?

ABBOTT It’s one of those things that might possibly have happened in 10 or 15 years, but it damned sure wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. It’s pure conjecture on my part, but with the hardened attitudes that were in place, I just don’t think they would’ve come to grips with things and been able to have a reunion.

GW Does it surprise you that even five years after his passing, Dime’s name is still front of mind for a great many people?

ABBOTT There’s just so many people all over the globe that know and loved what he did. It’s going to be a long, long time before his name is forgotten. I am thankful that Darrell recorded all that he recorded and that so many pictures and videos of him were taken, because we’ve got an awful, awful lot to look back on and enjoy. And that’s what he’d want us to do—enjoy.

GW If you had to sum up Dime’s legacy in a single sentence, what would that sentence be?

ABBOTT I think I’d just keep it real straight-ahead and say: “One hell of a dude, one hell of a player. A legend.” I miss him. We all do.

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