December 8 is not a date remembered fondly in the great calendar of heavy metal. For the best part of two decades, it has served as the painful reminder of Pantera guitarist Dimebag Darrell’s untimely passing – gunned down in cold blood only one song into Damageplan’s set at the Alrosa Villa nightclub in Columbus, Ohio. The metal world would never be the same again.
Universally loved both onstage and off, he was a cartoon-like character who encapsulated everything about what it takes to be a guitar hero. From his brilliantly rhythmic riffs, which inspired generations of groove metal hopefuls, to his electrified virtuosic leads, which he often laughed off as unstudied guesswork, the man born Darrell Lance Abbott was – and very much remains – a godlike entity larger than life itself.
24 hours prior to his murder, however, Dimebag was very much in good spirits, remembers Buffalo-based guitarist Nick Norton, who currently plays in melodeath quintet Of Desolation. Back then, Norton was performing in a Pantera tribute called Driven, which led to him being invited up on stage to perform the solo for Walk, in turn making him the last person to play that solo on Dimebag’s guitar before the guitarist’s tragic murder the following night.
“I remember Dimebag took a really cool and long guitar solo halfway through the show,” says Norton, when asked about his main recollections from the legendary guitar player’s final full set. “This was unfortunately before the days of camera phones, so I didn’t get to film anything, but it sounded really awesome… he just nailed it. We were watching from pretty close. I never got to see Pantera live, so it was my big chance to finally see Dime performing right in front of me.”
So how exactly did you end up getting on stage with Damageplan that night?
“Back in 2003, my buddy Leo [Gastle] came up with the idea of getting a Pantera tribute going. He wanted to call it Driven and have me on guitar. We got some gigs and had a lot of fun, drawing some good crowds. We came to find out that Damageplan were due to perform at this place in Buffalo called the Icon.
“Two bands we knew got to open, one called Stemm and another called Herod. Leo wanted to get there early before the show to see if he could meet the band. I was in the shower and then had all these voicemails from Leo saying I had to come down and that Dimebag was having problems with his amps. He’d just switched over to Krank amps after some years playing Randall. Apparently he was asking every guitar player in the area to bring down their heads!”
Did you make it in time?
“When I got there, I’d just missed the guys. But Dimebag had caught one glance at Leo and was like, ‘Holy shit, I thought you were my brother!’ Back in the day Leo had the tiger-striped sideburns and everything – he looked just like Vinnie Paul. So Leo ended up telling them we’re in this Pantera tribute and Dime said he'd get us on stage.
“We took it with a pinch of salt and thought that would be awesome, but even if it didn’t happen we’d have so much fun watching these guys jam. A few songs into the set, they call Leo up on stage and get a picture of him and Vinnie Paul together. They looked like twins – it was really funny.
“Then they started doing some Pantera songs and right before Walk they call Leo back up, parking him behind the kit. Vinnie grabbed the camera and started filming. Me and my bass player were watching from the side and Dimebag pointed at us saying, ‘Hey, get up here!’”
A man true to his word!
“Yeah! We started doing the backing vocals for the chorus. Right before the solo, Dime turns around, points at his guitar asking, ‘Hey, you wanna jam this?’ He went to get me a pick but I already had one and was ready to go, which made him laugh. Dimebag grabs another camera and starts filming me, while Vinnie Paul was fanning me with a towel like I was smokin’ hot! I did the solo and finished off the song with a little improvising at the end.
“When I handed Dimebag his guitar back, he told me it sounded awesome and gave me one of his Black Tooth Grins [an alcoholic beverage invented by Dimebag]. The Icon actually had a dry bar but the band had plenty of alcohol! Unfortunately I never got to talk to him after that, but the whole experience was so much better than a conversation. It was pretty wild!”
Where were you when you heard the news the following day?
“We were so thrilled about what happened that night… we’d just jammed with our idols! So we went out for some drinks after. We tried to see Dimebag after the show but he was already on the bus. His bodyguard [Jeff ‘Mayhem’ Thompson], who was also unfortunately killed the following night, came out to say, ‘Sorry boys, Dimebag’s on the bus and has his slippers on, he’s done for the night!’ Apparently they’d been partying for three days straight.
“I wish I had stuck around because we had some friends that did and Dimebag got a second wind, and they ended up hitting a casino [laughs]! Needless to say, I slept in pretty late the next day. And later on I started getting all these very short voicemails asking me to call them back…
“One person said there was some news I was not going to take too well, so I called them back and found out. I was just at home, kinda in denial to begin. I didn’t believe it at first and then after the news ended up on more and more websites, it hit home. It was very tragic, of course, especially when you think you were on stage with the guy 22 hours earlier.”
What do you remember about the rig you got to play that night?
“Honestly, I was more focused on not messing up the solo or crapping my pants [laughs]! But from what I remember it was his Krank amp, which sounded really good. He must have fixed it. I can’t remember about the pedalboard because I didn’t have to change anything.
“The guitar I played was his white, black and grey Urban Camo Dean. Funnily enough, I was wearing camo pants that night, so I matched the guitar. The playability of the guitar felt really cool and it had a great tone.”
Walk is an incredibly well-written solo, with some beautiful blues lines before that ascending diminished climb and the final big bend…
“It’s one of my favorites for sure – that’s why I had to nail it! He had his eye on me during the tapped sliding bit, just to make sure I pulled it off properly and smiled when I did. It’s one of those songs that’s often tabbed out incorrectly – without the proper bends or in the wrong tuning like drop D when it should be a whole tone down.
“You have to remember some of those original recordings were done like a quarter step below standard. We did it the same way they did live, tuning down a half step for the standard stuff and then down a whole step for the heavier tracks. We’d try to follow the live versions of those tunes.”
What would you say is the main trick to sounding like Dimebag?
“For me, it’s all about the vibrato. He had that very wide and unique-sounding vibrato. That was always the main thing for me to emulate, as well as the tone and general phrasing. Learning all that stuff meant there were a lot of things to watch out for – some of it is pretty challenging! We learned a lot of stuff in a short period of time to get playing gigs.
“You see a lot of YouTube guitarists these days, and yeah they can shred or sweep and have those techniques down, but a lot of them can’t bend a note. The vibrato might not be that good. That was always important to me from day one, listening to guys like Dime and Zakk Wylde to get the phrasing just right and drawing influence from that. It’s just as important as the shred technique stuff.
“Those solid-state amps were also a big part of his tone. It was really interesting when he switched over to tube amps towards the end. It was a bit like, ‘Woah, wait a minute… that’s a pretty left-field turn!’”
And what would you say was the hardest Pantera song to perform live?
“We never got to play it as a band, but we were working on Floods towards the end of the band. The reason we broke up was because we couldn’t keep our singer – we’d already had to find one replacement.
“But yeah, that solo in Floods is very Randy Rhoads-like… it’s a song within itself! That’s probably the most tricky. I'm Broken also has a run that was always tabbed wrong, so it took me a little while to decipher what he was doing and get that right. It was such a great example of his lead style, which was always very musical and tasteful.”
Dimebag seemed to favor legato over alternate picking, but out of choice rather than necessity…
“I agree. I think the legato thing was just more his sound, but when he wanted to alternate pick, he definitely could! He’d often combine the two and mix them up a lot. He used his right hand a lot for those brutal riffs, though! Songs like Fucking Hostile and Slaughtered have some pretty intense picking.
“And as for the left hand, there were some really crazy wide-stretch things he’d do, like in the Cowboys From Hell solo. There’s a line that goes down the 11th, 12th and 15th frets on all strings and eventually stretches from the 12th and 15th out to 20! I remember reading an interview somewhere where he said it did not come from any theory book; it was just a symmetrical run that sounded cool in E. It’s a big stretch, so it’s actually a good left-hand exercise for anyone wanting to learn this kind of style.”