Dimebag Darrell: Reinventing the Squeal

Originally published in Guitar World, January 2010

Dimebag's innovative guitar, amp and pedal creations reflected not only his signature tone but his unique personality as well.

Dimebag's Darrell innovation and imagination was not limited to the fretboard. While he will always be remembered for his precise, incendiary solos, mammoth riffs and over-the-top harmonic squeals and whammy (both mechanical and electronic) tricks, Dimebag’s numerous contributions to electric guitar gear designs live on as well. Even five years after his death, his signature model guitars, amps and pedals remain some of the best-selling and most sought-after products on the market.

Unlike most guitarists, Dimebag didn’t just endorse various tools of his trade—he also played a very active role in designing exacting details of everything from his guitars and amps to his pickups and picks, creating products that reflected his personality as much as the riff he played on “Walk” or his solo in “Floods.” During this process, he developed close working relationships with several of the musical instrument industry’s most talented individuals, and “jammed” with them on product ideas similar to the way he jammed with the members of Pantera and Damageplan when writing songs.

“Dimebag was very involved and hands-on throughout the entire product development process,” says Larry English, the former U.S. Music Corporation Consumer Division president, who collaborated with Darrell on various Washburn guitar and Randall amp models. “He was an enigma. He was a great musician with a great mind who hid behind this visage of a wild, crazy, drinking Texas longhair. He had a lot of charisma and was fun to work with. Working with him was the greatest experience of my life.”

“I admired his vision,” says Dean Zelinksy, the founder of Dean Guitars, who recently started DBZ Guitars. “No one knew metal like Dimebag did. He wanted to have the heaviest band around, and he knew how he should sound. I’m glad I played a role in helping him reach those goals.”

Dimebag’s relationship with Zelinsky extends back to 1980, when Dime was just 14 years old. Zelinsky was a judge in a guitar contest held at the Agora nightclub in Dallas, Texas, and Darrell was one of many competitors vying for the top prize of a Dean ML guitar. “Dimebag blew everyone away,” Zelinsky recalls. “From the minute I first met him and heard him play, I just knew there was something different and special about him. I later found out from Jimmy Wallace, who worked at Arnold-Morgan Music in Dallas at the time, that Darrell won every guitar contest they had. He won a lot of other guitars, but the Dean guitars were the only ones he kept.”

The Dean ML model remained Dimebag’s main guitar from 1980 through 1994. “Dimebag took the ML model’s popularity to another level,” Zelinsky says. “A lot of other guitarists, like Kerry Livgren of Kansas, Elliott Easton of the Cars and Dave Mason, played an ML, but none of them had the impact that Dime did. The ML was a very meaningful guitar to me. It was my first totally original design, and I named it after my friend Matt Lynn, who died when we were 16. Matt was my best friend in high school and we played guitar together. The fact that Dimebag made this guitar so popular meant a lot to me.”

Zelinsky followed Dimebag’s progress over the years, but by 1990, when Pantera broke through to the national spotlight with the release of Cowboys from Hell, Zelinsky was preparing to exit the guitar business. “I had no plans to develop new models with Dime at the time,” he admits. “Just the fact that he was out there playing my guitars was enough. Our relationship before the total rebirth of Dean Guitars was really just mutual admiration.” Although Zelinsky left the company later in 1990 (and returned in 2000), Dimebag eventually signed an endorsement deal with Dean Guitars and started appearing in Dean ads in 1993.

When Dean Guitars went out of business in 1994, just after Pantera completed Far Beyond Driven, Dimebag started searching for a new company to satisfy his gear needs. He had become a bona fide guitar hero, thanks to the success of Cowboys from Hell, Vulgar Display of Power and Far Beyond Driven, and he needed a steady supply of guitars to use and abuse onstage for Pantera’s frequent arena tours. Former Dean marketing director Del Breckenfeld, who had gone to work for Washburn, was aware of Dimebag’s situation, and he approached Dime about signing an endorsement deal with them. This strategic move set the stage for the introduction of Dimebag’s first signature model guitars.

“Washburn reached out to Dimebag by designing and building a guitar that we thought he would like,” English says. “He also saw that Randall amps were part of the company. Since Dimebag had played a Randall RG-100 from the very beginning, that made the deal more opportunistic for both parties. No other company could offer him both the amps he already played and the guitars that he wanted to make. He also liked the company’s reach. Randall amps were made in the U.S., and Washburn had a U.S. custom shop that made high-end instruments, but we also produced low-cost models overseas and distributed our products all over the world. We gave him the opportunity to reach more people than ever before.”

Dimebag signed a 10-year contract with Washburn International (which later became U.S. Music) in 1994, and he immediately went to work with them on a new Randall amplifier and several guitar designs. Washburn introduced its first Dimebag signature model, the Dime 3, in 1995.

“The Bolt and Blackjack finish versions came first, and then the Slime was next,” English says. “Those guitars became his standard models. We offered both Custom Shop and overseas versions of those guitars to satisfy everybody’s needs. On the Custom side, we offered all kinds of variations on that theme. After those models became successful, we started to move in other directions. The Culprit was entirely his design. Dimebag wanted another body design, and we couldn’t say no. Next we did the Stealth, which was a real winner. He sharpened his metal chops on that one. He wanted to make a weapon that looked like a stealth bomber, with lots of sharp points. We offered that guitar with a variety of cosmetic options, which he always was involved with. He was open to creative input from others, but he always had the final say.”

Dimebag was especially proud of the Stealth model, which he completed in 1999 while recording Reinventing the Steel. “It looks like a Stealth bomber, which is silent but deadly, but this thing is loud and deadly,” he said in a 2000 Guitar World interview. “It has Bill Lawrence pickups, which have some killer harmonics. My Stealth guitar is set up for high squeals, low-end chunk and whammy-bar shit.”

Another favorite was the Southern Cross model, which was produced in a limited edition of only 100 instruments in 2002. “That guitar rocked,” English says. “It featured a cross inlaid in the top that was made of ebony and abalone. When we were doing the inlay, I thought it would be cool to make a matching cross pendant and include that with the guitar. Dime really liked that idea.”

While the guitar designs came along fast and furious, progress on Dimebag’s signature Randall amplifier was more laborious and drawn out. Dimebag did not sign off on the design of his Warhead amp until 1999, almost five years after Randall engineers started work on the project. The idea behind the Warhead amp was to duplicate the sound of Dimebag’s original rig, which consisted of a Randall RG-100 head, Furman PQ-3 parametric equalizer, MXR Six Band Graphic Equalizer and MXR 126 Flanger/Doubler. Dimebag used the two equalizers in a unique way, cutting a wide midrange frequency curve with the PQ-3, restoring a narrow band of midrange frequencies with the MXR 6-Band EQ and using both to increase the gain going into the amp’s front end, like a distortion pedal. Dime used the MXR 126’s doubler function to thicken his rhythm tones.

“I eventually had to step in and be a mediator on that project,” English says. “Getting the Dime sound was no small feat. He wanted to get rid of all the extra equipment and get his sound from one box. That’s really hard to do. I think we came as close as was humanly possible under those conditions, but I don’t believe that Dime achieved that with us or anyone else. He developed that sound himself, and he had the greatest intentions to get that in an all-in-one package, but I don’t think we nailed it 100 percent.”

One of Dimebag’s longest-lived continuous manufacturer relationships was with Dunlop Manufacturing, which started making personalized picks for Dimebag shortly after Pantera released Cowboys from Hell. Dimebag and Scott Uchida, Dunlop’s director of artist relations, started discussing plans for making a Dimebag Darrell signature wah pedal around the time that Far Beyond Driven was released, but work on the project didn’t begin until 1996. The prototypes for the DB01 Dimebag Cry Baby from Hell were completed in 1997 in time for the Official Live: 101 Proof tour.

“Dunlop had just taken over the Fasel company,” Uchida recalls. “The Fasel inductor was one of the key parts of the Dime wah. Dime initially had a vision of one sound that he really wanted. We had just come out with the 535Q wah, which has six different range settings, and he decided that he wanted to have a wide range of selections for different rooms as well. When he played arenas, he could have a really wide timbre, but when he played smaller rooms he needed a different sound that was throatier, so he wanted to be able to turn it down a notch. Then we took it the next step further by developing a fine-tune knob that he could use to dial in tones that were ideal for concrete or wood platform stages. We later came out with the DB02 Dime wah, which had just the one main setting that Dime used all the time on his DB01, but that pedal has been discontinued.”

The Cry Baby from Hell wah pedal’s camouflage graphics were entirely Dime’s idea. “He liked the idea of having the pedal match his camouflage shorts, which he always wore,” Uchida says. “At first he sent me this drawing he did on a napkin. He wanted to have neon lights along the bottom edge, like you see on some cars, so he could see the pedal onstage. It was totally funny and off the wall. I don’t know if he was serious about it, but I told him that if we did that, all that neon shit was going to generate a ton of noise. He didn’t bring up the idea again.”

Next up was the MXR DD11 Dime Distortion pedal, which debuted in 2003. “Dime was with me in L.A., and we were talking about distortion pedals,” Uchida says. “He told me he’d like to be able to go to a club and not worry about getting a crappy guitar tone out of a Fender Twin or some other amp that’s obviously not metal. That led to the Dime Distortion. Dime’s sound then was a solidstate Randall amp, so it was pretty easy to simulate. We took two shots at it. He really liked the first one. Then our engineer Bob Cedro came up with the idea of scooping out the mids by pushing a button. When Dime saw that, he thought it was awesome. Dime wanted the same camouflage design, but not the same colors. The original one was supposed to be arctic camouflage, but we decided to go with the Desert Storm look instead, because the Iraq War was going on at the same time.”

Dimebag also started looking for a company to make him a signature pickup in the late Nineties, and he approached Seymour Duncan with his concept. Although Dimebag installed Bill Lawrence pickups in most of his guitars, he had new ideas about improving his signature tone that he wanted to explore and Duncan was willing to help him achieve his goals.

“Dime gave us one of his custom pickups as a reference for a starting point,” says Evan Skopp, business development vice president for Seymour Duncan. “He called it an L500XXL. His pickups were custom made exclusively for him, and they were not available to the public. There wasn’t a lot of consistency in those custom pickups, but he found the one example that he liked the most. We made some prototypes using a traditional, Gibson-style humbucker form factor, but we were not able to nail what he wanted.”

Duncan revisited the project in 2001 when Larry English approached them about making pickups for Dimebag’s Washburn guitars. “Washburn was an important OEM customer, and because their Dimebag guitars were mgood sellers we knew it would be worth our effort to produce a custom pickup to go in those guitars. To get the sound that Dime was looking for, we needed to tool up to produce this new form factor that was crucial to the pickup’s design. What’s unique about that pickup is that it has a very small amount of metal mass, which allows it to produce high output but not sound muddy or shift the resonant peak to lower frequencies. Dime needed a high output pickup to drive his tone chain, but he still needed to be able to retain high end. Injection-mold tooling is fairly expensive, so we needed to produce a decent amount of pickups to make the investment worth the cost. Once we had the commitment from Washburn, we were really able to give him what he was looking for.”

The final product, which Dimebag tested extensively in his studio and onstage during Pantera’s latter days, was called the SH-13 Dimebucker. The pickup features a 5.1kHz resonant peak and delivers 16.25k ohms of DC resistance for exceptionally hot output. Unlike his L500XXL pickups, the Dimebucker features ceramic magnets instead of Alnico, which enhances the pickup’s treble response and maintains articulation.

The year 2004 was one of many changes for Dimebag. Pantera had officially broken up, and Dimebag was fully devoted to his new band, Damageplan. His contract with Washburn and Randall had also expired that year, which freed him to explore new relationships with other amp and guitar companies.

Dean Guitars resumed building instruments in 1997, and Zelinsky returned to the company in 2000. “One of my main goals was to bring Dimebag back to Dean, but we had to wait until his contract with Washburn expired,” Zelinsky says. “When that finally happened, we played phone tag for a week before we caught up with each other. We talked about a deal for several months after that. Washburn offered to renew his contract, and I told him that unless Washburn was willing to write him a check right then and there for $150,000, he should meet with me at Dean’s office in Florida.”

Washburn made Dimebag some tempting promises, but eventually Zelinsky convinced him to fly to Florida to talk about creating a new guitar. “It turns out that a hurricane was supposed to hit Florida on the day he arrived,” Dean remembers. “Dime called and told me he wasn’t going to come. When I arrived in Florida and went to the office I kept trying to reach him but I couldn’t. I went back to the airport to fly back home to Chicago, but I couldn’t get on a flight. Finally, I reached Dime on his cell phone. He said there was no way he was coming into a hurricane, and right then he walked around the corner.”

About two days after Dimebag returned home from Florida, Zelinsky received a fax with Dime’s crude drawing of the Razorback model. “I thought the design was cool as shit and had legs,” Zelinsky says. “It was the right way to go, and it was going to be our flagship guitar. I made the prototype in my garage using equipment I used to build Dean guitars back in 1977. I fine-tuned it with beveled edges and hooks, and it looked pretty sexy. I sent the guitar to him so he could evaluate it, but he only saw it for a minute before he had to hit the road. He was really ecstatic about the new design.”

Around the same time that Dimebag was rekindling his relationship with Dean Guitars, he also reached out to a new amplifier company, Krank. “I saw a review of a Krank amp in Guitar World,” Dimebag said during an interview at the Krank factory in Tempe, Arizona, in November 2004. “I told my old lady to give Krank a ring to see if they could shoot an amp out to me so I could check it out. When I plugged into it I was like, ‘Goddamn!’ I never played tubes before, because I never thought you could get that shred-your-head-off sound with tubes. With the Krank I got the warmth and the shred-your-fuckin’-face-off tone.”

Dime started using a Krank Revolution stack onstage with Damageplan, but he also started collaborating with Krank amp designer Tony Dow on a new model that became known as the Krankenstein. Dime called it a “super hot-rod hell-raiser version” of the Revolution. “I got rid of everything in my rack,” Dime said. “Now I go straight into the Krank and let it blaze. The less shit you run through, the more pure your tone is. I always thought that I had to have my six-band EQ and my PQ4 and jack everything up to high hell. Now I plug in and let it rip.”

Dimebag approved the final revision of the Krankenstein only days before he was killed, on December 8, 2004. Dime also had several other gear projects in the works when he was murdered. Some of these products, like the Dunlop Blacktooth pedal, which features a Jimi Hendrix octave fuzz in a wah pedal format, and the Seymour Duncan Dimebucker neck pickup, which uses the same design as the SH-13 Dimebucker but has alnico magnets and a lower DC resistance of 7.43k ohms to provide warm, woody neck tones, made it to prototype form and may go into production in the near future. Unfortunately, many of Dimebag’s other design ideas, including his plans for future guitar models, were lost forever. “Dimebag’s death was a bigger loss than we’ll ever know,” Zelinsky says. “He was really charged up and inspired, especially since he finally had a chance to work with me after all these years. I’m very proud of the work I did with him, but who knows what he would have accomplished if he was still with us.”

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