“You can see Zakk’s deep love and respect for Dimebag – that’s the reason I’m there, too”: Dime’s tech Grady Champion talks getting back on the road with Pantera

Grady Champion
(Image credit: Joe Giron)

In the Pantera-loving metal community, Grady Champion needs no introduction. As far as the fans are concerned, he’s an integral part of the larger-than-life Pantera family. Although Grady continued to be a much-in-demand guitar tech long after Pantera effectively disintegrated in 2001, he retired from the road not so long ago – or so he thought. 

“You know me, Nick – I was totally over and done with touring,” Grady says. “Now I’m back out there for Darrell… with permission from my wife and kids, of course!” [Laughs]

In fact, when Grady announced he was joining the crew for the Pantera celebration shows, many fans were overjoyed as they felt his involvement added further credibility and credence to an already exciting venture.

“I got a little worried when I made that Facebook post about me going out – and it almost immediately hit Blabbermouth and all that shit,” Grady says.

“I was like, ‘What the fuck, dude? You don’t have anything better to write about?’ It made me a little uneasy, but I guess it’s a thing and I’m incredibly humbled that people think I add credibility to it. I’m sure my name adds more than my guitar-tech wizardry does, though; I’m no Drew Foppe [Deftones, Shinedown tech], that’s for sure!”

When you first turned up to the rehearsals in late 2022, how did you feel?

“It was weird. Because I did shows for so long after Pantera, half of me was in ‘It’s just another show’ mode. But then when I started absorbing what was actually going on, the gravity of it would start to hit me and I’d be trying my damnedest to get back to being ‘show mode’ guy. It was a pretty mixed bag.”

Was there a moment when you realized the shows weren’t just going to be good, but great?

“Yeah. It happened when we had full production going on. They started Planet Caravan and I went out front so I could soak in the whole vibe. I sat on a couch watching them play while the tribute video came on and I just started crying really hard – not just tearing up and stuff, but uncontrollable sobbing for at least 30 seconds. I literally couldn’t stop myself.

“Things changed for me after that. It was always a good vibe with everybody at rehearsals up to then, but it wasn’t ‘the full Monty.’ That was definitely a defining moment. I’ll not forget that one.

“When everyone was leaving, I just grabbed Zakk, hugged him and went, ‘Thank you, man. Thank you so fucking much for doing this and representing your brother – it means so much.’ He just looked at me like I was crazy and smiled as if to say, ‘You don’t gotta thank me, bro. I know why I’m here.’ All I could say was, ‘You don’t have any idea what this means to me. I guess I’m basically thanking you for myself.’”

I know how much doing this for Dime means to Zakk, and it’s palpable.

“You can see it in his face and the way he does stuff. You can see his passion, his ‘want’ to be there, and his deep love and respect for Darrell – and that’s the reason I’m there too. It’s really refreshing to know why Zakk’s there.

“He comes in every single day, laser focused, ready to work with a ‘Let’s do this, let’s kill this’ attitude. It’s amazing to me; there’s no wavering with the guy. He comes walking up to the stage, we hug, I put the Ultimate Warrior next to Godzilla, we all high-five and then, man, he just goes to work. 

“He’s having fun while giving it everything he’s got and then some. Zakk’s an awesome, all-around dude and I’m so thankful I’ve had the opportunity to do this again.”

There were some rumors about Zakk possibly using some of Dime’s backline gear, but outside of a few effects, that doesn’t appear to be the case.

“I heard that one too! [Laughs] I actually did make a Dime rig that I took to New Orleans for rehearsals. I hooked it up for a little bit, Zakk tried it, and he was like, ‘Bro, I don’t know.’ I also tried one of Dime’s MXR Six Band [graphic] EQs in his signal chain, but that didn’t work for him either. He was super cool about everything; he’s just gonna do Zakk. Imagine that! [Laughs]” 

To misquote a BLS song, there are no phony smiles or fake hellos with Mr. Wylde.

“You always know exactly where you stand with Zakk. It’s black or white – there’s no gray area with the dude. That’s one of the many reasons I love him. We did add a few things to his signal chain, but when all’s said and done, Zakk’s out there to represent Dime and his music, and not be a Dime clone, ’cause he’s not. He’s Zakk, and he’s out there on that stage representing his brother, paying homage to the brothers, and giving it 333 percent. That’s all that matters to me, and it couldn’t be cooler. 

What’s funny is the few people I’ve seen who can supposedly do Dime note for note still miss the mark for me

“I hate all those internet ‘experts’ expecting Zakk to clone Dime note for note, sound exactly like him, use his guitars, blah, blah, blah. So many people think that’s the way to go, but it’s not. That’s not what this celebration is all about. It’s having fun, playing Pantera’s music to a crowd and doing it your way. People have to understand it’s a tribute, it’s a celebration, and he’s there for the brothers.

“Zakk’s got enough fame and he’s also got a bunch of other irons in the fire. The fact he’s put it all on hold to do Pantera is an amazing tribute to Dime and Vinnie. He’s doing what he wants to do and it’s totally genuine. There isn’t anyone Dime would rather have doing this, either. And he’d want Zakk to play like Zakk because of the mutual respect those two had for each other as players and as people. 

“What’s funny is the few people I’ve seen who can supposedly do Dime note for note still miss the mark for me. Even if you’re nailing every riff and solo note for note, in time and at the right tempo, I can always tell. People think they’ve got it nailed, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, it’s good, but it’s not Darrell.’

“Zakk’s made other sacrifices to do this too, like when it comes to me doing stuff for him while he’s playing. He’s always done all his effects switching; he’s never had anybody controlling anything. So for him to have me switching and changing stuff back there, that’s a huge adjustment for him. He’s just gotta have complete faith and go, ‘Hey, I’m out here jamming – I hope Grady gets it!’”

With Dime you’d control his Whammy pedal, ride his noise gate for him and also tweak the MXR Flanger/Doubler while he was on stage. I’m guessing you’re doing the same for Zakk?

“Yeah. As well as the Whammy pedal, I’ve got a flanger, a chorus and two gates running back there. Whenever Zakk divebombs, I stick the [MXR] EVH Flanger on it, which adds a really cool growl. I’ll hit the pedal’s EVH button [the one that duplicates Van Halen’s Unchained setting] whenever we’re doing bombs, but sometimes I’ll manually adjust the Rate and Width knobs to where it does a trill effect for a song like I’m Broken, or a faster police-siren-type sound. 

“I used to just fuck around with Dime on the [MXR] Flanger/Doubler and make him laugh, and that’s basically what I’m doing with Zakk, too. I’m back there having fun, while he’s out there on stage doing the exact same thing. Every so often, Zakk will look at me and smile, and I’m thinking, ‘Have a good time out there, brother – I’ve gotcha.’ 

I’m back there having fun, while he’s out there on stage doing the exact same thing

“The chorus pedal is the same MXR [Wylde] one Zakk always uses. Actually, I’ve got two of them back there. One is for his main [stereo] chorus sound; I don’t touch that one because that’s part of Zakk’s tone. I use the other chorus pedal for stuff like This Love and to add some flair in certain places. I put the depth all the way up and a slow burn on the rate, just to fatten it up even more. The only thing we’re not doing that I did for Dime is reverb. There’s no reverb because Zakk’s out there with his own delay [MXR Carbon Copy].

“The gates are the [MXR] M135 Smart Gates, and I’ve got one in front, right after the wireless switchers, and one in the back. Zakk often stands with his volume knob wide open and his overdrive pedal on when it’s quiet, so the gate on the front end shuts his EMGs up, because Pantera is tight and quiet in those spots.”

It sounds like you’re having a total blast while working your tail off.

“It’s awesome to be part of the team and in the Pantera family again. I feel really good about being out there; it’s a great vibe with everybody. I also feel like something of a father figure to a lot of the new crew guys too, and I must admit I get into ‘dad mode’ real easily: [Laughs] ‘Don’t stress on it, son; we’ll get it done and then we’re gonna have a great rock show!’”

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