Across a career now spanning four decades, Madonna has established a reputation for reinventing herself. Yet for all her boundary-pushing, her rebirth as a metal guitarist for five minutes every night on tour came as perhaps the biggest surprise.
Back in 2008, attendees at Madonna’s Sticky & Sweet world tour bore witness to one of the more unlikely segues in modern music, as Madonna and band seamlessly transitioned between Abba-sampling pop smash Hung Up and Pantera’s 1992 groove-metal bruiser A New Level.
The penultimate song of the tour’s marathon setlist – captured below in footage from Buenos Aires – saw Madonna take proceedings to, well, a new level, as she busted out a black Gibson Les Paul Classic and matching black Orange amp rig to lend a crunchy six-string opening to Hung Up.
Her Madge relied on one-finger powerchords for the performance, suggesting the single-cut was tuned to a variant of drop D, and confirmed when, four-and-a-half minutes into the performance, she suddenly launches into Dimebag Darrell’s sledgehammer refrain from the choice Vulgar Display of Power cut.
The performance quickly becomes a display of rock excess, with wild stops and starts from the band and howls of feedback as Madonna grinds the strings of her Les Paul against the Orange rig.
All the while, the singer was flanked by longtime guitarist Monte Pittman on a Vibrola-equipped triple-humbucker SG – the man who, as it turns out, accidentally inspired the surprise cover.
Pittman started out as Guy Ritchie’s guitar teacher before teaching Madonna herself and ultimately landing one of the biggest gigs in pop. But the roots of her Pantera cover go way back to his stint with alt-metallers Prong, and a tip from Dimebag himself.
“I was trying to explain how to keep the pick on top of the strings,” the guitarist told MusicRadar in 2018.
“I learned it when Dimebag Darrell came to see Prong in Dallas. He wanted to know if we were doing the song Cut Rate and asked about the rhythm part which doesn’t let off, which is when he said his secret was never letting the pick leave the string when playing really fast.
“I remember being really impressed he knew the song and said Prong were one of his favourite bands. So I was telling Madonna about this, and it was around the time we had a new band…”
The new lineup’s musical director was working on a rock version of Hung Up, which had been transposed to drop D – down one-a-half-steps, so technically drop B – to enable Madonna to play one-finger chords while she focused on performing. This turned out to be the genesis of the mashup.
“I showed her A New Level by Pantera in that lower tuning to give her something easy to learn, because the notes go up one fret at a time,” Pittman explained.
And Madonna certainly did her homework.
“The next day, she came in with a bottle of wine with two glasses, so we sat there drinking and playing,” Pittman recalled. “Then she started playing Pantera and it sounded great; she remembered to stay on top of the strings.”
The pop icon became such a fan of the song that she would regularly wheel the riff out in rehearsals, leading the rest of the band – who, aside from Pittman, weren’t all that familiar with metal – to figure out their own rhythm work.
“Every time we all thought, ‘Oh that was fun today,’” Pittman laughed. “But then she did it the next day and the day after.
“After a while, despite it being a closed rehearsal, tour managers and techs started showing up specifically for that part of the set as if word has gotten around that Madonna was covering Pantera. And it stayed in the set!”
The arrangement became a staple in the Sticky & Sweet setlist for the entirety of the 2018 dates, and although it was dropped for the tour’s 2019 reprise, the audience reaction was huge – despite any worries from the Madonna camp.
“I didn’t know if people were gonna hate it and be pissed off, but everyone loved it,” Pittman said. “Madonna fans tend to love every kind of music.”
Madonna picked up the electric guitar again on her 2015 Rebel Heart tour, donning a none-more-metal ESP E-II V for performances of 1983 hit Burning Up.
It remains to be seen what’s in store for her 2023 Celebration tour, but we’d wager a jet-black six-string – if not Pantera – will feature at some point.