Today, we’d like to commemorate one of UG’s most favorite guitarists Dimebag Darrell by making a complete guide to Pantera’s arguably most famous song – “Cowboys From Hell.”
Everything you need to know about the story behind the song, amp and pedal settings as well as used guitar techniques.
Pantera ‘Cowboys From Hell’
Writers: Dimebag Darrell, Vinnie Paul, Phil Anselmo, Rex Brown
Producer: Terry Date
Album: Cowboys From Hell (1990) (UG Score is 9.3)
Released: July 24, 1990
Label: Atlantic Records
Genre: Groove metal
VH1’s 40 Greatest Metal Songs – #25
Story behind the song
The lyrics of the song focus on the fact that Texas has never been associated with successful metal bands and Pantera say in an ironic manner that they are going to bring an end to this.
Here’s a part of the Metal Hammer interview where band members tell about the inspiration and recording for “Cowboys From Hell”:
Vinnie Paul (drums): “While we were pounding away, Megadeth called Dime and asked him to audition for them. Dave Mustaine actually offered him the job. They offered him health insurance, a Nike endorsement, and lots of money. But he came back to Texas and said, ‘Look, man, I would only join Megadeth if they wanted to hire you, and they already got a drummer. So let’s fuckin’ knuckle down and make this thing happen.’ I think that really made everyone focus. After we finished ‘Power Metal,’ we looked at ourselves and said, ‘You know what? These fancy clothes and all this crazy hair ain’t playing music for us, we are.’ So, we decided to drop the image and focus more on the music, and kick ass as much as possible.”
Phil Anselmo (lead vocals): “I showed them the fucking path, man. Dimebag came over to the first house I lived at in Texas in early ’88, and I said, ‘Look here. We’re gonna smoke a bowl and you’re gonna sit down and listen to a song.’ So we smoked, and then I put on the vinyl version of ‘At Dawn They Sleep’ from Slayer’s ‘Hell Awaits.’ Dime sat there and stared at the turntable, and by about the middle of the song, that big, curly head started to move a little, and by the end of the song, he’s like, ‘Damn, son. That’s badass!’ So right then and there, I had really broken some headway. ‘Cowboys From Hell’ is an anthemic statement that’s a bit cheesy. It’s the kind of thing I tried to avoid in the future. Shattered is the same way. It was like, ‘OK, nuclear war, great.’ It’s been done before. So I decided to take the realistic route – to sing about circumstance that other people can relate to. That, to me, was the way to get to people, instead of writing about dragons or serial killers.”
Rex Brown (bass, backing vocals): “That whooshing noise at the beginning was a loop we made for Dime to play over, and it was very repetitious and very fuckin’ annoying for a long while. He developed that whole riff over that. And that riff is a little form of in-the-box blues scaling. We were always down the street watching all these great blues guys in the studio, because Vinnie and Darrell’s dad was an engineer there. We’d sneak in the studio and sit way underneath the board and listen to these amazing players. And I think that’s where Dime got the bluesy groove.”
The official video, which was directed by Paul Rachman, was recorded in a Dallas club that the band often called “The Basement.”
“Deluxe” and “Ultimate” editions of the album “Cowboys from Hell” contain Demo version of the song which was recorded in 1989.
One of the last live videos:
Gear and settings
Darrell “Dimebag” Abbott used his 1981 blue Dean From Hell guitar to record “Cowboys From Hell.” He used this guitar on all the songs that were in standard tuning.
Dime’s Dean From Hell is equipped with Bill Lawrence XL500 pickup in the bridge and a Seymour Duncan ’59 in the neck.
Dime’s rig was simple and he used very few effects. His effect chain for this song looks like this: Guitar – Jim Dunlop Cry Baby (UG Score 9) – Furman PQ-4 (later PQ-3) – MXR 6 Band Equalizer – Rocktron Guitar Silencer – Randall RG100H; and in the loop: MXR Flanger/ Doubler.
Darrell used a wah pedal which was Jim Dunlop Cry Baby which was later replaced by his signature Dunlop Crybaby From Hell (UG score 9.2) wah pedal for achieving squealing tones in his solo.
Dimebag Darrel presents his signature Dunlop ‘Crybaby From Hell’
The interplay between the MXR 6-Band EQ and Furman was less about tone and more about getting the maximum gain out of the two without overloading the PQ-4 (PQ-3).
A total gain analysis by frequency shows the following gain increases:
- Low Freqs: +18dB (9 from PQ3, 9 from MXR)
- Mid Freqs: +30dB (12 from PQ3, 18 from MXR)
- High Freqs: +30db(12 from PQ3, 18 from MXR)
In order to correctly match the gain levels from the MXR and PQ3 while reaching an absolute gain, we have to concentrate on the high and midrange frequencies. Too much input into low frequencies overloads the PQ3. So, the high and midrange frequencies should be bumped massively.
Furman PQ3 settings
Input Level: 9
- Frequency: Centered between 100 and 200
- Bandwidth: 7th scale mark from 0 (1 scale mark right of top center)
- Equalization: 9
- Frequency: Centered between 800 and 1000
- Bandwidth: 8th scale mark from 0 (2 scale marks right of top center)
- Equalization: 12
- Frequency: A little below 4000
- Bandwidth: 7th scale mark from 0 (1 scale mark right of top center)
- Equalization: 12
MXR Six Band Equalizer settings
Rocktron Hush was used as his noise gate because the signal created by the PQ-4 (PQ-3) and MXR was very noisy.
Rocktron Hush settings
Hush Threshold: 10
Gate Threshold: 9 o’clock
After the signal has been cleaned up, it is sent to Randall’s head for final tone shaping and the last gain boost.
Dime used MXR Flanger/Doubler as the doubler, not the flanger. He had at least 2 rigs running at any given time. One amp was dry, the other amp had the Flanger/Doubler, in the loop so it mixed together and was a bit thicker sounding.
Honestly, I go straight through my stack with just a couple of rack things. Live I just have my soundman out front. He does my delays – his choice of the delays, I don’t care, just put the fucking echo on there when it’s needed. We do have the delays all time out. He also does some Harmonizer stuff to double the runs on some of the songs off of ‘Cowboys From Hell’ so that it sounds like we have two guitars playing. Through my rack I have an MXR flanger/doubler. It’s not really an effect because it’s on all the time, and my tech and I work tight on that sound.
Randall RG100H is the amp Cowboys From Hell was recorded on.
In an interview to GroundWire Darrel said:
I have two different setups that I use. If I’m playing through the regular Randall RG100H, then the guitar goes to the Furman 4-band parametric EQ, to the MXR 6-band graphic EQ and into Randall. If I’m playing through Warheads, then I’m pretty much plugged straight in without those outboard EQs, because they’re built in.
Darrel uses Randall C200 125 watt solid-state heads and a combination of 412JB and 412CB Randall cabinets for live sessions.
As we have a clearer picture of the signal coming into the amp, the demand to scoop the signal at the amp becomes clearer. We want to even out the signal, therefore, to compensate for a low gain boost in the low frequencies, we push them over the top at the amp. We scoop the mids to compensate their rise in the gain stages and slightly decrease treble. We do this for the simple reason that Dime’s tone is incredibly treble heavy. That plus an absurd amount of gain is what makes his guitar sound close to a chainsaw. Therefore we want to retain some of the boosted highs in the signal. But too much treble makes the sound screechy, metallic, and unlistenable. To compensate, we need to turn some treble off at the amp so the sound doesn’t drive us mad while retaining the gain stage.
Randall Century 200 settings
- Hi +5dB Input
- Channel 2
- Reverb: 0
- Presence: 10
- Bass: 10
- Mid: 3
- Treb: 7
- Master: 3
- Gain: 10
- Sustain Boost: On
Modern gear to achieve Dimebag’s tone
At first, you will need to upgrade your guitar pickups because this is where your tone starts, Dimebag used Bill Lawrence XL500 pickup and Seymour Duncan ’59.
Then you can use Randall RG1503 Head as a successor of amps, used by Dimebag.
He used effect units at the front of an amp to sculpt the tone and to push the input of the preamplifier of the Randall Head. This will give a more tight response to the distortion, and you can get it by using an overdrive pedal. Make sure you set to zero gain of the pedal and max out its volume.
But the whole setup will be very noisy. So you need to get a noise gate and add it to the chain after the overdrive pedal and right before the input of an amplifier.
General amp settings
Settings should be something like this (assuming all tone pots are rated 0-10):
- Gain – 9
- Bass/Low – 8.5
- Mid – 3
- Treble/High – 10
- Reverb – 0-2
These are top tabs rated by the UG community:
Tuning: E A D G B E (Standard 1/4 flat)
From “Cowboys From Hell” to “Reinventing the Steel,” Dime regularly experimented with guitar tunings. So, when he tuned a guitar to E (E, A, D, G, B, E), his guitars were actually tuned down more than a quarter step. As his guitar tech has admitted, that meant that the guitars were tuned to “D# plus 40 cents on his Korg tuner. The A string was G# plus 40 cents, D was C# plus 40 cents, etc.”
The main riff to “Cowboys From Hell” is pretty much known as Dimebag Darrell’s signature riff. It is a classic example of the “power groove” style invented by Pantera.
Darrel’s riffs as almost everything performed by the great Dimebag Darrell are pretty challenging to play for even the most skilled guitarist. No wonder it’s largely considered to be the hardest song on the original Guitar Hero.
Take it slow and find the correspondence between the alternate picking and fretting. Note, that if you try to play the riffs too fast right away, you will feel like your hands are tied into knots.
Also, the alternate picking can produce some embarrassing string crossing. The key here is to keep your picking hand wrist and forearm as relaxed as possible. Practicing at a slow or moderate tempo will help you develop that relaxed feeling.
Dimebag also employed symmetrical fingerings for his solo passages. This technique is very simple to learn but needs time and experience for successful use. To perform this technique, simply put a fingering shape on one string and apply it across all six.
During the entire solo, Dime uses a lot of harmonic squeals which are the essential part of his arsenal of guitar techniques.
Dimebag Darrell teaches harmonic squeals.
Check the slowed version of “Cowboys From Hell” solo…
…and compare with a full-speed version.
Then practice it with a step by step lesson.