Twelve years after the onstage shooting of Pantera legend “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott, Billboard spoke with the guitar god’s friends, family, and fellow rock icons about the hole the 38-year-old shredder’s death left in metal and in their lives. Here, Megadeth frontman Dave Mustaine remembers his friend. “I always think of the good stuff with Darrell,” says Mustaine.
You first met Pantera when they were on the Texas bar circuit, correct?
Yeah. They were a cover band, and they were just starting to shed their glam skin at the time — which, depending on how close you were to them, you could kind of rib them about that. But they were very, very anti- their glam past. [Laughs.]
There’s a story that the first time you saw them play in a club, they were doing Megadeth covers. Any truth to that?
Junior [Megadeth bassist Dave Ellefson] saw that — I didn’t see that. I was out in the bus, partying. Dave’s a great guy; he loves to associate with our fans, but I’m a bit more reclusive. Part of that is just self-preservation, because I get myself into trouble when I’m hanging out with the public. [Laughs.]
You later offered Dime a shot at the lead guitar position in Megadeth.
I can make it out like it was some huge, elaborate ordeal, but it was really just a simple telephone call, just two guys talking. We needed a guitar player, and Ellefson — being kind of the ambassador of the band — had gotten his number and hooked me up with Darrell. I said, “Hey, we’re looking for a new lead guitar player.” He goes, [gruff Texas accent] “Alright, man — can I bring my brother?” “Well, who’s your brother?” “Vinnie Paul!” And I was like, “I don’t get it — what the fuck? He’s gotta bring his brother? Is it like Rain Man, or something?” [Laughs.] So he goes, “No, man, he’s my drummer! He’s gotta come!” And I was like, “Aw, man — I just hired [drummer] Nick Menza!”
I think back at that moment in my life, if I would have said, “You know what? Screw Nick Menza; I’m taking Vinnie Paul and Darrell,” what Megadeth would have sounded like. Of course, there would be no Pantera, and Megadeth would have been even more ferocious on guitar. But yeah, what would have happened?
When Cowboys From Hell came out, that pretty much announced him to the world as a new breed of guitar hero.
Yeah, he definitely made a name for himself. I remember when we toured with Pantera [in Sept.-Oct. ‘92], we played the last show of the tour in Amsterdam. I had been begging those guys to play “Cemetery Gates,” because that was one of my favorite Pantera songs: It just builds and builds, with a great solo and such classic songwriting. It’s definitely one of the songs that made me look deeper into the band. And [Pantera frontman] Phil [Anselmo] hates it because of his singing in falsetto, but they finally did it that night and that was one of the greatest things Pantera has ever done for me, because they did that as a special gift to me. It still means so much to me that they played that.
What is Dimebag’s ultimate legacy?
Darrell still has a lot of marketability and I don’t really know that he’d be down with being marketed as much as he is. I think the Darrell that I know — he loved to play guitar, and he loved to drink and live life. To me, it seemed that it was never about the money — it was always about the metal.
Being of Irish descent, I don’t think about mourning when people die, I think about waking and celebrating. Death, to me, is like the removal of a tight-fitting shoe. I think that his murder was different than death on death’s terms because it was unexpected, and he was taken from us, and it was a terrible tragedy.
But I always think of the good stuff with Darrell. Like his tattoos: Every tour he did, he would get a tattoo to remind him of the tour. I remember when we were in Amsterdam and he came up to me in the hallway going, “Dave! Dave! Look, man! Look at my new tattoo — it’s a blacktooth grin!” There’s a line I have in a song called “Sweating Bullets,” which goes, “Someday you too will know my pain/And smile its blacktooth grin.” I think there’s no better description of the joy of a good fight than when you see a boxer who’s smiling after he’s won, but he’s had a tooth knocked out. And [Pantera] ended up making a drink called “Blacktooth Grin,” which was evidently a glass full of Jack Daniels and a splash of Coke, instead of vice versa.
So he got the name of the drink from your song?
From that line in “Sweating Bullets,” yeah. The only other thing I would add is that anyone who knows Darrell knows that, towards the end of his life, he was making a lot of personal decisions; he was changing his life, he was making a lot of decisions that were going to ultimately be good for him. His band had changed, and he was addressing some of his personal demons. It’s just such a shame that we lost him.
The most important thing for me, especially in the midst of my mother-in-law disappearing, is just to remember how quickly our loved ones can be here one minute and the next they’re gone. Darrell, murdered; my mother-in-law, vanished. You never know. But especially with the holidays coming, I think Darrell would want us to remember him by celebrating and not mourn.