A short, teenage boy equipped with twigs for appendages hides behind his weapon of choice: a cherry sunburst Dean. With the guitar covering most of his torso, the adolescent is about to embark into a world of scrupulous eyes and experienced, calloused fingers. Although he’s one of the youngest competitors, he looks calm, refreshed and at home all alone on the stage. The judges prepare their scorecards, the crowd continues to settle in and several contestants snicker at the prospect of this ‘child’ surpassing their skill and talent levels. As the spotlight recedes from the back of the room and greets the youngster with a bright ‘hello,’ his teased and feathered brown hair is saturated with sweat. Not the sweat of a nervous novice, but the anticipatory perspiration of victory and confidence. The audience and fellow competitors are about to learn a lesson: looks can be deceiving.
Terry Glaze singing and playing rhythm while Darrell shreds
As Terry Glaze
, Pantera’s original lead singer, continues to retell this story of young Darrell “Dimebag” Abbott, I realized this was a fit beginning to a storied career.
“I remember one time particularly when Darrell went into his room and woodshed for about six months,” said Glaze. “He came out of that room and played like he would the rest of his life. I don’t know what happened in there, but he could really play after locking himself in that room for those weeks.”
When Darrell plugged in and hit his first chords, the laughter and mocking subsided and the lesson began. Carefully playing through renditions of Randy Rhoads’ and Eddie Van Halen’s solos, Abbott left the best for last. The icing on the cake for this performance wasn’t Darrell’s spontaneous variations of his idol’s songs, but when he performed his own material. On this fateful day in 1982 at the Arnold & Morgan Guitar Contest at the Ritz in Dallas, not only was a star born, but an iconic guitar and the resulting friendship began its start down an unprecedented path.
Young Darrell swaggered out taller as he carried his trusted cherry sunburst Dean and a newly acquired maroon Dean ML guitar. He had unanimously won the contest. All young Darrell wanted was to play Dean guitars, especially this ML. It was his destiny to not only play Deans, but later develop a signature series, even if he didn’t realize until much later in life.
“I remember there were a lot of good guitar players, but Darrell was so much more than anyone, there was no doubt about it,” said Glaze. “They had to make him a competition judge pretty quickly because no one was even close to him.”
Although Darrell astonished fans and fellow band members with his playing style and ferocity on stage, he often was confronted with skepticism because of his age or size. However, Darrell quickly converted the non-believers to his shred religion.
“The first time I saw him play I thought, ‘this kid is okay,’ but nothing special because they were only playing an 20-minute opening set which didn’t allow Darrell to solo or improvise,” said Buddy Blaze
, life-long friend of Darrell. “At a later date with a longer set, he played some solos and improvisational stuff. My jaw hit the floor because it was so good, but it came from someone so young.”
Buddy Blaze and Darrell letting the good times roll
Even Glaze, who prided himself on his on-stage theatrics and showmanship, noticed fans gravitating towards the band’s guitarist.
“We’d play originals and Darrell would just crush people. He always loved to play like that because he was just a big kid,” said Glaze.
Soon after watching Darrell rip on stage, Blaze quickly found himself levitating towards Darrell and his regionally-known band, Pantera. Although Darrell was several years younger than Blaze (who was already married), they were friends instantly because of one thing: Dean guitars. They both loved the playability, the V-ed out neck’s low action and the fact that not many people in Texas played the Chicago-based guitars.
It was a match made in heaven for Dean and Darrell. For no other reason than “tone; Darrell always had the thickest, coolest tone,” said Glaze.
Darrell’s sound evolved over the years, but his core, signature tone has always been there, from the early days of the hair-metal Pantera to the power-groove vibe that rocked the nineties. It all began with a simple formula: a few effects and near-intolerable volume. He used a Yamaha amp and a blue MXR six-band graphic EQ; he occasionally also used a MXR Harmonizer. Because Pantera had a deal with Randall – which blossomed from another Darrell guitar competition victory – they were able to use stacks and stacks of cabinets. Some were loaded while others remained empty; Darrell would place the Yamaha amp either behind or inside them, then he would blend the Yamaha tone through the Randall stacks. Darrell also took a page from his idols’ playbooks by slightly and incrementally adjusting the pitch on his Harmonizer and intricately blending that into his tone.
“I know because of the times that it was like Motley Crue and Judas Priest with my high-pitched screams and falsetto singing, but the tone and sound of Darrell’s guitar is still the same,” said Glaze. “Someone who is a fan of Pantera from the mid-nineties will be able to listen to the earlier stuff and be like, ‘Hey, that’s Darrell playing guitar’.”
While Darrell and the rest of Pantera enjoyed increasing regional success throughout Texas in the mid-eighties, Blaze became more visible at not only Darrell’s side, but with the rest of the Abbott family.
Mid-eighties Pantera cruising through the Texas circuit
“It was just something we did. A few nights a week I’d go check out Pantera at clubs around the area with their parents, my wife and family friends.” But as Darrell and Buddy became closer friends, Darrell began to find other interests that the guitar couldn’t quench: Firebirds and women.
He reached the age where the lines of freedom and delinquency can become blurred. Abbott was about to commit a musical sin and he turned to his close friend for help.
“He came to me several times, asking if I’d buy that Dean ML that he won at the contest. I wouldn’t because you don’t sell trophies,” said Blaze. “I told Darrell that when he’s 50 and surrounded by grandkids he can tell them their grandpa won this guitar when he was 14.”