A story of friendship and Dimebag''s famous "Dean from Hell" ML
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
“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
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.”
But, the inexperienced Darrell disregarded Blaze’s advice and continued his search for a potential buyer. Darrell was determined to buy a yellow Firebird and was willing to do whatever it took to get behind the wheel, which ultimately meant selling the trophy guitar.
Abbott sold the guitar to Blaze’s bandmate. Later that same day Blaze encountered the newly exchanged guitar.
“I just remember being at band practice and my lead singer came in with a guitar case shaped like a Dean ML,” said Blaze. “I knew once he opened the case and I saw Darrell’s Dean ML that he wasn’t leaving practice with that guitar.”
Blaze and his lead singer negotiated and finally settled on a fair deal. Blaze had just bought a brand new Kramer Pacer – “The best guitar I had in my own hands” – and traded it to the lead singer for Abbott’s Dean ML. Although it didn’t belong to the rightful owner, it was under the watchful eye of a close friend.
As for Darrell – now in possession of the Firebird – his reputation spread around town for not only being a hot guitar player but for his fast and foolish driving habits. The car spent more time parked than in the fast lane because Darrell quickly racked up numerous tickets and warrants.
“Darrell’s yellow Firebird was hilarious, a real Smokey and the Bandit thing,” said Glaze. “Back then, Darrell only weighed 115-120 lbs. He would just fly around town with his big, curly hair inside that Firebird.”
As for the low-key Dean and Blaze, a month passed before Buddy Blaze realized something was out of place. His newly acquired Dean ML guitar was maroon and all of his other guitars were blue, so Blaze thought a new paint job would welcome it into his guitar family. But instead of a standard blue paint job, he decided on a lightning storm scene. Blaze tapped into his fascination with storms and browsed through several National Geographic magazines to find a good reference. Despite the planning, Blaze didn’t warm up to the new paint scheme until months later.
The "Dean From Hell" before and after its new paint job
Darrell came over to Blaze’s house and saw this mysterious new guitar in Blaze’s collection. “I wasn’t sure if Darrell knew this was the same Dean ML he won years ago as a teenager,” said Blaze. “We just never really talked about it. I don’t even know if he knew I owned his guitar.”
Blaze continued to jam with his newest axe, but things just didn’t feel right. It was the perfect color, the preferred pickups and the desired setup, but the guitar still felt out of place.
“I remember the first time Darrell put on the guitar and started playing it. I realized right there and then that all the modifications I did for myself on the guitar were for nothing because it wasn’t even my guitar,” said Blaze. “But still to this day, that is my favorite guitar. If I could pick just one guitar to have forever, it’d be that one.”
As months tend to pass like a blur, Pantera and Blaze found themselves at a crossroad. Pantera had just recruited Philip Anselmo, a new lead singer, and were heading into the studio to record their fourth album Power Metal. Blaze also had opportunity knocking on his door. Kramer guitars had contacted Blaze and offered him a lucrative deal to move to New Jersey and help produce custom guitars.
“I saw the writing on the wall. It was my time to leave and Pantera was about to hit it big,” said Blaze. “I did what I felt was right in my heart and told Darrell to borrow my guitar until I could make him a copy.”
Early-nineties Pantera finding a new level of power
“Dude, I really love this guitar, but I don’t want to scratch or ding it up. It’s not even my guitar,” said Darrell.
Blaze quickly responded. “Don’t worry about it Darrell. Some day when you’re a superstar I’ll brag to my friends and family that Darrell Abbott scratched it.” With that, the frantic phone call was subdued and the conversation shifted.
Only a few weeks had passed and Darrell frantically called yet again, “Dude, what is it going to take for me to own this guitar, Buddy? I can’t let this guitar go!”
Blaze took a few moments and explained the situation. “Darrell you remember when you tried selling me that red ML and I didn’t buy it? You remember me telling you that you don’t sell your trophies? You got lucky this time because that lightning guitar is your red ML, your trophy guitar, so just keep it man. It was always yours and it’s yours again.”
Blaze vividly remembers the conversation, still to this day. “If you knew Darrell at all, when I told him this he just went ballistic – doing his yelling, screaming, jumping and running antics.” With a reaction like that, Blaze knew the guitar was back home.
Darrell was always a fan first and that was no more evident than his love for Blaze’s work. He was just as consumed with excitement when he received that lightning bolt Dean as the thousands of fans who shared moments, laughs, photos and even a few Black Tooth Grins – Crown Royal or Seagrams 7 with a splash of coke – with Dimebag.
As history can corroborate, Pantera went on to become a metal juggernaut in the nineties and Blaze has since developed numerous guitars and even his own guitar company. The guitar modified and adapted by Blaze became the prototype in 2004 for Dimebag’s signature series, which was released by Dean – now based in Tampa Bay – in 2005 at Winter NAMM. Ironically, the guitar groomed by Blaze and later adopted as Dimebag’s preferred axe, was used to depict Abbott’s likeness at his funeral and memorial service. The guitar stood on stage, illuminated to the heavens by a spotlight, while Darrell’s friends and colleagues spoke about the guitar legend.
Due to Dean’s financial troubles in the mid-nineties, Darrell joined the Washburn team where they developed a few signature models. Blaze recalls Darrell being happy with the move, but not quite feeling right.
“Let’s just say this, I’m glad that prior to his death he hooked back up with Dean guitars and they coincidentally developed the Dean from Hell based on the lightning bolt specifications,” said Blaze. “I know Darrell always wanted to play Deans, even way back when he first started. It was just good to see him back where he belonged.”
Even Dean’s CEO Elliott Rubinson recognizes the importance of Darrell’s endorsement of the once struggling guitar company.
The DFH on display, after years of lovin'' abuse
“Because Darrell played Deans throughout his career, I believe he played a large part in keeping the name in people’s minds, even when the company battled financial woes,” said Rubinson. “Only if that guitar could talk, the burnt headstock from Darrell’s fireworks, the KISS sticker and the paint scheme are all Darrell. People see the guitar they instantly think of Dimebag.”
For any guitar owner or builder, they have a special spot for their beloved projects. However guitars are just wooden instruments and lifelong friendships can be harder to build.
“It was my number one guitar, but that just shows the love I had for Darrell,” said Blaze.
With the gift that keeps on giving, the guitar exemplified not only a lifelong bond, but how humble Darrell truly was. Fame and money never changed that.
“After Pantera hit it big with the album, Cowboys from Hell, I couldn’t be more proud of my friend who was seen everywhere and anywhere using that infamous lightning blue guitar,” said Blaze. “It was just cool; no matter how big Darrell and Pantera got, he always thanked me in interviews and stuff even years after I gave him that Dean. That’s what really sticks with me ‘til this day, his modesty.”
As Blaze has dealt with the tragic loss of one of his closest and oldest friends, he realizes that whenever he sees Darrell in photos or videos with that guitar, that Darrell is carrying a piece of Buddy with him.
The overwhelming irony of this story is found in its core. Although Blaze admitted that he traded, painted and extensively modified the guitar for his own playing style, it was still the perfect axe for Darrell. No matter what Blaze told himself or did to the guitar, it was and always will be Darrell’s signature guitar. The paint job was created out of Blaze’s preference, but even the lightning storm guitar better described Darrell’s personality – electric and loud.
In the end, Blaze was able to improve an already solid guitar for Darrell, and really, what else are friends for?
Watch our video slideshow of more historical Dimebag and Pantera photos: