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‘60 Songs That Explain the ’90s’: Pantera and How Dimebag Darrell Became the Ultimate Guitar God

We’re back for another run of episodes, starting with the Texas heavy rock quartet’s “Walk” and a guest appearance from Sean Fennessey 

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s is back for 30 more episodes to try to answer those questions. Join Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla as he treks through the soundtrack of his youth, one song (and embarrassing anecdote) at a time. Follow and listen for free on Spotify. In Episode 76 of 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s—yep, you read that right—we’re exploring “Walk” by Pantera, with a guest spot from The Ringer’s Sean Fennessey.

Accept no substitutes for this Imperial Era lineup of Pantera: Phil Anselmo on lead vocals, Dimebag Darrell on guitar, Rex Brown on bass, and Dimebag’s older brother Vinnie Paul on drums. Perhaps we will discuss aspects of “Walk” beyond Dimebag Darrell’s guitar solo, and perhaps we won’t.

Darrell Lance Abbott was born in Ennis, Texas, in 1966. Vinnie Paul Abbott—who graced the cover of several drummer magazines—Vinnie had been born in ‘64. Their mother, Carolyn, loved her boys dearly and supported them unconditionally, and they loved her right back, which partly explains why the boys still lived with their mother long after they became famous semi-adult rock stars. As for their father, Jerry Abbott, Jerry was a big-shot country-music songwriter and producer, or, OK, a medium-shot country producer.

Jerry Abbott had his own recording studio called Pantego Sound. Pantego, Texas, is right near Arlington, and roughly between Dallas and Fort Worth. So one year for Darrell’s birthday—he’d turned 8, 9, 10 years old, these are oft-repeated anecdotes, the details gets fuzzy—his dad gets him a birthday present. His dad says, “Son, you can either have a BMX bike or you can have this,” and he pointed at a guitar. Darrell took the bike. And then Darrell got super into KISS and changed his mind. My Uncle Roger loves KISS, and he had this KISS record, self-titled, proudly displayed in his house, and the cover scared me as a kid, all the KISS dudes preening in full makeup. Bugged me out a little bit. That’s just one way in which Dimebag Darrell and I are dissimilar.

When Darrell was 11 or 12 or maybe 13 years old he got a Les Paul copy, a Pignose amp, and an Electro–Harmonix Big Muff fuzz pedal. That’s what it’s called. It’s not that funny. Every amateur teenage guitarist goes through the phase of being like, Huh huh, that pedal’s called a—it’s not funny. Darrell in a Guitar World interview said that it was the Big Muff pedal that really sold him. Quote: “Feedback! Distortion! Dude, that was all she wrote.”

I’m just gonna put this thought out into the universe. 2025 Oscars. Best Actor in a Leading Role. Danny McBride. Victorious. For the titular role in Dimebag: The Pantera Story. Directed by Richard Linklater. What’s that? Huh? Oh, that not metal enough for you? You wanna really burn it? Dual roles. Danny McBride plays both Dimebag and Vinnie Paul. If this happens in real life everyone listening to this has to Venmo me $20. Apiece. I will accept that in lieu of a producer credit. Vinnie Paul, in every Pantera press photo, looks like Mario, Super Mario, the popular Nintendo plumber character; he looks Mario in street clothes photo-bombing a Pantera shoot. It’s amazing.

So yeah now young Darrell has been radicalized and/or polluted by rock ‘n’ roll. KISS, Black Sabbath, Van Halen, Iron Maiden. A bunch of shit like that. His father, Jerry Abbott, was interviewed by Guitar World in 2010, and Jerry says that the first song his sons ever played together was “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple, he says, “They just fell in love with it and played it for three hours straight.” Which sounds like he’s exaggerating, but if you’ve ever listened to classic-rock radio, you know that just this song lasts three hours.

Pantera bassist Rex Brown wrote a memoir in 2013 called Official Truth, 101 Proof: The Inside Story of Pantera. I don’t know if you say that 101 Proof or One-Oh-One Proof, and I feel like it’s more honest if I just admit I don’t know that rather than go find out and then pretend like I always knew that. Do you know what I mean? The book’s fine. I either want to now go read 25 more bassist memoirs, or I want to read zero more. There is no middle ground. Rex offers my personal favorite Dimebag Darrell origin myth. He says, “Little Dime was only just learning the guitar, he could hardly even play fucking barre chords, but he steadily progressed until one summer in the early ‘80s, somebody gave him Ozzy Osbourne’s Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman. Dime then sequestered himself for that entire summer, and when he came out he was fucking virtuooso. It was that simple.” I dig this image. Danny McBride’s gotta recreate the scene, where young Darrell walks into his bedroom as a shitty guitar player, picks up these two Ozzy Osbourne albums, slams the door, and then there’s a three-month time lapse where you see the brutal Texan sun setting and rising 90-odd times, and then he kicks open the bedroom door on September 1 and emerges in a billowing plume of rock-concert fog as Motherfucking Dimebag Darrell and starts wailing like Randy Rhoads.

So thanks to Ozzy Osbourne and Randy Rhoads, young Dime is a guitar god now, and all the more godly for the fact that he can’t read guitar tablature. Quote: “I respect people that can read tablature and all that shit, but I just don’t even have the patience to read the newspaper. I’ll read three or four lines and that’s it.” End quote. Very well. In 1981 the Abbott brothers—Vinnie and Diamond Darrell, as Dime was then known, it’s a KISS reference—start a band they will eventually call Pantera. It’s Spanish for panther. Don’t overthink it. In terms of famous metal bands with brothers in ‘em, Pantera of course echoes Van Halen, where both Alex and Eddie Van Halen started out as kids playing drums but Alex was way better so Eddie switched to guitar. Same deal now with Dime and Vinnie. They work the Texas bar-band circuit. They start out playing all covers of course. KISS, Black Sabbath, Van Halen, Iron Maiden, a bunch of shit like that. They burn through a few band members. They find an early lineup that sticks, rounded out by Rex Brown on bass, and Terry Glaze on lead vocals and some guitar and keyboards. Pantera’s debut album, Metal Magic, comes out in 1983. Dime is 16, and the other three guys are 19, but Terry Glaze’s sex talk makes him sound like he’s 12.

Pantera by 1985 are a tight and well-oiled and fearsome and extravagantly Spandex’d machine, speaking of what was the style at the time. But while ol’ Terry Glaze’s charisma is substantial, and he can growl and/or wail like the dickens, I do think that in terms of lyrical content, we’d all like Terry to progress a little faster.

In Rex Brown’s book—in the bassist’s memoir—Terry gets to talk a little, and Terry says that partly there were creative differences. Terry says, quote, “I liked songs that you could wash your car to where the vocals were the hook.” But the other fellas were pushing Pantera in a more guitar-driven and heavier direction. The other fellas had all gotten super into Metallica. Metallica’s Master of Puppets came out in 1986, completing one of the radder and heavier first-three-album arcs in rock ‘n’ roll history, Kill ‘Em All to Ride the Lightning to Puppets. Plus Terry wanted to go to college, and being in a band with two brothers sucks when they form an impenetrable voting bloc, plus the brothers’ dad is still around and somehow gets part of the publishing and is generally mucking up the money. Jerry Abbott is poorly spoken of in the bassist’s memoirs. Pantera needs a new frontman. Enter a charismatically glowering gentleman from New Orleans by the name of Philip H. Anselmo. And immediately … not a whole lot changes.

He can wail immediately, Phil. Give him that. Pantera’s fourth album, from 1988, is called Power Metal. We got a lot of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden influence happening, and hell yeah to that. The Power Metal album cover is just the fellas in Pantera—the imperial lineup; the classic, the immortal, about-to-be-superstars iteration of Pantera—and they’re all looking, uhhhhh, feathered? High-volume in multiple senses? Majestic, uh, plumage. They look like a heavy metal band in 1988.

The fifth Pantera album, and pretty much the first Pantera album according to Pantera, came out in 1990, and is called Cowboys From Hell. once asked Phil Anselmo—the URL is Ultimate dash Guitar, I’m gonna get a giant back tattoo of my browser history right now—they asked him, in essence, Did the record company ask you to change your sound, or did you do it yourselves? And Phil says, “No, it was just us, and it was simple. It was always, like, Pantera would write a great heavy metal song, and at the end of a great heavy metal song, there would be this massive riff, big hook. All I said to them was, ‘Hey, why don’t we take the massive riff at the end and make it the whole fucking song? Trim off all that other bullshit, man.’”

I’m gonna let you in on a little secret. I’ve been a rock critic for 20 years, and this is what I’ve learned. A lot of rock bands, even decent rock bands, when they super-ostentatiously announce that they’re gonna trim all the bullshit, they’re gonna be a no-bullshit rock ‘n’ roll band, they quickly discover—and maybe you, listening, discover this before they do—that their sound was entirely bullshit, and if they ever truly cut out all the bullshit, they’d be left with literal silence. Rock ‘n’ roll, broadly defined, depending on the era and the subgenre and the specific band, is anywhere between 85 and 99.7 percent bullshit. That’s the point. The bullshit is the point. The bullshit is the vast majority of the point. Very few bands in world history could even conceivably cut out all the bullshit, and basically none of those bands should. Pantera could. Pantera did.

There are mundane industry-type reasons for Pantera’s colossal upgrade here. They finally got signed to a major label. They finally get a big-shot producer, a guy named Terry Date, who’d worked with Soundgarden, Overkill, Dream Theater, Metal Church, and … Sir Mix-a-Lot? Starting with Cowboys From Hell, Terry will be producing the next four blockbuster Pantera albums—it’s maybe more accurate to say that Pantera helped make Terry Date a big-shot producer—but everyone loves him. One of Terry’s first official duties, apparently, was to personally shave Phil Anselmo’s head, if you’re into super-obvious ’80s Metal vs. ’90s Metal symbolism. Clearly Terry had the technical skills to help Dimebag get all those rad guitar sounds, but also the cat-herding, studio dad interpersonal skills necessary to get these knuckleheads to record an album without trying to blow up the sun with a beer keg or whatever. But to my mind the most colossal upgrade here is the songwriting itself. “Cemetery Gates” is an epic, with no scare quotes and, incredibly, no bullshit.

To hear the full episode click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.