Dimebag Darrell Interview: A Cowboy from Hell

By: HP Newquist (National Guitar Museum) – September 1995

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Pantera means “panther” in Spanish. It was also the name of a pretty cool sports car a few years back. But, the word seems to have found its most powerful definition in the Dallas-based band of the same name; the band that gives us this years winner in GFTPM’s Best Breakthrough Guitarist category, Diamond Darrell. Pantera’s Darrell emerges first out of a hefty crop of fellow metal and grunge guitarists who were up for the award this year, including such well-know Seattle fretmeisters as Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil, Pear Jam/Temple of the Dog’s Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, and even Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. That a band from Texas should produce such chilling thrash metal is an amazing accomplishment in itself, especially given the traditional blues nature of the region. That the winner for the Breakthrough Guitarist award should fare so well against the most acclaimed of this year’s guitar bands is an even more amazing testament to this cowboy from hell’s blitzkrieg virtuosity. We caught up with Diamond Darrell one night in Germany where Pantera were prowling the European continent as opening act for Megadeth.

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Let’s start off with influence. Past winners used to claim Paganini and Bach as influences. More recently, jazz names like John Coltrane and Charlie Parker started showing up. Being the newest of breakthrough guitarists, who did you listen to?

Diambag Darrell: To be honest, I’m not one who tries to claim a bunch of influences. I’m not jazz this or classical that. As far as classical goes, Randy Rhoads was as far as that got. He was a big influence and so was Eddie Van Halen – he still is. I’m hardly influenced anymore because I listen mostly to my old records. But off their old stuff, Michael Schenker and even Angus Young were influences. But I’d have to say that Ace Frehley was probably my biggest influence. Just the whole image, and especially that vibrato he’s got [mimics “wowwowwow” vibrato sound!]. That was actually the reason I started playing guitar, by the way. I dressed up like him, got a fake Les Paul, skipped school to play in front of the mirror, then went from there.

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You’re from Dallas, but is seems to be Austin that always got the guitar virtuoso limelight, with people like Johnny Winter and Stevie Ray Vaughan. What do you think is different about the Dallas scene?

Diambag Darrell: In Dallas, there’s a bunch of great guitar players that I’m not even sure anybody’s even heard of or know about. If you wanted to be big or cool in Texas you went to Austin. But that’s never how it was from my point of view. We’re from Dallas, and we just did what we did and do what we do, and not really because of any influence or style, but because that’s where we’re from. I can’t change that.

Besides there’s guys like Bugs Henderson who are still putting their guts into it, who his his heart into it, and he’s an honest blues player. I guess you could say he’s an influence – seeing as he recorded at my dad’s studio. I’d go down and the dude would just let me sit and watch him. Another guy, Jimmy Wallis, would hang out at this music store about 45 minutes from my house. Whenever I could get a ride down there, Jimmy’d let me plug in with him at the music store in the amp room when I was like, 15. He’d show me a lick and we’d wail away.

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How much did you learn – theory-wise or from instruction – to get yourself going?

Diambag Darrell: I never got direct lessons from anybody. I just paid attention to what these guys were doing and watched how they did it. Then I’d go and try to do my own thing. I’m one of those dudes who learns a little bit and then sees how many different ways you can do it and stretch it, which always leads you into something else. I’m not like a huge theory dude, one of those guys that goes out and gets a book and goes to a teacher to learn a buttload of stuff.

So you never went an learned all the modes and scales?

Diambag Darrell: I don’t know ‘em dude [Laughs]. I’ll tell you that flat out. I know about two scales.

Good. It’s about time someone admitted to not knowing everything about every scale and mode.

Diambag Darrell: Hey, those guys can know all the scales, but if they don’t play from the gut and don’t mean it, it could have been a computer doing it. That’s all I can say. I’d take one note over a million any day. One note from the heart, feel and guts, then let that note sing, like Billy Gibbons does. Just let him hit one note and then go for it.

We’ve mentioned Ace Frehley, Van Halen, and Randy Rhoads. Do you listen to any of your contemporaries?

Diambag Darrell: Oh yeah. I just hope I don’t leave anybody out [Laughs]. When it comes to guitar playing I think the layering and the honest feel that Jerry Cantrell gets on the new Alice in Chains record is worth a lot more than someone who plays five million notes. I was listening to two songs off Dirt with him in L.A. and Jerry was saying that he just did his solos, and he was just playing around letting it come out, and not planning on keeping ‘em. But the solos were so good the band wanted him to keep them. I think Jerry played his ass off on that record. That’s what I’m into, not all this total perfection shit.

Most of all, my favorite new guitar player is Blues Saraceno. When I first heard of Blues, I went out and got the Plaid album ‘cause I’d heard according to some guys back home that his name was really Blues, and he, like, had to live up to that, and he really did. So I put the album on one night after a gig while I was lying in my bunk, and after two songs I jumped out of my bunk and said, “My God!” And I woke up Rex [Pantera’s bass player] and said, “You’ve got to listen to this dude’s tone and listen to his feel.”

We just went down the list. Blues never overplays and his feel is so honest. And then I saw him play in front of me and it was as good as, if not better than, on the record. His style is more Van Halen than a Malmsteen thing that’s only real fast. But it’s back to that one note thing that I was talking about. His playing did it for me Then I went out and got his first album, Never Look Back, and I can’t even tell which is the better of the two. I’ve met up with him, talked to him on the phone a couple of times, he’s come out to a couple shows. We haven’t had a chance to sit down and really tear it up, but I sat and listened to him play for awhile, and that dude is everything that guitar stands for.

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Anyone else, metal or not?

Diambag Darrell: I heard the playing on “Jesus Built My Hotrod” and that really turned me on to Ministry, although I wasn’t into them to much before. The guy they’ve got with them now is good. Mike Sacchia. He used to be with a band called Rigor Mortis. I’m not too much of an industrial type, but as far as that goes, I really dig Nine Inch Nails.

It seems that the guitar wars have sort of leveled off and all that king of the hill stuff seems to be passé among current guitarists. Are there people you feel like you have to prove yourself against?

Diambag Darrell: Nope. Never did, never wanted to. It’s like what I was telling you right off the bat. I’m not trying to claim that I know every scale, and that I listen to all these weirdos that nobody’s ever heard of. I just do what I do, and if anybody digs it, that’s cool. But, I do bust my balls doing it.

There seems to be a certain Van Halenesque flair to your soloing, especially in songs like, “A New Level” or “Live in A Hole,” something that gets overlooked in a lot of the straight, rhythm-oriented playing of other grunge guitarists. Why is that?

Diambag Darrell: Because I’m more of a feel dude, I’m more into tones, even weird tones, and the feel of the guitar. Any shit that’s cool.

You’ve done a video for “Walk” and had a video compilation for Cowboys From Hell. Does any of the Ace Frehley stuff from your early years make you think more about the visual aspects of being a guitar player?

Diambag Darrell: Well, I’m not saying I’m the most pure dude in the world, but I really don’t care about what I look like or what I do in the videos. We just do what we do. The only thing I can say about videos is that it’s a fucking drag sitting around all day and then having to get up there and jam to yourself.

If videos don’t really reproduce the sound and feel of Pantera as a live band, do you feel you’ve captured Pantera accurately on your records?

Diambag Darrell: No, I can’t say we have, not all the way. But that’s what we go for, more so than just saying, “We’re making a record, let’s make it as plastic as plastic is.” That’s why there’s not a lot of rhythm guitar behind the leads on this record. It’s like back in the early Van Halen-type thing which is something I really respect about Van Halen. It wasn’t Eddie trying to cram a fucking rhythm guitar on everything. He left it live. And live is our power point. Even when we write songs we all think, “Can you imagine the crowd on this part?” and then we play this chunkachunkachunka thing. Then we cut into a part and think, “Jesus! They’re going to lose their fucking minds when they hear this” [Laughs]. That’s who we’re ultimately playing everything for: the bored listener, and the fan who wants to see a kickass live show. “Cause most stuff around now is pretty sterile, I’d have to say.

Click to Checkout Dimebag Darrell's Riffer Madness at Musician's Friend

How has this tour with Megadeth gone for Pantera?

Diambag Darrell: The first time we came over [to Europe] this year, Vulgar Display of Power had only been out a week, and people were coming by mostly to check us out. That was on the Skid Row tour. Then we took a month off and came back with Megadeth, but this time it’s completely different. Now everybody’s all over it [the album] and there’s an awesome amount of ass-kicking going on. It’s great.

With your emphasis on live playing, has your tour setup changed or evolved? With bigger venues are you still committed to Dean and Randalls or do you need more gear?

Diambag Darrell: Even though it’s bigger places, I don’t have to learn any new scales and don’t have to change my gear. I love Dean guitars and I love Randall amps, and it works, man. Why should I change? I don’t have a bunch of stuff sitting in my garage. And just because somebody’s willing to give me gear doesn’t mean I’m going to take it. I’m not like that. I have a great relationship with Randall Amplifiers. I get only what I need from them and I think that’s only fair.

I mean, if you’re going to take a bunch of shit from a bunch of people then put it in your garage, that’s not cool in my book. This company Heartland just bought out all the Dean stuff and they’re going to do my Deans. They’re going to make the Diamond Darrell model to sell in stores. That’s sort of like a dream come true. ‘Cause I’m always looking for Deans at pawn shops or whatever, and then I always fix them up to the way I like ‘em.

You won a lot of guitars in contests when you were starting out. Was it trial and error with all those different types of guitars that got you digging on Dean guitars?

Diambag Darrell: No. Dean was an image thing for me when I was younger. Just the way they looked. I got a catalog and thought it was the baddest fucking guitar in the world when I looked at it. Kind of a half V, half Explorer thing, with that big-ass headstock. So I ordered one and made my dad pitch in, and I scraped together what I could. When it came in, the action was amazing and the neck was really nice. Funny thing is, when I bought it, it was like $1,000 or $1,200, which was a hell of a lot of money at that time in my life. And then I fucking won one a month later. That started my collection right there.

What about effects?

Diambag Darrell: 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.

The same with the old Hush 2B nose gate that we have on all the time – I don’t even know if they make ‘em anymore. These aren’t so much effects because they’re so minutely put in there and they’re on all the time, but they are a part of my stock tone. Together the doubler and the noise gate give me a thicker sound that’s closer to the record. We might nudge things up and down live, but not to get any real obvious effects.

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I will say that I have a wah-wah pedal that I’ve had a long time. An old Jim Dunlop model, just a regular one, but I screwed down the switch that pushes down under the pedal so that t allows me to get more high end out of the wah. It’s a cool trick. As far as other pedals. I was at a music store a few months back and said, “Turn me on to something new” and they brought out this DigiTech whammy pedal. But it was weird playing it because I could set it to two octaves up and get almost the same kind of sound I get with my harmonic squeal, which I don’t use a pedal for.

So now with this pedal I don’t want anybody to think I’m cheating or using the pedals that squeal because I can take anybody’s guitar or amp and show them that I can get that squeal without using a fucking pedal. But, I am playing around with it just to get some weird noises.

You guys are riding a big wave of popularity with the release of Vulgar and with the exposure that you‘ve gotten on this tour. Anybody banging on your door for guest guitar appearances yet?

Diambag Darrell: No, man, it hasn’t happened yet. Not that I know of.

But, Pantera’s finally getting some critical recognition, and this Best Breakthrough Guitarist award is one example of that. How long do you think you can keep it up?

Diambag Darrell: Well, Pantera – the core of Pantera, me Vinnie and Rex – have been together forever. Phil joined us almost seven years ago, and since then we’ve been just going at it. This is the only band that I’ve ever been in, and I believe it can happen for seven or 17 more years!

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About HP Newquist: HP Newquist is the founder of The National Guitar Museum, the first museum dedicated to the evolution and cultural impact of the guitar. He has authored books that have explored a wide range of subjects and include: Legends of Rock Guitar (with Peter Prown); The Way They Play series (including Blues Masters, Hard Rock Masters, Metal Masters, Acoustic Masters), with Rich Maloof and the award winning The Great Brain Book: An Inside Look At The Inside Of Your Head. Newquist is the past Editor-in-Chief of Guitar Magazine. He wrote Going Home, a Disney Channel documentary featuring Robbie Robertson, as well as directed the film documentary, John Denver – A Portrait.

Note: This interview is reprinted from an article by HP Newquist, originally published in GUITAR Magazine (September 1995). It appears here courtesy of Newquist and The National GUITAR Museum.

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