Like all instruments, playing the guitar is an art form. It takes a lot of time and patience to understand and learn. Many try, but few succeed. Those who do succeed have either learned from someone else, or they are simply born with “God-given talent.” “Dimebag” or “Diamond” (as he was known then) Darrell Abbott definitely mastered his art due to both of these.
Diamond Darrell and his brother, drummer Vinnie Paul formed a band while they were still in high school. These cowboys from Hell (or Texas, as they’d lead you to believe) were a cover band before anything else; until the early 1980’s, when the Abbott brother’s dad convinced them to start writing their own music. They formed a band, Pantera, that released their first album when Diamond was only 17. They continued releasing “hair/glam” metal albums until 1990.
“Cowboys from Hell” is the group’s major label debut (as well as their second album with vocalist Phil Anselmo and the last album before “Diamond” Darrell changed his nickname to “Dimebag.”) Starting with this album, Pantera turbo-charged their sound, making their metal ten times heavier. Some believe they aborted their original sound (in favor of a more vengeful one), because they were signed to a major label. Others believe they did it because the `90’s were a new era and hair metal was no longer popular. I, however, only partially believe both of these theses. I think Pantera aborted their `80’s style of music because of the influence Diamond/Dimebag Darrell had on the band. In the early days, Dime was influenced by such artists as Ace Frehley of Kiss (thus explaining Pantera’s hair metal sound), Eddie Van Halen, and Randy Rhodes. But as Pantera aged and released increasingly heavy albums, he cited influences among his contemporaries such as Kerry King of the extreme metal band Slayer.
Whatever the reason, there’s no disputing that Pantera changed its sound for the better. It’s a good thing that “Cowboys from Hell” was Pantera’s breakthrough album, because if one of their hair/glam metal albums had been a hit, Pantera probably would have been tempted to continue playing that kind of music, and hair metal isn’t what Pantera was meant for. Phil Anselmo, Dimebag Darrell and Vinnie Paul Abbott, and bassist Rex Brown were put on this earth to play heavy as f*ck heavy metal. It’s like Phil says: “We had to decide where our musical hearts were. After short deliberation, we realized our intention was to be the most devastating ‘hardcore-heavy metal’ band in the world.”
There is also no denying that Pantera were backed by one of the strongest rhythm sections in metal. Sure, Vinnie Paul’s drumming and Phil’s howling were both top notch, but Dimebag Darrell’s unbelievably powerful, talented riffing and wonderful solos were the biggest reason why Pantera were the heavy, influential, famous, and all around great band that they were.
“Cowboys from Hell” has lightning fast, cascading riffs at the beginning and a winding guitar solo near the middle. Not much can be said about this song that hasn’t already been said. It’s an instant classic that defined Pantera.
“Primal Concrete Sledge” is a short, sludgy song with lurching riffs.
“Psycho Holiday” has more classic, thumping Pantera riffs and near the end, the guitar changes speeds and turns to a fast chug. The real highlight here though, is the 45 second-long, wailing guitar solo that has three parts to it. These solos would become renowned worldwide and a trademark of Dimebag. I’ve always really enjoyed how Dimebag could riff fast and hard, pause briefly to lay down a solo, then go back to the great riffs.
“Cemetery Gates” is the semi-ballad of the album. Phil sings about his longing for a loved one who has passed away and, even though the song gains momentum and speed, the theme of this one is much slower than the other songs. It begins with light, spacey guitar notes, has a solo in the middle, and ends with really high-pitched falsetto screams, which are matched by high, harmonic guitars.
After the album’s semi-ballad, Pantera pick up where they left off with maybe the heaviest song on the album. “Domination” has guitars and drums that thud thunderously. The beginning is really fast, similar to another Pantera anthem, “F*cking Hostile,” with great back-and-forth work between the guitars and drums. It has another great solo near the end, and the song’s last few seconds are slow chugging, booming riffs.
Machine gun riffs and drums occupy much of “Shattered”, making the song so fast it almost sounds like it’s vibrating. When Phil’s vocals begin, he lays down some Judas Priest-esque screams that are so high, it almost sounds like he’s squealing.
“The Sleep” begins slowly, with acoustic guitar licks. The song then turns to a galloping beat, with punching guitars and it’s rounded off by not one, but TWO more superb solos.
Dimebag’s virtuoso guitar work also makes “Cowboys from Hell,” like all landmark metal albums, stand the test of time. At the time, “CfH” was about as heavy as heavy metal got. 15 years later, it’s nothing short of a classic. Like Metallica’s “Kill `Em All” or Slayer’s “Show No Mercy,” “Cowboys from Hell” is not the band’s best offering. But, it’s a great album that’s essential for all metalheads. Plus, since this was Pantera’s most thrashy-sounding album, it’s essential for 1980’s thrash fans, too. The bottom line is if you like heavy metal, you should be sinking your teeth into this album.
If you learn from the best, you’ll be the best. He has Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhodes to thank for it, but Dimebag was the best of his generation. Thus, as the best, it was his job to influence a new generation of guitarists. Even though Dimebag is now deceased, his legend lives on through younger, aspiring guitarists. There’s only one Dimebag Darrell Lance Abbott, but there will surely be many more people coming our way who have mastered the art of guitar shredding…and they’ll have Dimebag to thank.