It’s hard to imagine any guitarist being as important to metal’s identity as “Dimebag” Darrell Abbot. As one fourth of Texan groove metallers Pantera, Darrell changed the genre as we know it with his mixture of blinding technicality and hip-swinging southern style. More than that, though, Dime was one of us, a dude whose good-natured party animal attitude and love for old-school rock made him easy to identify and sympathize with. We may talk a lot about a metal artist’s oeuvre like a bunch of black-clad grad students, but a few drinks in at the bar, we’re all Dimebag.
16 years ago today, Darrell was murdered by a mentally ill fan while playing with his post-Pantera band Damageplan. In honor of his memory, and to celebrate the life and talent of a dude we all felt like we knew in our bones, we’ve made a list of the 16 greatest Dimebag riffs of all time, one for each year he’s been gone. Check out what we put together below, and don’t forget to pour one out for Dime…
16. “I’ll Cast A Shadow” – Kick/chorus riff (Reinventing The Steel, 2000)
Given that Reinventing The Steel was Pantera’s final album before Dime’s death, closing it with “I’ll Cast A Shadow” feels deeply prophetic today. What’s interesting is that the killer riff which kicks off that song isn’t a typical Dimebag Darrell guitar part. Sure, it opens with Darrell’s signature machine-gun chug, but then it moves into an unbalanced climb that shows off the guitarist’s love of unorthodox and acrobatic playing. It isn’t one of his riffs you think of often, but now that you’ve given it the time, you’ll never forget it.
15. “The Underground In America” – Opening riff (The Great Southern Trendkill, 1996)
This riff sounds like a grin breaking out on Dime’s face as an idea for a really twisted prank hits him. “The Underground In America” epitomizes The Great Southern Trendkill with its slamming, often discordant music and lyrics about the incongruous state of the world in 1996. But that opening guitar part makes sure that Pantera’s smirking dirtbag vibe is ever-present even in their angrier, more topical material. A lesser-known gem that shows off Dimebag’s prowess with grimy atmosphere.
14. “Blunt Force Trauma” – Verse riff (New Found Power, 2004)
Due to its proximity both to Pantera’s dissolution and Dimebag’s murder, Damageplan’s New Found Power doesn’t always get the respect it deserves. But “Blunt Force Trauma” illustrates how this new project gave Darrell a chance to both play to his strengths and try some new things out. The headbanging verse riff of this track is definitely not a Pantera riff — too jangly, too fun — while remaining deeply rooted in Dime’s love of southern guitar and classic rock. A killer track from an album that should be unearthed more often.
13. “Clash With Reality” – Opening/chorus riff (Cowboys from Hell, 1990)
For an album so historically loved, 1990’s Cowboys From Hell has plenty of under-appreciated B-sides on it. “Clash With Reality” never became a Guitar Hero staple, but the riff Dime plays in the opening and chorus are exactly why Pantera blew up the way they did. The guitar tone is pure caramel groove, and yet there’s a bladed edge to it that makes the band’s music impossible to confuse with the grunge and alternative scenes that were popping off at the time. This is metal, pure but not simple.
12. “Immortally Insane” – Central riff (Heavy Metal 2000 Soundtrack, 2000)
The soundtrack to the animated movie Heavy Metal 2000 featured some exceptional stand-alone tracks by metal’s biggest names, among them one of Pantera’s grooviest songs. It’s hard not to hear that main riff and instantly think of the Texan four, what with its combination of brooding attitude and Texan swagger. At the core of it all is Dimebag’s central riff, which is pure chocolate for the ears and provides a bedrock off of which the rest of the band can display their fullest talents. That little wiggle at the end of the first progression is more than enough to make you want to high-five Darrell, wherever he is.
11. “5 Minutes Alone” – Opening/chorus riff (Far Beyond Driven, 1994)
The central riff of “5 Minutes Alone” illustrates the exceptional beauty that Dimebag found in simple moments. Let’s be honest, this is not a terribly complex or technical riff, but it hits a perfect middle ground between chill and gripping that was always Dime’s superpower. With any less groove it’d be a simple beatdown hardcore riff, and with any less oomph it’d be a little too radio-rock, but as is it easily wields both. The result is a song that brings Pantera’s signature swing even while it sports a chapped, irritated face.
10. “By Demons Be Driven” – Opening/Chorus riff (Vulgar Display of Power, 1992)
Pantera’s darkness is often inaccurately perceived as wholly stemming from Phil Anselmo’s satanic punk lyrics. But the opening riff to “By Demons Be Driven” proves that Dimebag had a pretty startling talent for hulking, misanthropic guitar parts which exuded pure rage. The M16 chug and agonized wail of this riff is inherently furious, displaying an agitation that was always crucial to Pantera’s development into something more than a good-timey metal act. A riff like this doesn’t just go to a dark place, it shows up there with a can of gasoline and a pack of smokes.
9. “Cowboys From Hell” – Opening riff (Cowboys from Hell, 1990)
Ah, the gold standard. With this riff, Dimebag Darrell ushered in a new era of the metal genre, combining bluesy groove with icy metallic squeal. To fans today who are more accustomed to Pantera by way of, say, Hatebreed or Great American Ghost, it might even sound a little cheesy and Priestian — and indeed it is — but coming out of the diabetic pop bullshit of hair metal and the bleached speed of thrash, a riff this enjoyable was game-changing for fans who heard it in ‘90. Here they come, reach for your gun.
8. “Goddamn Electric” – Chorus riff (Reinventing The Steel, 2000)
The power of Dime’s riffs was that they felt like he understood you, and that’s definitely the case with the chorus riff of “Goddamn Electric.” After a bounding verse, Darrell stops on, well, a dime (rimshot) before kicking into a bottom-heavy strut that was made to soundtrack a crowd parting as you approach. Coupled with Phil’s lyrics proclaiming, “Your trust is in whiskey and weed and Slayer,” it feels like a no-nonsense expression of how every metal fan feels when they put on their headphones and take on their final form.
7. “I’m Broken” – Opening/chorus riff (Far Beyond Driven, 1994)
The “I’m Broken” riff feels inundated with automatic momentum — or, to put it another way, you can’t hear this riff and just sit still. Instead, the kick of this song inspires the listener to do something, anything, whether it’s bang their head or pound their drink or go skipping off into the pit. While Phil does his best to shriek about what a waste of life he feels like, the lyrical themes of this song come second; the riff is truly what fans will always remember. You could put any lyrics in this chorus and it would still rule.
6. “Mouth For War” – Opening riff (Vulgar Display of Power, 1992)
It’s hard to imagine what it was like for fans in ‘92 to first put on Vulgar Display of Power and have this riff greet them right out of the gate. The frantic staccato shredding that kicks it off must have been jarring, but that earthy gallop groove following it up must have made dudes lock eyes across basements around the world. In this way, Dimebag reinvented his band in an instant, letting the world know that these four guys were something more than the destructive man’s Van Halen who made Power Metal.
5. “Becoming” – Opening riff (Far Beyond Driven, 1994)
How do you make a song both a lot of fun and dark as hell? Answer: the sickest bounce riff of all time. On Driven, Darrell must have known that Pantera was a different band than the one on Cowboys from Hell, but he still knew a large portion of their appeal would always be the party. Hence the main riff of “Becoming,” which somehow feels like a jukebox anthem even though it brings a sheet-metal screech and a vague sense that the listener might get their ass kicked to it. If you listen closely, you can hear Slipknot learning everything they know on this song.
4. “Drag The Waters” – Opening/chorus riff (The Great Southern Trendkill, 1996)
Who knew a cowbell riff could sound so pitch-black? Trendkill was where Pantera began to sound truly evil, and Dimebag definitely rose to the occasion on “Drag The Waters.” Churlish and nasty, the track’s main riff seems in touch with Phil’s lyrics, amplifying the concept that even life in the good ol’ south is plagued by the horrors of the modern world. Though the record is otherwise packed with odd bits of brutal thrash and stoner angst, this track stands as a reminder that the band, though different, were always going to be Pantera. It can’t all be skeleton cowboys and weed leaves, can it?
3. “Walk” – The “Walk” riff (Vulgar Display of Power, 1992)
Did you think we’d forget? If we’re being honest, “Walk” exists as a riff more than a song — when one references the track, they don’t immediately sings the lyrics. Dime’s simple move of playing a thick, heavy gator note and then bending it changed how metal was perceived for time immemorial. The song single-handedly brushed aside all of the window dressing that had built up around the genre, revealing to the world that all real headbangers needed was a guitar part that sounds like reeling away after being punched in the face. True perfection.
2. “Cemetery Gates” – Kick/chorus riff (Cowboys from Hell, 1990)
Fucking delicious. Dime would later become famous for his burly chugs and molasses grooves, but one must never forget that he used to write riffs like this. While the kick riff of “Cemetery Gates” definitely brings the overdriven low-end, it’s that shriek at the end which makes it the kind of part that kept hair metal dudes awake at night; Slash, C.C., and Mick all wished they could’ve written this perfect combination of bluesy churn and airtight wail. A riff like this propelled Dime into the halls of guitar legend, even if he would someday move beyond it.
1. “A New Level” – Opening riff (Vulgar Display of Power, 1992)
Nothing else even comes close. The steady, looming ascent of the riff that slams into existence after its Kerry King horse whinny is the ultimate pump-up part, bolstering the internal defenses of the listener. One hear’s this riff and feels bigger, stronger, readier in the face of adversity and criticism than they’ve ever been before. At the end of the day, that was Darrell’s greatest talent — to write twisted, violent riffs that made us all feel better than we did before. That’s why he was the best of us — and why this song will always be a reminder of it.
Words by Chris Krovatin