The night a major-label A&R man finally saw his band, Rex Brown was playing a Jackson 4-string at a private birthday party in
a Dallas strip mall. It was the fall of 1989, and Pantera—Brown, guitarist Darrell
“Dimebag” Abbott, and his brother, drummer Vinnie Abbott—had been living
close to the bone for seven years, gigging like crazy, touring in a rust-bucket RV, and recording four albums in a studio owned by the
Abbott brothers’ father. But they were on the verge
of something fresh. They knew their frontman, Phil
Anselmo, who had joined a couple years before, was
the real deal, and they were convinced that their heady
brew of classic metal, ’80s thrash, “alternative,” hardcore,
and Texas boogie was badass. Frankly, they had
no time for nonbelievers.
That particular evening, Brown recalls, they’d all
taken ecstasy, and by the time the A&R man showed
up, the band was throwing cake at each other between
songs and sliding around on spilled icing. The major-label
guy left; the bandmates looked at each other and
shrugged. But years of playing three sets a night for
six nights a week had made them ridiculously tight,
and the songs were just too damn good to deny. The
A&R dude came back, and Pantera had a record deal
by the end of the year. “We felt like saying, ‘Here we
are. Fuck you,” Brown recalls of Cowboys From Hell,
Pantera’s celebrated 1990 major-label debut. “We’re
going to destroy you, so if you don’t like it, leave.”
Over the course of Cowboys and four more studio
albums, including Vulgar Display of Power (1992),
Far Beyond Driven (1994), The Great Southern Trend-kill
(1996), and Reinventing the Steel (2000), Brown
defined and refined a brutally fast style and a
muscular, midrange-heavy approach that proved
metal bassists didn’t have to live in the shadows.
Standing toe to toe with Dime, wielder of one of rock’s
most massive guitar tones, Brown asserted his own
sonic identity while keeping pace with Dime’s blistering
lines and Vinnie’s jackhammer beats.
Dime’s murder in 2004 put an end to Pantera’s
23-year career. But the wiry Brown—always restless,
always working—has never been one to be idle. His
discography includes stints with Down, in which he
joined Anselmo; Crowbar, which he produced; Alice
In Chains guitar hero Jerry Cantrell; the Sepultura/Soulfly-related Cavalera Conspiracy; outlaw country singer David Allan Coe; and melodic Dallas rockers Arms Of The
Sun. Few of his projects, however, have excited him as much as
Kill Devil Hill, whose melodic, hard-rockin’ sound is the perfect
outlet for a metal veteran with Led Zeppelin in his bones.
Over the years, Rex has come to personify the rock & roll lifestyle,
and he’s got the stories, the surgeries, and the scars—as well
as the hard-won sobriety—to prove it. His action-packed memoir,
Official Truth, 101 Proof: The Inside Story of Pantera, co-written with
Mark Eglinton, is chock full of tales about Pantera’s struggle to
the top and its off-the-charts debauchery, but it also serves as a
cautionary tale about what can happen to four extremely driven
people who reach every goal they set out to achieve. Through it
all, however, emerges the candid self-portrait of a dangerously
honest, gifted, and hard-working bass maniac who went from
being a scrawny tuba player to turning down a North Texas State
scholarship and then playing in one of history’s most influential
Now, as Rhino prepares to release a remastered two-CD version
of Far Beyond Driven for its 20th anniversary, Pantera’s influence
continues to loom large over contemporary metal and hard rock. Brown is on fire with Kill Devil Hill, and he’s happy, in-between
tours, to hold clinics where fans come to hear stories and learn
riffs directly from the lean, down-to-earth master with golden
ears and a Texas twang.
“Be careful what you ask for, because it may come true,” Rex
says as he prepares for a European tour with Kill Devil Hill. “I’m
gonna be on the road for the next year, but I wouldn’t have it any
other way. It’s what I love to do.”
What music did you grow up with?
My sister, who is 17 years older than me, left me all her Beatles
and Stones records and everything in between. My mother and my
old man, who was in World War II, listened to swing bands of the
’40s and ’50s. My grandma played piano for silent movies and also
had a band. My parents would drop me off at her house, where she
had an upright piano, and she could play anything. All I wanted
to hear was Dixieland and ragtime—I probably drove her nuts.
How did your upbringing affect your musicality?
My ears are wide open. I’ll listen to anything as long as it’s got
a good hook. I learned that early on from listening to my grandma, because it was always that good cadenza or bridge
that made a song special. If you listen to all those
swing bands, there’s always that one part of the song
that just gets you and just drives it home.
And then you got hit by “Tush.”
I lived in a small town—De Leon, Texas—until
I was 10 or 11 years old. This is pretty much before
FM radio; we couldn’t get it anyway because it was so
far out of town. But I heard [ZZ Top’s] “Tush” on the
radio, and they had that rhythm going—it swung, it
was a shuffle, but it was a down-straight rocker, and
that Texas boogie, that stomp, just never left me.
That’s something you shared with the rest
of Pantera, right?
We all had that Texas stomp boogie in us, and it
became known as the power groove.
What other stuff rocked your world?
I was the last of 26 grandchildren, so I had a
lot of cousins who were turning me on to stuff like
AC/DC around that same time. I was also listening
to albums like Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of
Life. You can’t touch records like that these days;
people aren’t writing music like that anymore. In
the mid ’70s, it was all about Kiss, Black Sabbath,
Cheap Trick at Budokan, Jeff Beck, Deep Purple’s
Machine Head, and stuff like that. But what really
hit home for me was Zeppelin. That was my band
and always will be.
As a teenager, you played Stones and Zeppelin
covers with Neck & the Brewheads.
We played big keg parties for beer. I was all over
the place: I made all-state tuba through the time I
was in seventh grade until I switched over to the
drum line, I was a really good sight-reader, I sang
in the choir, and I was also an Eagle Scout. I’ve been
pretty busy all my life. I don’t know how to stop.
It seems like you have a hunger for jamming.
You’re not really a couch-potato kinda guy.
I can just disappear and turn the phone off, but
I’ve got this gift and I want to share it. That’s all
there is to it. It’s more like an addiction than anything
else. I’m just a music junkie.
How would you describe your connection
with Vinnie Paul after you first met in high
school jazz band?
We really knew how to play with each other. A
lot of those parts we did in Pantera, we worked out
in the studio just like we did in jazz-band sectionals
in high school. When we were 15 or 16, Vinnie
and I would go play Rush’s 2112 instead of actually
learning our parts for the jazz band. We just knew
each other so well; I always knew exactly what he
was going to do.
Later on, in Down, you had a strong hookup
with Jimmy Bower, too.
Jimmy plays way back on the beat, so the sky was
the limit for me to just run bass lines left and right.
He’s a great drummer and a very talented individual—
he plays guitar and writes all this crazy shit, too.
How is playing with Vinny Appice in Kill
I did my homework before I ever thought of starting
a band with him. Down toured with Heaven &
Hell for about six months in 2008, and every night,
I’d smoke half a joint, sit behind Geezer Butler’s rack,
and just watch Vinnie play. We got together and it
was instantaneous. It was powerful, man.
Vinny has a lot of other projects going on, so
Johnny Kelly from Type O Negative came in and just
nailed it. We’ve been friends and toured together
for a long time, so I’m really excited to play with
him. From a bass player standpoint, I’ve been the
luckiest motherfucker around—I really have been.
Do you write with Kill Devil Hill?
We write together, and I definitely bring stuff
to the table. The guitar player, Mark Zavon, is an
extremely gifted writer, as is Dewey Bragg, who
comes up with a lot of the melodies. A lot of times,
Mark will have something and I’ll change a bit of it,
and then vice versa.
On the first record, they pretty much had everything
mapped out. I just put in my two cents about
arrangements, dynamics, and the bass parts. I was
way more involved in Revolution Rise.
What are your favorite bass lines on
The whole record to me is one big hoo-ray.
“Crown of Thorns” is my favorite, and “Life Goes
On” is pretty cool, too.
Do you miss playing the style of music
Pantera made famous?
Of course I do. That was a one-of-a-kind dynamic
with four individuals who were completely different.
Now that Dime’s no longer with us, it’s left a
hole. And I’ve already played that heavy and fast
stuff. Now it’s about incorporating the heavy without
making it so brash and so harsh, and I have to
make sure that low end is good and tight—and that
it has a really cool guitar sound over the top.
How important are chops?
To me, it’s all about the song. It’s not about ego
or who’s playing where. It’s about knowing when to
play, when not to play, and what’s going to hold down
that fort. I can sit and play guitar all day long, but
when it comes to bass playing, it’s a totally different
game. I have to keep that low end so everything else can breathe and so that the vocals paint the picture.
It’s amazing that you managed to be heard
despite Dime’s bottom-heavy guitar parts and
Vinnie’s kick drum.
Dude, it was so hard because that guitar sound
was so big, the reverb on the snare was so loud, and the kicks had that “click” to them. Dime would hit at
like, 3.5 to 4K [kilohertz], and that’s where I would
try to get my bass attack.
It’s cool that you didn’t just play everything
in unison with him.
If it were up to Dime, he would have had me to play everything in unison. But being a bass player, I felt that there were certain
variations I could play within the riff—and within the context of the riff—that
made it unique. It would have been very easy for Dime to just pick up a bass and
play along with his guitar tracks, but as a bass player who knows composition
and how things fit together, I didn’t want to do that all the time.
But “The Riff” is sacred, right?
When you’re talking about very specific riffs—something like “I’m Broken”—you’d better believe it. But there’s a certain
way you can instill that main riff while still putting
your mark on it. It’s all about knowing when to
shine and knowing when not to. I definitely tried
different things during the lead section, but not all
over the song. Some bass players these days play
and play even when the vocalist is singing, and it
just clouds everything up.
Did you guys work out how you’d support
Some of the Pantera bass lines I’m proudest of
happened underneath Dime’s solos. Sometimes I’d
say, “Let me try a part for the solo,” and we would
just jam it; if it worked, it worked. Pretty much
any time he’d go to the upper register, I’d keep it
real solid on the bottom, down with the kick. So
if you notice in “Rise,” for example, it’s me just
playing straight 16ths or eighth-notes. And a lot
of those times when he went in the upper register
I would play eighth-notes or 16ths under him,
and then when Dime came down, we would play
everything in unison. But you know, we didn’t
even think about it back then. It was just second
nature. It was magic.
What role did your tone play?
I wanted to have a huge, monstrous sound underneath
Dime, but we were flying at 188 beats a minute.
I had to be articulate, and sometimes, you can’t do
that when you have a huge sound. So a lot of the
real big-sounding stuff, I used a set of Taurus pedals.
Moog Taurus pedals?
Yep. Dime would go to pawn shops and bring
back the craziest stuff I’ve ever seen. He brought in
these Moog Taurus pedals, an older ’70s model, and
we used to have to kick it to make it work. I can play
piano—not great at all, but I know my way around
it—so some of that stuff that you hear, some of that
real low, real heavy texture, is that Taurus pedal.
On which album?
Every single one, just so there’d be no low-end
dropout. These days, I have basses with sustain for
days, but back then I was using clunkers—whatever I
could afford, like Charvels and Jacksons. Those were
top-of-the-line back in the day, but they didn’t sustain
anything like the Taurus did.
You were playing 5-strings then, right?
Yep. I played a Music Man StingRay 5-string on
Far Beyond Driven. That was about the time Dime
got his DigiTech Whammy Pedal, and he was using
that a lot. Vinnie might have added triggers for samples
or something. So I got a 5-string, and in 1993,
not many people were playing them. But I hardly
ever used that low string to play riffs; I would sometimes
go down to the low B instead of a higher one,
but I used the B more for tonal character, not riffs.
But you never used Taurus pedals onstage,
No. Trust me, if you have 48 10" speakers behind
you, you don’t need anything else. The low end is
going to be there for days.
I assume you used a pick.
I played with a pick on all that stuff. That’s not
to say that I can’t play with my fingers, but not on
that fast stuff. And without the pick, it doesn’t come
across as brutal and as tight.
How did you record your bass parts?
We would always get the drum tracks first, the
guitars on second, and then we put the bass on last.
So after Dime added guitars—just tighter than hell,
left, right, and center—I would come in with the
bass. Those first few records were very intricate,
and we wanted them to sound mean as fuck. We had
played together so much that it didn’t take long at
all for us to do that.
What basses did you use on Cowboys?
On the first two records, I used an old black
Charvel. I had a Jackson that was really nice, but
it seemed like the Charvel was more consistent.
On tunes like “No Good (Attack the Radical),”
you have a big, nasty rattling tone with
lots of clank.
From so much playing, being on the road all
the time, and then going in the studio, sometimes
basses weren’t set up properly. You can hear the nut
giving out, but it sounds cool. So why mess with it?
When you got to Far Beyond Driven, there’s
a new bass tone. It feels different.
Except for a couple of things I did with the Music
Man 5-string, that’s all Spector. The bass on that
album has a really warm tone, yet it still has grit.
You could turn up that Charvel all day long and not get the same tone as when you turn up that Spector.
Until I found Spectors, it was really hard to get that
tone. Those guitars in particular have really strong
mids. It didn’t dawn on me until later that I’d been
looking for that tone for a long time.
Eddie Jackson’s Spector tone on Queensrÿche’s
Operation: Mindcrime was really good—that was
it. He played with his fingers, but he had a nice,
woody earth tone I really enjoyed. At the same
time, I liked that Dug Pinnick tone, which was
just great; you can hear his bass rattle like a son
of a bitch. I knew he used a 12-string, but that
just wouldn’t fit with Pantera. Ty [Tabor, King’s X
guitarist] didn’t have that huge sound; King’s X was
more bass-dominated. I did end up stringing my
Jackson with piccolo strings and layering it over
some parts, though.
What about your cover of Black Sabbath’s
“Planet Caravan”—which bass is that?
When I got the Music Man basses, they sent me
a few different necks, and one was a fretless, which I
played on “Planet Caravan.” I also played keyboards
on that, and Vinnie played bongos. It’s one of my
favorite—if not my favorite—Dime leads of all time.
Lots of people consider “Floods” their favorite
Rex bass line.
That whole song is kind of trippy, and when it
came to the solo part, I wanted to put something
down that was really solid. I knew what I wanted
to do; we played it two or three times through and
then got it on tape.
How often did you tune down?
We always used drop D, but we tuned down
just a quarter-step. Back in the day, we tuned to
D# plus 40 cents, which would be just under a
half-step. I think Dime came up with that. A lot of
these things just, you know, happened: You pulled
the guitar out of the case and you just tuned to
whatever was there.
There are a lot of tracks, like “I’m Broken” and “5
Minutes Alone,” where Dime is tuned down a full-step
and I’m tuned down to D. I’m almost positive that
both Cowboys and Vulgar were at D# plus 40 cents.
Why that tuning?
We didn’t want to make it like everybody else.
We wanted to have our distinct little tonal range
there. But then it got to the point where we were
tuning down all the way to B on certain songs, where
I think Dime was using open tunings.
Is it true that you stopped playing 5-strings?
I quit playing 5’s in 2002 because it wasn’t needed
in Down—a lot of stuff was in drop D, which kind
of defeats the purpose of having a 5. But recently, Spector sent me a 5-string that I’ve been playing
the crap out of, and I’ve totally fallen in love again.
How did you approach the Reinventing sessions?
We said, “Where we can go after Trendkill?”
We decided to take a bit of each record and try
to combine it all. Tone-wise, songwriting, the
craziness … Reinventing is probably my favorite
Pantera record, because it had everything that
was essentially us.
I couldn’t listen to Reinventing for a long time,
especially after what happened to Dime—but one
night I put it on, and it was amazing. When we made
it, I felt like, How do we top something like this?
Now I know that we could have.
How do you like doing clinics?
I’m in my element! That’s what I love doing. I’ve
done several of them, and I plan on doing lots more.
I do three or four Pantera songs and three Kill Devil
Hill songs. The Pantera speaks for itself, and I want
people to know where I’m at now.
Does it bother you that people still want to
talk about Pantera?
It’s part of my history, but at the same time, I want to promote what I’m
doing now. The clinics are the best of both worlds.
It’s obvious you’re stoked on Kill Devil Hill.
Something about this band has kick-started a fire underneath my ass, a hunger
to get it done. Obstacles have always been in my way, and I’ve always found a way
to jump those hurdles, for the love of music. I’ve been through hell and back—
the tragedies, the surgeries, everything else. You just gotta keep on moving on.
Do you think you’ll do a solo album one day?
Maybe somewhere down the line. I have a lot of songs written that I would
probably do; maybe I’d sing on it or maybe I’d get another singer. Who knows?
What about being a producer?
I’ve had a lot of opportunities to do that, but it would kind of fuck up my
bass playing. I just don’t have time for it right now. That being said, sure, I’d
like to. I produced and played bass on Crowbar’s record in 2004, Lifesblood for
the Downtrodden, and I enjoyed it. Somewhere down the line, when I get this
entertaining buzz out of my system, maybe I’ll produce some records. Right
now, I’m just enjoying making music and spreading music the best I know how.
What keeps you going?
I have to play live. As many shows as I’ve played, I still get that thrill. There’s
hardly anything like it—maybe driving a car really, really fast, or jumping off
a cliff. But it’s not like the thrill you get when you convey that message to a
crowd and they’re giving it back to you. For me, there’s no other feeling like
that, besides, you know, sex. It’s a ritual for me.
Basses Spector Euro 4LX 4-strings, Spector RXT signature 4-strings, Spector Euro5LX 5-strings, Spector Rex4 4-strings
Rig Hartke Kilo heads, Hartke HyDrive 810 8x10 cabinets
Strings Dean Markley Blue Steels Nickels
Effects Morley Pro Series 2 Bass Wah, Ashdown Chorus Plus, Hartke VXL Bass Attack, MXR Carbon Copy analog delay,
Carl Martin Two Faze phaser, Carl Martin Bass Chorus
Wireless Shure ULXD4
Picks Dunlop Tortex Triangles 1.0mm