Spiritual Guitar Alchemy
Spirit, soul, beauty and connection, JAY PARMAR reveals the art of his SPIRIT DANCE custom creations.
RELICED guitars - you either love them or you don’t. Some people just can’t see the point of transforming a shiny instrument into an aged, beaten-up looking object, yet for those who love both the look and the tactility, relicing is an art form. It’s a tricky process which, if done properly, can produce amazing results and there’s one particular line of custom guitars that utilises this skill to take its unique concept to a different level, as part of a spiritual and somewhat alchemical process.
Jay Parmar has been building guitars for years but the Brighton based musician developed his Spirit Dance brand relatively recently as a way of combining his passion for music, art and guitars. Swamp ash, maple and alder are a few of the highly figured woods used, some with fine line intricate artwork and embedded with crystals resulting from a complex procedure that involves burning, carving and Reiki. That’s quite a mix so how exactly was the idea conceived?
“Well, I guess sort of via necessity. My wife Bindi actually suggested I start building guitars and selling them because I was building guitars and keeping them, which you know every guitar player wants to do!” Jay laughs. “I have got one or two, I suppose,” he jokes as we’re sitting chatting among a considerable collection in his Sacred Sound studio.
“This is my ‘desert island guitar’,” he says reaching for a snakeskin adorned ESP. “Out of everything that I have, this is the one that would go everywhere with me. I had built this because of the neck. I love the neck of the GL256 and I found one on eBay and built this guitar with a body that I’d found for about £400.
“At the time I was also starting to go down the spirit quest path and discovering more about that so I guess it was one of those synchronous moments. As an extension of this, I decided to put the crystals in. Then it came to naming the guitar. I meditated on it and the name that came to me was ‘Spirit Dance’. I’ve always called this one the ESP Spirit Dance so it was the very first one. When I expanded the concept, the natural name to use was Spirit Dance Guitars.”
“Spirituality and religion are completely separate and distinct. There’s no religious context with these.”
Although there are similar elements there’s a significant jump in design to the guitar that came next, most noticeably with the addition of detailed artwork and carving. Did the process just evolve?
“A little bit, yea, it did.” he says. “With the spiritual quest there was a lot of connection with the Native Americans coming up for me. I picked up the pencils again after 20 years or so and started drawing. I did a couple on paper of American Indian chiefs, just copying them out of books but then I decided to draw them onto a reliced guitar which is how Medicine Crow came about.”
“The artwork was hand drawn onto the wood, so all of this is entirely graphite pencil work. I could have drawn the feathers on but then I thought, well why don’t I just use real feathers stuck to the body. The crystals were already part of the process, the relicing was already part of it and the basics are pretty much the same in terms of the neck and the hardware etc. But that’s essentially how everything came together - it was all those synchronicities occurring at the same time.”
The definition in the wood is amazing and Jay has managed to really pull out the grain particularly in something that looks so stripped down and understated.
“One of the things I wanted to do was do relicing like this but I didn’t know how to achieve that brown colour,” he explains. “At the same time I’d seen people starting to use blowtorches on guitars so that’s where the colour comes from and what basically gave me that reliced look. A side effect of using the blowtorch was that the resin which creates the lines - it caramelised! I was using a swamp ash body, the grain is usually visible but not this visible. The natural resin in the wood basically just bakes and it starts to completely pop out.”
It goes without saying that there’s a fine line with using a blowtorch on a guitar body and always the risk of causing problems or warping the wood when it comes to fitting the hardware later.
“Yea, you’ve got to be subtle with it and know how to use it properly so that you don’t completely obliterate the guitar,” he laughs. “It was just having a little more confidence with the burning process as well and knowing how the wood reacts. I've got to be careful of the wood that I use. Swamp ash is a lot more sturdy, Wolf Spirit is alder and it reacted in a different way. It’s also one of the reasons I try to use two piece or single piece bodies because that one’s actually a three piece and if you look near the neck joint you can see some cracks coming down. They’re very subtle ( they look like part of the design ) but when you burn the wood at the trunk, it starts to crack and naturally so, because the burning on that guitar was huge.”
Medicine Crow and Wolf Spirit, as their names suggest, have a specific Native American influence in their respective designs, a medicine wheel laid out in amethyst crystals, the latter even has a wolf claw embedded in the headstock right at the tip also helping to imbue it with that energy. The backs of the guitars continue the theme with a handwritten Lakota transcript that is printed up specially to tie in with the other design elements such as the logo.
“The back is just as important as the front,” he says. “A few things happened there. The prayer had to go on because I wanted there to be some meaning in terms of the whole guitar. It’s signed. I’d broken the headstock of this neck years ago and I’d built a tester putting carbon fibre on the back of the head. So all Spirit Dance guitars now have carbon fibre on the back, on the head especially. It doesn’t need the reinforcement, it has just become part of the design. An accident created that!” he adds cheerfully.
Some luthiers will say that different woods have different personalities, some are a joy to work with and there are those which make life very difficult, something which Jay himself has found.
“I always trust that the right wood will come to me. I think one of the reasons Wolf Spirit didn’t work was because energetically it just wasn’t meant to finish like that which is why it needs a complete rebuild. There were various challenges that came up with it but I think it just wasn’t meant to be on that guitar for whatever reason. Maybe there’s some history with that wood or with that body. It fought me and I was fighting back but I learned from it to actually listen to it. Every object speaks to you in some way. If it’s meant to be, it’s going to make life really easy for you. If it’s not, then you know it’s going to fight you on it.”
Is it due to his level of awareness then, that ultimately makes for such a different process in a guitar build? As if the wood is effectively telling him what it wants done and, if so, a range like this could be limitless. “Exactly, yea that’s so true,” he says.
“I did the burnt Tiger there, it’s my version of the Lynch ‘Mr Scary’ guitar, I needed it for the ‘George Lynch 35 Years’ video that I was shooting. That body was from the first guitar that I ever built back in 1989/90 for my A level design project when I was in High School. It’s a single piece of mahogany, there are no joints in it. My graphic communications teacher was also a luthier and he sold it to me for £10!! That piece of wood is now 40 years old. It was literally a square of wood when I started from scratch. I had put some design elements into it, the scoop was like the Musicman - John Petrucci model. It was in a case for many years so when I resurrected it, the wood basically told me what to do. It was really easy to carve. Although it’s a very resonant wood, it’s very soft allowing me to do the deep carving. The burning just subtly changed it, this really deep mahogany colour just contrasts with the black. I knew that it needed a few crystals in there, a little bit of colour so the turquoise worked perfectly - I love using turquoise for two reasons, the colour just pops out and is such a beautiful contrast to the wood and again there’s that American Indian connection. A thin layer of lacquer and, bam! It was done. That one’s just a really special piece of wood, you don’t get mahogany like that anymore.”
Spirit Tiger has a beautiful feel and tone, the feather head is a nice touch, subtly referencing the Native Indian connection while still a nod to the Spirit Dance line which has a more 3D head shape as standard. It’s surprisingly light given its substantial, rugged look which suggests it should be so much heavier than it actually is.
“Yea it does, doesn’t it? I took away so much wood that my workshop was literally covered in mahogany dust for days afterwards,” he giggles. “It was crazy! But I love this guitar. It ties in all of the elements even though it doesn’t have the Spirit Dance head. I like tactile actual 3D so for those the scoops are a real important part for me. But the feather worked really well, I will bring it in at some point if somebody wants that.”
Spirit Bonez is Jay’s take on the George Lynch ‘Skull & Bones’ guitar and similarly, it’s got all the Spirit Dance elements so it fits effortlessly into the collection rather than being a stock piece. It’s certainly an impressive version with ridiculous detail reminiscent of work created in ESP Guitars’ Japanese custom shop.
“I guess this was just a personal project that I wanted to do,” he grins. “This is maple which is a very hard wood, really hard to carve. When I burnt this, the body had a basic rout on it, it had the skull and the bones on it but only a few mm. That’s how deep it is now! There’s at least another 10mm taken off. I was fastidious about the details so where you see the vertebrae there, I actually did the nodules. I wanted these to be anatomically correct. I don’t think this has been done on any Bones version, they’re usually quite flat, an illusion of light. I’ve seen some other ‘Bones’ guitars and they’re fantastic but they weren’t as carved as I’d thought. This is carved on the teeth as well so you get the sense it’s more three dimensional than it is.”
Again, this is one guitar whose details can only be appreciated in person. It doesn’t even look or feel like wood. The satin finish gives it almost a resin feel and it does look like old buried bones, which of course, was the whole idea.
“It was 50 hours of carving work to get to that stage and then about another 10 hours to do all the burning. I had to do the edging with the soldering iron, crazy details like you can see through the fingers and stuff. It’s modelled on my actual hand, just to get the proportions of the digits right. I needed to know the bones where the right length - my OCD kicked in!” he chuckles. “Ah, it had to be done but I have the 'Bones' guitar I always wanted. It gives the impression that there are real shadows there but they’re real shadows! You just don’t expect that when you see it flat on.”
“Every object speaks to you in some way. If it’s meant to be, it’s going to make life really easy for you.”
I ask him what the response has been to the guitars from his fans and followers as they’ve been featured in a few of his videos on his YouTube channel. “There’s a big wow factor when people see them and they want to see more,” he says, looking quite pleased. “I guess the interest keeps flowing just from that.”
As each of the guitars has its own design, vibe and personality, this seems to translate into their sound. When he’s playing them, are they noticeably different?
“The one thing that happens with these guitars, if you hold the neck of one all the way at the end and play, you’ll feel it vibrating right to the tip,” he says, handing me Tiger to demonstrate. “That happens to an extent on some guitars but not as profoundly as on these. It just works as a harmonious unit. I think when you buy a really expensive PRS or something, that’s essentially what you’re paying for, that somebody has spent the time to make sure that everything works perfectly together to resonate as a single unit. Even when you strum it lightly, you can hear that the neck is resonating with the strings, with the body and everything else - it feels alive.”
A Spirit Dance custom will not necessarily have the Native American elements as those themes will not resonate with everyone, so what can a potential client expect?
“It’s a spiritual connection to whoever’s guitar it is. It’s got to have meaning for them. Some people have ideas, some don’t but the elements stay the same in terms of how I actually create all of this, as in the artwork and stuff,” he says. “The process is the brief.”
“When I built my friend Dan’s ( Promethium ) guitar, he had a general idea because he’d seen the work I’d done on Wolf Spirit and Medicine Crow. He didn’t want to go down the American Indian route because it didn’t resonate with him. He’s a Leo so he wanted to incorporate the lion artwork on it which we put on profile. It’s a swamp ash guitar and it has the burning because that’s an integral part. The grain came out a lot more in his and I was able to exploit it so it was profoundly more marked than usual. We included a Gothic representation of his wife’s star sign carved into the body. He wasn’t sure whether the crystals would work but I mapped out the stones in the star sign constellations to tie it all in. On the back we did the star signs of his two kids so it became a completely personal guitar to him. It has a spiritual meaning for him. It has a family connection to him.”
It’s a very clever and creative concept, the attention to detail is beautifully executed. Despite knowing the calibre of guitar that would be delivered, I imagine it was quite a moment when the finished instrument was revealed to its owner. What was the reaction?
“Dan was speechless. It was a wonderful moment because Dan’s never speechless!!” he laughs. “He was just staring at it. He had seen it in progress obviously but when he picked it up in person, he was just genuinely surprised at how it came out. You can see a picture of this guitar but it’s not until you hold it that you really get what it is.”
This is certainly true. I’d been fortunate to see pictures of the concept for Medicine Crow back in 2013 and during its build but pictures don’t do it justice. Aesthetic value aside, it really does exude a very special vibe. I can only describe it as a deep reverence, a direct connection to the creator who has put his heart and soul into bringing it into being, something which Jay attributes to the after process.
“Once they’re built, first thing I do is sage the guitar and then I give it a Reiki session which is designed to attune it to the person it’s going to and for me that’s the final part of the process. Dan actually said, “You don’t want to let this guitar go, do you?” and I said “It’s not my guitar, this is yours, this is completely for you.” I’d attuned it for his energy, not mine. It was such a pleasure to hand it over to him because I was giving it to the person it was actually connected to. I did get to play it. It felt wonderful, the sound resonated, just a beautiful guitar.”
“Everything is living, everything has a resonance,” he continues. “Medicine Crow is attuned to me. It’s personal to me. It’s my favourite Spirit Dance guitar because it’s actually connected to me spiritually, energetically, Medicine Crow has meaning for me, the feathers have meaning for me, it’s the first one I’d done in this way. The neck has meaning because I’d broken it and fixed it and that’s an important part of life you know, that if you break something there’s always a chance to actually repair it rather than throw it away and say ‘I’ll get a new one’.
“Funnily enough, I’d once let a well known musician play that guitar. He played it and took his hand away a couple of times, looking at it and he said, “It’s like it bit me!!” and I understood why because this guy is very spiritually connected. It was the guitar showing him how much energy there was in this and what it actually represented, that there’s a whole lot more to this than just a regular guitar. It shows in the sound as well, it just has that vibe.”
“Just naturally, the people who want these guitars are going to be very special people, they’re going to be drawn to them.”
When someone is putting their spirituality front and centre like this in their art, it’s not something that can be formatted or copied by another. That authenticity and Jay’s building energy is what also makes these one-offs unique.
“It’s interesting because when you mention spirituality in Spirit Dance there’s this perception that if it’s spiritual, it’s religious,” he says a little bemused. “Yet spirituality and religion are completely separate and distinct. There are elements which are similar and this is something I guess some people will get and some may not. There’s no religious context with these. We’re all spiritual beings, we’re all visitors to this place and that’s what I’m imbuing onto these. It’s literally putting that essence, the owner’s essence into the guitar through me.
"I don’t necessarily design and build the guitars - I allow them to be created, I am just the vehicle. It’s a completely intuitive process and I surrender to that, letting the ideas form themselves and allowing them to create what they’re supposed to. I open myself up to the possibility and stay open to it and when it’s done, it’s done. I know that the idea comes not from my mind but from a higher place. When I get an idea to do something it’s basically telling me to go down a certain path and I’ve got a choice at that point. Do I follow it, or don’t I?"
“Subtlety is key as well,” he adds. “It’s why Tiger worked because essentially I left it alone, only the stones being added and that was it. It didn’t need anything else and it still has that Spirit Dance vibe. I could’ve gone over the top and done more to it but it would just have ruined it. Medicine Crow, although it’s really complex, doesn’t look over the top.
“It’s the same with music. I do it and I move on. I don’t mess with it for another six months to get everything perfect because it captures that moment in time. Today’s perfection is gonna be different from yesterday’s which is gonna be different from tomorrow’s and so on. So we do the best we can and it feels right. And if there’s an element we want to add in next time, or if we’ve had a new idea, we can incorporate it then, there’s no point obsessing about it for every single thing. You can spend your whole life perfecting everything and not actually finishing it because it’s not perfect.”
Did he learn this lesson, perhaps, while he was obsessively creating holes between anatomically correct digits on Bonez?
“Hahaha! True, but even then I think that was part of it because I had to get it right otherwise it would have been incomplete. It just wouldn’t have flowed. Plus the challenges teach us more than the easy things in life. When we have the challenges we get through them and we get to the other end and it’s like, wow, I know how to do that now. whereas the easy stuff we tend to just dismiss.”
Spirit Dance customs have Wilkinson bridges, Hipshot tuners and Dominger pickups as standard and control knobs made from buffalo horn. Jay creates the straps for the guitars, sourcing regular belts and matching the design elements to each. Starting from around £2500 including a hard case, they’re pretty reasonably priced when you consider just how much work goes into them.
“I don’t know if people realise how long it takes to create something like this. It’s the whole process. This is three to six months of work. As a business I can understand that most guitar companies have to build guitars which are economically viable for them. If I gave somebody three months of my time, what is it worth? But people don’t think about that in terms of guitars because they can walk into a big guitar store and buy a guitar between £300 and £2000.
“This year the range is going to expand a little bit because I love doing this stuff with the snakeskin. It’s going to turn into a simpler model predominantly about that as opposed to having artwork. Burning of course, possibly some crystals depending on how it looks but still that overall organic look and feel, that whole essence of how it all comes together as an instrument.”
There’s a noticeable shift in energy when the Spirit Dance collection are together on their own away from what’s hanging up in the studio. I can just imagine the resonance of an extended range on a trade show booth, like NAMM for instance and the energetic pull that it would have. Perhaps this spirit dance will lead him there one of these days.
"Oh yea, that would be lovely!!” he grins. “I don’t necessarily go out and sell these guitars. They basically find the people who are their owners. Just naturally, the people who want these guitars are going to be very special people, they’re going to be drawn to them.”