A painful journey from Southern Oregon to war-torn Afghanistan and back has been channeled into a healing, artistic avocation for Matt Havniear. Through his one-man company, Phoenix Cigar Box Guitars, Havniear creates custom, one-of-a-kind, three-string guitars.
“I never thought of myself as an artist,” he said. “I’m a Marine, a grunt and a laborer. Now I think I was wrong.”
The 32-year-old Havniear picked up one of his creations and ripped out a bluesy rift. He said that his favorite guitar style is that of the blues/rock/acoustic sound often heard from artists such as John Mayer.
“I’ve always played guitar, but I really didn’t start playing until a year ago when I started making them,” he said about his guitars. “I just never got the hang of the six-string guitar.”
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The small, three-string instruments have been around since the mid-1800s and are home built as guitars, banjos and fiddles. They are relatively easy and economical to make from recycled materials. Cigar boxes are one of the more popular items used for the instrument’s body.
Before he was a cigar box guitar maker, Havniear was a U.S. Marine in the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment. After training in California, his battalion was sent to Afghanistan. His four years of service ended, though, not long after a shelter that he and about a dozen of his fellow Marines were under collapsed.
“It was a reinforced cover with 3 feet of sandbags on top,” he explained. “I was lucky not to be in the middle of it,” Havniear said. But he was injured from a beam that crashed onto his head and shoulder. He’s grateful that no one died in the accident.
“I stayed and kept fighting, but they said I had a concussion and a back injury,” he said. The injury to his lower back continues to plague him despite surgery to relieve the pain. “I still have a hurt back—I’ll always be this way,” he said. “But I’ll be able to survive.”
Returning to his Southern Oregon home in 2011, Havniear began working as a laborer, building garden structures such as pergolas and patios. And while he enjoyed the strenuous work, it wasn’t good for his back.
“I decided to use the GI Bill and go back to school,” he said. His goal is to graduate with a degree in health and physical education. While busy with schoolwork and his family, Havniear still missed the creative side of manual work. After seeing a cigar box guitar that his cousin had made, he decided to try his hand at the craft.
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Using common construction tools that he had on hand, not those designed for making guitars, he built his first instrument. “It came out OK, but I wasn’t completely happy with it,” he said, “but I always wanted to make it better.”
After he built his third guitar, he realized that working with wood was therapeutic. “You are just there in the present. You’re shutting everything else out and focusing. I was addicted to the peacefulness of woodworking, and still am.”
Havniear’s creations begin with simple wood cigar boxes that he finds at cigar and antique shops as well as online auction sites.
“It’s the box that drives the design,” he explained. “I try to find boxes that appeal to me.”
Some of the boxes come decorated with elaborate designs while others Havniear embellishes himself. He then crafts a neck that complements the box. “For most necks I use maple,” he said. “It’s a really nice wood and easy to work with.”
Other touches include laminating walnut, hickory and even koa wood onto the fret board. Brass frets are applied as well as decorative yet functional pieces, such as a skeleton key for the saddle that holds the strings above the front of the guitar. For one guitar, he fitted the sound hole with an antique brass tea strainer, while for another he transformed a 1969 Mississippi license plate into a guitar top.
“It’s one of the best-sounding electric guitars that I’ve built,” he said.
Despite similar construction methods, each guitar has its own personality.
“When I finish one, I never know what it will sound like,” noted Havniear. “So I tweak and tune it until I’m happy with the sound.”
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He builds both acoustic and electric cigar box guitars and each is a unique work of art. For his electric guitars, he also has handcrafted matching amplifiers.
“I like knowing that each one I make is the only one in the world,” he said.
The Business Side
Havniear took the name for his business from two sources. First, Phoenix is the Southern Oregon town where he lives with his wife, Tanya, and his young daughter, Lydia. And then there is the mythical Phoenix bird that arises out of the ashes of its predecessor.
“I like the idea of being reborn,” he said, adding that he uses the image of a Phoenix as a logo on his guitars.
His customers include “people who have been playing for a while and want to add something unique to their arsenal,” Havniear said. “I think the guitars also appeal to those who want to play and can do the three strings. Hipsters like them, too.”
One happy audience member is Havniear’s two-year-old daughter. “She dances when I play,” he said.
Havniear has a website that displays his creations and sells the instruments, but for now he doesn’t take orders for fear of not being able to keep up with the demand. And, he said, “It would no longer be therapeutic if I had to make 40 at a time.”
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As it is, it takes at least a full day at the workbench to create a single guitar. And that kind of time is becoming rare due to Havniear’s new job as an enrollment and eligibility specialist with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“I wanted to work at the local VA and help the guys that come in there,” he said, “I’ve been there, done that. I know what they are going through.”
Havniear also runs a non-profit organization called Team Overland. Despite these commitments, however, he continues to enjoy working with wood.
“The fun is creating it yourself,” he said. “When I do stuff, I have to do it right. I’m a Marine. We have integrity. We do it right.” For more information, visit phoenixcigarboxguitars.com.
This article was originally published in The NEW PIONEER™ Fall 2015 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.