SHAKER HEIGHTS, Ohio — On a recent Sunday evening at Cleveland’s Beachland Ballroom, a crowd patiently waited to hear local blues guitarist Austin Walkin’ Cane perform.
No one in attendance waited with more interest or anticipation than Richard Schlenk. Friends and acquaintances approached Schlenk at his table near the front of the stage with handsshakes and good-luck wishes.
Walkin’ Cane took to the stage, turned his amp on and plugged in his very unique guitar. Schlenk took a deep breath and started to record the show like a proud parent — which in a way, he was.
The guitar Walkin’ Cane was playing was one of a kind, built by Schlenk himself.
“It’s one thing when you make a guitar for a 15-year-old kid who is just learning to play,” Schlenk said. “There’s no pressure there. But when somebody takes one of my guitars on stage, that’s some pressure.”
There are a few things about Schlenk and his guitars that make them unique. First, Schlenk only builds them for friends and musicians who he thinks deserve them or would appreciate them. Then, he gives them away as gifts.
What else makes Schlenk unique is that guitar building is a hobby he’s only recently taken up. To those he makes guitars for, he’s known as Rich. But during the day in his professional setting, he’s known as Dr. Richard Schlenk, a neurosurgeon at the Cleveland Clinic.
Since 2003, the New Jersey native has been on staff at the Cleveland Clinic, where he specializes in spinal surgery.
For the past three years, Schlenk has been designing, building and handing out his guitars from his small wood shop/former garage in Shaker Heights.
Each guitar is branded with the logo “Custom Charity Guitars,” which highlights the fact that each recipient is asked, in one form another, to pay it forward.
“I think last year these guitars raised somewhere around $25,000 for charity,” Schlenk said. “Not everyone I give a guitar to has a lot of money. I ask the younger kids I make guitars for to find a way to volunteer their time or raise money. I had one person receive a guitar and now gives lessons to people who are less fortunate.”
By the look and design of his guitars, one would imagine Schlenk had spent years honing his woodworking skills instead of spending that time in hospital operating rooms. But guitar building was something he only recently stumbled upon, quite by accident.
One day, Schlenk was complaining to his son Max, a jazz saxophonist, that he wished he had learned how to play a musical instrument. The young musician encouraged his father, saying it’s never too late, and before too long Schlenk was taking acoustic guitar lessons and loving it.
After a few years, his skills grew and — in a serendipitous event — he found an electric guitar that his other son had owned years earlier when he tried to learn.
“I always wanted an electric guitar,” Schlenk said. “I picked it up, tried to play it and it really wasn’t working. So I went online and taught myself how to rebuild it.”
It wasn’t long before Schlenk found himself going down a variety of internet video rabbit holes. Eventually, he decided why not just build one from scratch?
After that first project three years ago, Schlenk started to watch every video he could find on guitar building. He reached out to guitar builders — referred to in the trade as luthiers — for pointers and advice.
He started buying all the necessary and specialty tools and setting up the wood shop. Through trial and error, he gained more skills and confidence. The guitars themselves steadily grew in quality.
Much like an operating room, Schlenk’s modest wood shop is set up with all the tools he needs to be successful. The carefulness and fastidious habits he has developed over the years as a surgeon translate well to guitar building.
One thing he has taken from his day job is the skill of problem-solving. Schlenk explained that every surgery may have an issue that requires problem-solving, and he has had to call upon that skill on every one of his guitar-building projects.
“I don’t build the same guitar every time,” Schlenk said. “None of them have gone exactly right, and I have to use the same kind of creative problem-solving that we use in surgery.”
Nearly all of the guitars Schlenk has made have been given to friends or friends of friends. He prefers to keep the experience very personal and works closely with the recipient.
For any design, he’ll get a few ideas from the person, then, after a while, he will invite them to the shop to go over a few things, especially the neck and how it feels.
Walkin’ Cane happened upon Schlenk and Custom Charity Guitars after playing a block party in the doctor’s neighborhood. A few of the party attendees spoke with the guitarist and introduced him to Schlenk.
“We got to talk. He told me he made guitars to relax, and he said, ‘I’d like to make one for you,’” Walkin’ Cane said.
“We went to his shop and he asked me what kind of guitar I’d like and I told him how about a 1964 Vox Teardrop like Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones?”
The unique guitar request presented Schlenk with a challenge. The pair worked together and created a baritone guitar, which allows Walkin Cane to play with different tunings and thicker strings, perfect for his style of playing.
After the last notes rang out from the Beachland Ballroom stage and the applause from the crowd died down, Schlenk was able to breathe a sigh of relief. He humbly accepted hearty congratulations from his friends.
Austin Walkin’ Cane might have played and sung the blues that night, but it was apparent that the guitar Dr. Richard Schlenk built had a put smile on the guitarist’s face.
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