Dr. Richard Schlenk is a neurosurgeon by day, a luthier philanthropist by night

SHAKER HEIGHTS, Ohio — On a recent Sunday night at the Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland, a crowd waited patiently to hear local blues guitarist Austin Walkin’ Cane play.

No one in the audience waited with more interest or anticipation than Richard Schlenk. Friends and acquaintances approached Schlenk at his table near the front of the stage with handshakes and good luck wishes.

Walkin’ Cane took the stage, turned on his amp and plugged in his unique guitar. Schlenk took a deep breath and started recording the show like a proud parent — which he sort of was.

The guitar that Walkin’ Cane played was one of a kind, built by Schlenk himself.

“It’s one thing to make a guitar for a 15-year-old kid learning to play,” Schlenk said. “There is no pressure there. But when someone takes one of my guitars on stage, it’s a certain pressure.

There are a few things about Schlenk and his guitars that make them unique. First of all, Schlenk only builds them for friends and musicians he thinks deserve them or would appreciate them. Then he gives them as gifts.

What makes Schlenk unique is that building guitars is a hobby he only recently took up. To those for whom he builds guitars, he is known as Rich. But during the day, in his professional circles, he is 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 spine surgery.

For the past three years, Schlenk has been designing, building and distributing his guitars from his small carpentry shop/former garage in Shaker Heights.

Each guitar is branded with the “Custom Charity Guitars” logo, which highlights the fact that each recipient is invited, in one form to another, to pay the next.

“I think last year these guitars raised about $25,000 for charity,” Schlenk said. “Not everyone I give a guitar to has a lot of money. I ask the younger ones I make guitars for to find a way to volunteer their time or raise funds. I had a person who received a guitar and now gives lessons to less fortunate people.

By the look and design of his guitars, one would imagine that Schlenk had spent years honing his carpentry skills instead of spending that time in hospital operating rooms. But building guitars is something he only recently discovered, quite by accident.

One day, Schlenk complained to his son Max, a jazz saxophonist, that he wished he had learned 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 chance event – he found an electric guitar that his other son had owned years earlier when he had been trying to learn.

“I’ve always wanted an electric guitar,” Schlenk said. “I picked it up, tried to play it and it really didn’t work. So I went online and taught myself how to rebuild it.

It wasn’t long before Schlenk found himself in a variety of internet video rabbit holes. Eventually he decided why not build one from scratch?

After that first project three years ago, Schlenk started watching all the guitar building videos he could find. He contacted guitar makers – called luthiers in the trade – for guidance and advice.

He started buying all the necessary and specialized tools and setting up the carpentry workshop. Through trial and error, he gained more skills and confidence. The guitars themselves have steadily grown in quality.

Dr. Richard Schlenk working on the guitar neck for his latest project. (John Canale, special for cleveland.com)

Much like an operating room, Schlenk’s modest carpentry workshop is equipped with all the tools he needs to succeed. The careful and meticulous habits he developed over the years as a surgeon translate well to guitar making.

One thing he took away from his day job was the ability to solve problems. Schlenk explained that every surgery can have a problem that needs problem solving, and he’s had to call on that skill for every one of his guitar-building projects.

“I don’t build the same guitar every time,” Schlenk said. “None of them went exactly right, and I have to use the same kind of creative problem solving that we use in surgery.”

Almost every guitar Schlenk has made has 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 take a few ideas from the person, then after a while he’ll invite them to the shop to go over some things, including the neck and how it feels.

Walkin’ Cane came across Schlenk and Custom Charity Guitars after playing at a block party in the doctor’s neighborhood. A few of the party attendees spoke with the guitarist and introduced him to Schlenk.

Austin cane

Austin Walkin’ Cane plays his one-of-a-kind Dr. Richard Schlenk guitar during a show at the Beachland Ballroom. (John Canale, special for cleveland.com)

“We started talking. He told me he made guitars for chilling out, and he said, ‘I’d like to make one for you,'” Walkin’ Cane said.

“We went to his store and he asked me what kind of guitar I would like and I said how about a 1964 Vox Teardrop like Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones?”

The request for a single guitar presented Schlenk with a challenge. The duo worked together and created a baritone guitar, which allows Walkin Cane to play with different tunings and thicker strings, perfect for his playing style.

After the final notes sounded from the Beachland Ballroom stage and the crowd’s applause died down, Schlenk was able to breathe a sigh of relief. He humbly accepted the warm congratulations of his friends.

Austin Walkin’ Cane may have been playing and singing blues that night, but it was obvious that the guitar built by Dr. Richard Schlenk had a smile put on the guitarist’s face.

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