Bladder Cancer Didn’t Silence Kalamazoo’s ‘Guitar Guru’

July 24, 2019 12:00 PM

Guitarist and bladder cancer survivor, Rendal Wall of Kalamazoo, continues to live a life surrounded by music after bladder removal surgery.

One million guitars — that’s how many Rendal Wall estimates have passed through his hands over a long career, starting at Gibson Guitar, when it was located in Kalamazoo, Mich., and later at Heritage Guitars.

Ren, as he’s known, might as well stand for “Renaissance.” For years, he helped design and deliver custom guitars to top artists — B.B. King, Ted Nugent, Merle Travis. He’s also a talented musician and songwriter in his own right, not to mention an inventor who designed and improved on a variety of guitar parts.

Wall, who underwent treatment for stage 2 bladder cancer at the University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center in 2018, was worried side effects would silence the strings around which his life and career have revolved.

He recently sat down for an interview in the “pickin’ parlor” at Heritage that bears his name. The 76-year-old has worked in the same building on Parsons Street for nearly 60 years.

“The job that I loved the most was in artist relations where I got to travel all over,” he says.

Wall would sit down with a musician to spec out their dream guitar, take the notes and plans back to Kalamazoo and then return to hand-deliver the finished product. Blues icon B.B. King named all of his guitars Lucille, and Wall recalls presenting King with Lucille no. 17.

“No two guitars are the same,” he says. “You can pick one up and actually feel the difference. The different woods that are used will give it a little bit of a different tone, a different sustain.”

Rendal Wall holding a guitar and guitars on the wall behind him

Ren’s cancer journey

Just about the only thing to slow down Wall’s prodigious energy was cancer.

“It sort of crept up on me,” he says.

Wall noticed blood in his urine, but didn’t take immediate action. The symptoms came and went over the course of a couple of months.

“One day it was just too much,” he says. “And I had them check it out and they found cancer in my bladder. Thank goodness it hadn’t spread.”

Due to the complexity of his cancer, which had invaded the muscle wall in his bladder, making it more likely to spread, Wall was referred to Todd Morgan, M.D., who heads Michigan Medicine’s Division of Urologic Oncology. Wall received chemotherapy and his bladder was surgically removed.

“It was a little scary in the beginning, which I think it is for everybody,” says Wall.

Wall was most worried about the chemotherapy causing nerve damage, a common side effect, and impairing his ability to play music.

“They call it neuropathy — I learned a new word,” he says. “But that didn’t happen.”

Meanwhile, follow-up scans haven’t found any additional signs of cancer, he adds.

“I’m feeling wonderful,” Wall says. “And I just want to thank Dr. Morgan at U-M, Dr. Jonathan Crooks and Dr. Frederick Berg at Bronson Healthcare, and all the nurses and everybody — I could be here all day thanking everyone who helped me get through to where I am today.”

More about Rendal Wall: Guitar Guru: Rendal Wall is ‘the real deal,’ Encore Magazine, Nov. 2018

An update

Reached in April of 2021, Rendal Wall reports he's doing great and is just returning to playing music at nursing homes and assistant living facilities — masked and distanced, of course.

After the Michigan Health Blog story originally appeared in 2019, Wall says he received well wishes and notes from musicians across the country.

"What a wonderful feeling to be able to respond," he says. "I'm so thankful for the great doctors and staff that have taken care of me."