Wander into any Nashville bar and you are likely to hear some fancy
picking—but nothing could prepare you for seeing Rory Hoffman sitting on a chair, instrument
flat on his lap with the bass strings away from his body, pressing down the strings
from on top of the neck. Others have played guitar like this—“Thumbs” Carllile and Jeff
Healey come to mind—but Rory Hoffman takes it up a notch with neck-spanning, Django-speed
runs, and pianistic chord solos rife with modern harmonies.
Blind from birth, Hoffman taught himself to play multiple instruments before he
reached double digits (he was the drummer in his family’s gospel band at five). Born in
North Dakota in 1978, he traveled to Nashville in 2001 to play guitar and piano on his first
CD, a group of gospel instrumentals called Blind Faith, and he sang and played a variety of
instruments on his second album, the country flavored Fishin’. Hoffman’s latest outing,
Swing Expedition [INDYS], showcases his musical wit with a Gypsy swing version of the
Star Wars cantina band tune, and an all-harmonica arrangement of “Begin the Beguine.”
When a style of playing is so atypical, the question arises: Does the music stand on
its own? That is, if you heard a record, unaware of the unusual method by which the guitarist
produced the sound, would you still be impressed? In Hoffman’s case the answer
is an emphatic “yes,” though actually watching him do his thing is guaranteed to blow
How did you get started playing music?
I started on guitar, piano, and harmonica at around three years old. It is because I started
so young that I hold the guitar the way I do. I couldn’t wrap my hand around the neck,
so the easiest way was for me to lay it on my lap and push on the strings over the top.
How did it end up in the left-handed position, with the bass strings away from you?
I would kneel in front of my father or grandfather when they played. The neck was in
their left hand, which was on my right. So when I flopped the guitar down on my lap with
the neck to my right it made sense. Also, this way I can play anyone’s guitar.
Are you left-handed?
I am ambidextrous. I use a fork with my right hand and a toothbrush with my left. The
left-handed/right-handed thing is just a matter of semantics—I use both hands to play guitar.
What challenges did you face when learning to play?
I never had lessons—no one could teach me to play all backwards like this. I had to figure
out my own chord fingerings. I would end up twisting my arm all around to play typical
fingerings until I worked out my own way to change chords while keeping my arm in the
same place. And it was the same with picking. Sometimes I would do all alternate picking,
and sometimes I’d do that in combination with hammer-ons. Then I got into the Gypsy jazz
thing and they don’t do much hammering-on, so I had to develop a quick picking hand.
It looks like you are angling the pick against the strings. Does that help you play faster?
It is more of a tonal thing. For some reason it smoothes out the tone a little bit, and you
don’t hear the sound of the pick as much.
Who did you listen to that inspired the
burning country licks you play on Fishin’ ?
I didn’t know who they were at the time,
but I would listen to all the stuff that Grady
Martin, Hank Garland, and Don Rich were
playing. In the ’90s, Alan Jackson’s “I Don’t
Even Know Your Name” had this blistering
guitar solo on it. I didn’t know it was Brent
Mason, I just knew I needed to learn how
to do all the stuff he was doing.
You play blues and rock as well, don’t you?
I won a statewide guitar competition
playing blues at Guitar Wars in Rapid City,
South Dakota, when I was a teenager. I also
do session work, and I play whatever is called
for, though my passions are jazz, swing, and
country. One reason I moved to Nashville is
that I get to do it all here.
When you bend strings, do you pull them
toward you or push them away?
I’ll go both ways depending what I want to
do, whichever is convenient. [Demonstrates
some multi-string, steel-guitar-like bends.] I didn’t know Jimmy Olander with Diamond
Rio was using G-benders and B-benders,
so I learned to do contrary motion bending
without those devices.
Whether you play be-bop, American
swing, country swing, or Gypsy swing, you
seem to honor each idiom’s idiosyncrasies.
Is that something you think about?
I will honor them, but I will expand the
boundaries, as well. For example, when
playing with the Gypsy Hombres, I am not
trying to sound like Django. I try to be true
to Gypsy jazz, but once in a while I will
play chords they don’t play in that music—
to expand the language a little. And when
I am playing Western swing I won’t play
hard-driving Gypsy jazz rhythms, but when
it comes time for the solo I might throw a
Django lick in. Still, I do try to play appropriately
for the style, which goes for being
a session player, too. If you are on a country
session, you play what is appropriate, and
if you know other stuff, that is not the time
to use it. But mostly, I am trying to do what
works musically, whether or not it is strictly
within the genre.
Does your style help you do things a typical
If any typical guitarist can play this chord
I will pay him money. [Hoffman frets at
the 5th fret with his first two fingers while
simultaneously fretting the 12th fret with
his thumb.] I can even move my thumb
up to the 14th fret. I can play five-finger
chords—with bends. It is the chordal stuff
that makes me sound different. I can do a
kind of contrary motion that would be hard
for other guitarists.
What are some of your guitars?
I have a 1987 Telecaster, a Roland-ready
Strat, a Blade Strat copy, a Ventura Les
Paul copy, an Eastman 810 archtop, and a
Godin 5th Avenue archtop with two P-90s.
The Godin is kind of my “electric” archtop,
because it doesn’t have a floating pickup, so
it feeds back less than the Eastman. I also
have a Stromberg reissue archtop, and a
Saga Gitane DG-250 Selmer copy. My main
acoustic is a Larrivée, which I really like. I
am largely playing on budget guitars, but I
like the sound of them just fine.
What amps do you play through?
Again, nothing special—I’ve got a Peavey
Classic 30 and a little Alesis RoadFire 15
that they don’t make anymore. If the studio
where I am recording has nice amps I will
What strings do you use?
I generally use D’Addario Half Round Jazz
Light sets gauged .012-.052. They are more
brilliant sounding than flatwounds, but you
don’t get the string noise of roundwounds.
I string the Stromberg with Jazz Mediums,
which start with a .013, and on the Godin
I use D’Addario Chromes, which are stainless-
steel flatwounds. On some of my solid-body
electrics, and on the Larrivée, I use
Elixir Nanowebs, which last a long time.
I don’t like the Polywebs, because they are
too slick for me.
How do you get distortion?
I don’t play with very much distortion,
other than a little bit of overdrive once in
a while. The Classic 30 has a drive channel
I will kick in. I also have the Boss VF-1
Multiple Effects Processor and the Roland
VG8 V-Guitar System, but I don’t use a lot
Does playing so many other instruments
affect the way you play guitar?
Absolutely. I have had people tell me
that my chord voicings sound like a piano
player’s when I am comping straight-ahead
jazz. That’s because I play piano and listen
to Oscar Peterson and McCoy Tyner. I will
do close voicings that you don’t typically
hear on guitar. And since I play clarinet and
saxophone, sometimes when I am comping
behind soloists I will bust out stuff that
sounds like horn lines. I’ve learned how to
phrase like a horn player. Sometimes guitar
players forget that breathing is important.
If you are a horn player you can’t play a
string of notes that lasts too long because
you have to breathe. I will play for a while
and then breathe for a half note, and then
play another line. Guitarists who don’t play
other instruments should still listen to other
instruments and other styles. It will make
you think differently. When I am playing a
country gig I can throw in a lot of stuff hardcore
country guys won’t because it is not
in their vocabulary. Because I listen to a lot
of jazz, I can throw in just enough color to
make someone go, “How did you come up