Rory Hoffman: Self-Made Man

Wander into any Nashville bar and you are likely to hear some fancy picking—but nothing could prepare you for seeing Rory Hoffman.

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 your mind.

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 guitarist can’t?

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 use theirs.

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 of effects.

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 with that?”