Here in the undisputed guitar capital of the world, you have to be pretty spectacular to drop jaws. But when Rory Hoffman takes a solo, that’s usually what happens: The room hushes as fellow ax-slingers head to the stage to check out the formidable competition. And when they see him up close, they’re even more befuddled, because Hoffman plays the guitar in an unorthodox style — on his lap, fretting and picking from above.
He’s not the first guitarist to approach the instrument in such a manner — the late blues and jazz musician Jeff Healey also played with the guitar on his lap. And Healey had something else in common with Hoffman: blindness.
Asked if he’s legally blind, Hoffman quips, “There’s nothing legal or illegal about it. I’m just as blind as it gets.” All three of his siblings are blind too. But he says his lack of sight had nothing to do with how he holds the guitar. His approach evolved because he was only 3 years old when he began, and couldn’t wrap his hand around the neck to hold it the traditional way.
Hoffman is one of the best Western swing musicians you’re likely to hear, and it’s a style that came to him naturally, growing up on a small ranch on the border of North and South Dakota.
“We had a North Dakota telephone number and a South Dakota mailing address,” he says. That’s how much on the border we were.”
He’s a terrific jazz and straight country player too, as anyone who’s seen him around town can attest. But what’s most astounding is that he is just as phenomenal on saxophone and clarinet. And accordion and bass. And harmonica and mandolin. Oh yeah, and drums too. And banjo. In fact, on his terrific 2011 album Swing Expedition, he plays all the instruments on seven of the 11 tracks.
And his skills haven’t gone unnoticed. He does quite a bit of road work with artists such as country singer Gail Bliss, Western swinger Carolyn Martin and singer-actor Jason Petty, famous for portraying Hank Sr. in the off-Broadway show Hank Williams: Lost Highway. When he’s in town, you can catch him with Paul Kramer’s Swing Street, The Tennessee Twisters, The Spaghetti Westerneers and violinist Peter Hyrka’s incendiary gypsy-jazz outfit The Gypsy Hombres.
So if he plays so many instruments so well, why does it seem he’s most known as a guitar whiz? Hoffman has a simple answer. “I don’t hold the piano or the accordion funny when I play them,” he says with a laugh.
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