The traditional tune “Red Haired Boy” is a favorite among bluegrass pickers, and for good reason. The catchy melody is fun to play, the droning B-part is a great place to start exploring improvisation, and the modal tonality (Mixolydian) makes it rock. The song is heard often at jams, concerts, and on albums, most recently on Jamie Stillway and Eric Skye’s duo guitar release Over the Waterfall (reviewed in the May/June 2023 issue)—a follow-up to their 2021 all-original collection, Home on the Midrange.
Stillway and Skye both come from a background of jazz and improvisation and probably would not consider themselves bluegrass musicians per se. Yet they clearly love fiddle tunes, from which much bluegrass material originates, and approach them in their own style.
Many of the tracks on Over the Waterfall are well-known selections, but they’re played deliberately and slowly compared to the flash and speed typically heard among grassers. The difference with Stillway and Skye is that they take their time to get to their destination. The first minute or so of each track states the tune’s melody, and over each repetition they delve further into spacious improvisational territory until landing in what Stillway calls “free skate,” where they both are improvising and responding to each other simultaneously. This type of unstructured improvisation would be madness under the rigid rules of a traditional bluegrass jam, but for Stillway and Skye it is a vehicle to showcase their creative ideas. These slower speeds also provide room to reveal the sonic quality of their instruments harmonizing and ringing together.
The notation presented here is Stillway’s rendition of the “Red Haired Boy” melody. Her version is an excellent one to learn, whether you intend to play it in the spacious spirit of Stillway and Skye or in a speedy picking session along with banjos and fiddles. On the album, Stillway ends her first pass through the tune with a scalar improvisational passage. For ease of learning, I have omitted that from the transcription and instead am presenting the tune’s melody in full.
One of the most striking elements in Stillway’s playing is the natural fluidity she achieves between notes. To mimic this, focus on letting notes ring as long as possible. For example, when there is a string change, allow the note on the previous string to ring as you play the next string. When there is no string change, allow the previous note to ring out until you pick the next one. This is a difficult technique to get accustomed to and can sound unusual at first, but when done well it can make a melodic passage come to life.
As for the other hand, focus on alternate picking, which means coordinating downstrokes with the beats of each measure and upstrokes with the “ands,” as indicated between the standard notation and tablature lines. This picking approach is standard for flatpickers and helps replicate the bouncy rhythmic pulse of a fiddle.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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