Flatpicking Lesson: The Red-Haired Boy
“The Red-Haired Boy” is a popular fiddle tune, a traditional melody most likely of Irish origin. The term “fiddle tune” is a general description for instrumental folk tunes from the British Isles and elsewhere that have been passed down from player to player for generations. This was once music for dancing, and many of the tunes are classified according to the dance step they would have accompanied: in this case, a reel.
This music came to America with the earliest colonists, and in the mountains of Appalachian Kentucky and Virginia it was preserved and passed down as living folk tradition. Modern bluegrass music is a direct descendant of the sounds one might have heard echoing down an eastern Kentucky holler a hundred and fifty years ago, and many of the instrumental breakdowns heard in bluegrass originated as Irish and Scottish reels and hornpipes.
Of course, these tunes can be played on many instruments besides the fiddle, and present a particular challenge on the guitar. Reels are meant to be played quickly and the notes are constantly in motion. This style of acoustic guitar playing is often simply referred to as “flatpicking” because a pick is the simplest way to imitate the steady back and forth movement of a violin bow, and also to distinguish from the fingerpicking styles also heard in so much traditional music.
Here’s my version of “The Red-Haired Boy”.
To start off, let’s take a look at the picking hand. Many players find it helpful to stabilize the right hand by resting the heel of the hand on the bridge of the guitar. This definitely helps with accuracy and control, but remember that the goal is not to anchor but to stabilize: in other words, the hand can rest but should still be able to move across the strings as needed. The picking motion comes from the wrist, evenly alternating down and up strokes. It’s helpful to think of leading with the thumb, though: dip the thumb towards to floor to play a downstroke, return to the starting position with the upstroke.
To practice this initially, rest the hand on the bridge and bring the pick in contact with the low E string. Starting slowly, play four short groups of three notes: down-up-down, down-up-down. Consciously relax the hand after each group. Then move to the A string and repeat the pattern, allowing the whole hand to move over in order to bring the pick into playing position. Continue this way across all six strings. You can then move to five-note groups: down-up-down-up-down, again proceeding across each string. Gradually increase the tempo as you become more comfortable, but don’t play faster than you can control….the goal is to maintain steady rhythm and a consistent tone.
The next step is to play a scale using this alternate picking technique. Here’s a D major scale, which we will use in a modified form to play “Red-Haired Boy”. Use second position fingering in the left hand: second fret notes are played with the index finger, third fret with the middle, fourth fret with the ring. We’re incorporating open strings as well to exploit the natural resonance of the acoustic guitar.
Notice that we’re using the alternate picking pattern for the pairs of eighth notes, but that quarter notes are played with downstrokes. This demonstrates a general rule that applies in most situations: downstroke on the downbeat, upstroke on the upbeat. Like all rules there are exceptions – not every player follows this method – but I like it because it maintains a consistent pattern of tone and feel. Downstrokes have a natural accent because the weight of your hand adds power to the pick stroke. Upstrokes have a natural sense of lift, and the alternation produces a nice “swing”.
Here’s a more challenging example. Exercise one includes spaces that give the hand a chance to relax and rest between the eighth-note bursts. This one maintains a steady rhythm all the way through. Keep in mind that while the ultimate goal of alternate picking is speed, you’ll want to start out slowly and take care to maintain control of the movements and the tone they produce. Don’t rush it…you can develop speed by starting with precision, but not the other way around.
Exercise 3 returns to five-note groups. Note the alternate fingering for the B note in the second bar.
Exercise 4 returns to constant eighth-notes, and also incorporates string crossing. When moving from one string to another, simply make the arc of the stroke a little wider to reach the adjacent string. The hand should follow, but it should only move enough to bring the pick into position: remember that economy of motion is key to using this technique smoothly.
Here’s a close-up video of the right hand playing “Red-Haired Boy”. Note the hand resting on the bridge, the economy of motion, and the difference between staying on the same string vs. crossing strings.
Finally, here’s a close-up of the left hand. Download the pdf tab and follow along as you watch. You’ll notice a position shift at the beginning of the B section: the hand moves over to the first fret to play the second string C, followed by an open B and then an A on the third string played by the middle finger. When the A note returns, it’s played by the index finger, shifting us back into 2nd position.
If you’re new to alternate picking this will probably be a challenging piece to learn, but take your time and work on it in short segments. Again, don’t rush the process…practice slowly to develop control and precision. Once you’re comfortable, gradually start increasing the tempo. Have fun!