By Jonathan Rubin
A hero and inspiration of mine, Bill Keith, died in his home in Woodstock, NY on Oct. 23 at the age of 75. Keith was a banjo player who revolutionized the instrument and unlocked its melodic potential. Despite Keith’s massive impact on modern popular music, few know his name. I think Keith deserves to be remembered as the musical pioneer he was.
I found out about Keith because he is the most famous banjoist from Massachusetts, my home state. He did not start playing five-string banjo until he was in college, when he taught himself from the banjo bible, Pete Seeger’s “How To Play The 5-String Banjo,” which is also the book I used to teach myself banjo. I practiced for hours trying to learn Keith’s arrangements for old-time songs and failed miserably, which only increased my respect for him as a musician.
I have long been frustrated by the lack of credit that the late Keith has been given for his contributions to modern music. When you hear modern folk-rock and singer-songwriter music with banjo in it, like Mumford and Sons or The Tallest Man On Earth, you are hearing picking styles that would not exist without the techniques developed by Keith. Keith’s banjo picking style, now referred to as “Keith-style” picking, revolutionized banjo because it allowed the banjo to play melody note by note. He developed this style because he wanted to be able to actually play old-time fiddle tunes note for note instead of just playing arpeggios to keep the rhythm the way most bluegrass players did.
There is a great video of him playing “Cherokee Shuffle” at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in 2011. After the song, one of the audience members asks him how he executes melodic style. Keith smiles and says, “Well, you put your finger here,” and gestures fretting one of the strings of his banjo. This kind of humility and attention to the audience shows that Keith was not only a great musician, but a great man.
Without Keith, the revitalization of the banjo in popular music may not have happened. Keith is the link between the banjo you hear on the radio today and the bluegrass banjo from the mid-20th-century. Without him, banjo would not be able to cross from genre to genre as it has in recent years. Banjo has also been adopted by many European musicians, likely because of how dynamic an instrument the banjo is when incorporating Keith’s melodic style.
Keith also contributed a hardware development for banjos. He invented tuning pegs that allowed the player to change the tuning of the banjo more accurately mid-song. “Keith pegs” are considered top-of-the-line for modern banjoists and are sold by Beacon Banjo Company, which was founded and run by Keith. Beacon Banjos still sells Keith pegs and is being run by Keith’s son, Martin Keith.
Not only was Keith a successful studio banjoist, but he also became quite a successful pedal-steel guitarist. In fact, Bill Keith plays all of the pedal-steel guitar on The Bee Gees’ sixth studio album, “Odessa.”
Keith’s absence from folk and bluegrass festivals will surely be missed, but his contribution to the instrument is ever-present. I hope that as time passes, his legacy will grow to what I think it deserves to be. I know that I will continue to think of him every time I sit down to play.