Bill Keith passes

Bill KeithBill Keith, among the very few three-finger banjo players to discernibly widen the scope of the instrument in bluegrass music since Earl Scruggs, has died at the age of 75.

He had been suffering of late from the effects of a cancer that had sapped his energy, though he did manage an appearance at the 2015 International Bluegrass Music Awards in Raleigh, NC to accept his induction into the bluegrass Hall of Fame. Bill delivered a heartfelt address on that occasion which his friends in the industry recognized as his last farewell.

In his youth, Keith introduced a radical concept to the five string banjo by seeking to play linear melodies much as the fiddle does while still employing the three finger technique Scruggs had pioneered. But where Scruggs’ method had allowed the banjo to mix a vocal melody into a banjo roll, Keith showed how to accurately perform more complicated fiddle tunes note-for-note on the banjo.

Bill Monroe hired the young banjo picker in 1963, recognizing this new approach as a benefit to his band, and during less than a year as a Blue Grass Boy, Keith left a mark on the music that started a new chapter in bluegrass banjo. Soon banjo players across the country were pursuing his lead, incorporating this “melodic style” into their playing.

Over the years, Keith explored jazz and classic banjo, recording brilliant versions of Night In Tunisia, Nola, Caravan, Mood Indigo and many others along with a variety of fiddle and banjo tunes. His innovations paved the way for contemporary banjo wizards like Béla Fleck, Noam Pikelny, and Ryan Cavanaugh.

Bill also served an important role in the banjo world with his Beacon Banjo Company, which manufactured and distributed high-quality banjo tuning pegs, including his stop-action Keith Tuners which allowed players to set the pegs to quickly tune from one preset pitch to another, much like the pedals on a steel guitar. Keith had created these tuners after Earl Scruggs had developed a cam system to achieve the same effect. Bill’s pegs, though, were able to achieve this effect without the need to drill additional holes in the banjo headstock.

His family shared a statement this morning.

Dear music friends far and wide,

We are much saddened to have to announce that Bill Keith left us in the early hours of October 23. Wherever he is now, I know that he has only one regret: that his diminished energy made him postpone, one day too many, the message of infinite gratitude that he very much wanted to post on this forum to all of you.

Your joyful sharings, photos, support, musings, memories, and above all, devotion to music warmed every one of his days, and he never ceased to wonder at the fact that his modest self could inspire so much cheerful devotion.

Bill’s music will live through you all – and as Bill wanted, the Beacon Banjo tuners will also continue their proud tradition, now in the hands of his son Martin.

On his behalf, we thank you all with all our heart.

Claire, Charles and Martin Keith

R.I.P., Bill Keith. You left this world a much finer place than you found it.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.