Bill was a pioneer in developing what is now known as the melodic style of banjo, sometimes called fiddle-tune style, or simply Keith style. Much as Earl Scruggs saw his syncopated three-finger approach tagged with his name, Keith achieved immortality for his by being featured on stage and in recordings with Bill Monroe.
His genius was in finding a method for playing scales and scale fragments on adjacent strings, allowing him to accurately perform a complex linear melody while retaining the flowing, rolling sound that Scruggs had earlier popularized with Monroe.
For today’s listeners, the revolutionary nature of Keith’s accomplishment may not be obvious, since they have been so fully incorporated into modern banjo technique. But it caused quite a stir when it was first widely heard on Monroe records in 1963. Fiddle tunes like Devil’s Dream and Santa Claus jumped off the turntable and had banjo pickers scratching their heads with their picks.
After leaving Monroe in ’63 Bill worked with Red Allen, Jim Rooney, The Blue Velvet Band, and recorded on albums by David Grisman, Peter Rowan, and Richard Greene. He released several records under his own name, and quite memorably, with Muleskinner in 1973 along with Clarence White, Rowan, Grisman, and Greene.
Keith has gone on to serve as a premier instructor of the banjo, and a fervent proponent of music education for bluegrass players. His Beacon Banjo Company in New York markets the Keith Tuners, widely recognized as the finest tuning pegs available for the instrument. The D-tuners they manufacture are the standard in the industry.
Friday, July 17, at 7:00 p.m. the Keith-style Banjo Summit will take place on Grey Fox’s Creekside stage. The scheduled 90 minute proceedings will be moderated by Béla Fleck and Tony Trischka, with active participation from Bill and several other top pickers. Friday admission to the festival will be required to attend the summit.
Noam Pikelny, Mike Munford, Eric Weissberg, Marc Horowitz, Mike Kropp, and Ryan Cavanaugh are also set to take part in the summit. How they can hold it to 90 minutes is a mystery to me.
More details about the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival can be found online.