Remembering Bill Keith

Pioneering banjo-man William Bradford Keith, known to almost all as Bill Keith, passed away on October 23, 2015, at his home in Woodstock, NY. He was one of three 20th century 5-string banjo-pickers who changed the way the instrument is played. As with the other two, Pete Seeger and Earl Scruggs, the style he created was named after him: “Keith picking.”

Scruggs’s bluegrass playing sees the right hand’s thumb, index and middle fingers executing “rolls,” repeating note sequences that float a skeletonized melody on a torrent of embellishing 16th notes. Keith picking, using the same three fingers, is virtually all melody with little embellishment, allowing intricate fiddle tunes to be played on the banjo. Coordinating the fingers of both hands, at bluegrass breakdown speed, requires enough cognitive effort that lesser players sometimes neglect musical expression and pick without rhythmic bounce, something one could never accuse Bill of.

Keith jumped to fame in 1963 when Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass, hired him to play in his group, the Bluegrass Boys. Monroe took to calling him Brad (after Keith’s middle name), saying there could only be one Bill in the group. Though Keith’s tenure lasted just eight months, his picking with the Bluegrass Boys changed the course of bluegrass banjo.

“Before he came along,” Monroe said, “no banjo player could play those old fiddle numbers right. You have to play like Brad or you would be faking your way through a number.”

Keith loved the 5-string, and devoted himself to it. The last time I was at his home, he picked up his Rich & Taylor banjo, and showed me what he was working on: pentatonic scales, using just five notes in an octave to solo and comp. Going around the circle of fifths, he played all twelve major pentatonic scales, two octaves up and down, without missing a note, an impressive feat.

But Bill was a humble, soft-spoken guy. While I was marveling at his pentatonic pyrotechnics, he mentioned “melodic picking.” After he used the term again, I asked, “What’s the difference between Keith picking and melodic picking?”

“None,” he said.

“So why do you use the term ‘melodic picking’?”

Bill shrugged. “Well,” he said quietly, “… modesty.”

He also created “Keith tuners,” a machined tuning peg that lets the user lock in a high and low note on a tuner, and then change the string’s pitch while playing by twisting the peg from one locked-in note to the other. The twanged effect these tuners create can be heard on “Flint Hill Special,” “Earl's Breakdown,” and other banjo instrumentals. His Beacon Banjo Company has sold more than 30,000 sets.
In 1977, Keith hired four of us from the original David Grisman Quintet to back him on a European tour. He had a large continental following with fans in many towns we played, and being taken out to a sumptuous dinner by one of them was a common treat. On a warm July evening we visited his friend’s winery, and seated at a table inside a huge oak wine tank, sampled every vintage in the house, a memorable event I have little memory of. Having studied French literature at Amherst, Bill was fluent in the language, a benefit to us at many hotels and restaurants.

He led rehearsals quietly, easily flowing with and around suggestions from other band members. On stage, he played banjo with thumping vitality, expression, and originality. His sharp mind brilliantly rendered the rocketing 16th note stream that is Keith picking. Tony Rice, guitarist on that tour, gave Bill the nickname, “Brains,” and gave the band, officially called The Bicentennial Bluegrass Band, a tag that stuck: The Keith Unit.

Bill performed on July 6, 2013, with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band at Freight & Salvage. Toward the end of the second set, Jim called a solo piece for Bill, Juan Tizol’s instrumental, “Caravan.” Pro that he was, Keith nailed it.

It was the last time I heard him play, the last time I heard him make his banjo dance.

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The full story of The Keith Unit can be read in "Paris Remembers" in my book Acoustic Stories: Pickin' for the Prez and Other Unamplified Tales.