RIP: Bill Keith, 1939-2015

Bill Keith (photo: Clair Keith)
Bill Keith (photo: Clair Keith)

We are deeply saddened to report that bluegrass/newgrass banjo pioneer Bill Keith died on Friday (October 23) at his Bearsville home. The cause was complications of cancer. Keith was 75.

Early in his musical career, 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 that Earl Scruggs had pioneered. But where Scruggs’ method had allowed the banjo to mix a vocal melody into a banjo roll, Keith accurately played more complicated fiddle tunes and other melodies note-for-note on the banjo. His technique has become widely known as Keith-style picking.

Back in 1963, Keith was tapped by Bill Monroe to become a member of the Blue Grass Boys, and while his tenure in the band was brief – only eight months – it was also highly influential.

He later became an integral member of the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, and he played a reunion concert with that band at The Egg in August of 2013. In addition, Keith was a member of the Blue Velvet Band, Great Speckled Bird (a country-rock band led by Ian & Sylvia) and the Woodstock Mountain Revue. In addition, he recorded numerous solo albums, as well as collaborations with many other musicians, including Peter Rowan, David Grisman and most notably his longtime musical partner Jim Rooney.

He was also a much sought-after session player, recording with such diverse artists as Loudon Wainwright III, Richie Havens, BeauSoleil, Tim Hardin, Ellen McIlwaine, Martin Mull, Judy Collins and the Bee Gees.

He moved to the Woodstock area in 1970 and had lived there ever since. He was the elder statesman of the 2012 New York Banjo concerts and tour, organized by The Egg’s Peter Lesser, which also featured the all-star line-up of Bela Fleck, Eric Weissberg, Mac Benford, Pete Wernick, Richie Stearns and Tony Trischka.

Another of Keith’s many accomplishments was the invention of the Keith Banjo Tuner, which vastly improved upon the popular Scruggs tuners, allowing the player to de-tune two (or more) of the strings in order to quickly change tunings or use the pegs within a banjo solo.

In July, Bill Keith was honored with a very special Keith Style Banjo Summit co-hosted by Bela Fleck and Tony Trischka at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in Oak Hill. He was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame earlier this month in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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