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 ARCHIVED TOPIC: Bill "Brad" Keith

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aatkins - Posted - 01/12/2010:  15:02:38

I'm a huge Bill Keith fan. Hope you enjoy this Biographical information that I have gathered.

Check out the 9 part 2003 Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival banjo 101 session on Youtube, it's cool.

Bill "Brad" Keith (Now 70 years young)

On December 20, 1939 in Boston, Massachusetts, one of the most influential five string banjoists in modern time was born. William Bradford Keith has made a significant contribution to the stylistic and mechanical development of the instrument. In the 1960s he introduced a variation on the popular "Scruggs style" of banjo playing (an integral element of bluegrass music), which would soon become known as melodic style, or "Keith style". He adapted countless fiddle tunes including: Devil's Dream, Sailor's Hornpipe, Salt Creek, Sailor's Hornpipe, Pike County Breakdown, Shenandoah Breakdown and even standards such as "Caravan". His facility with this style has been well respected by most every aspiring banjo player since the 1960s and even today. His influence has been well established and is now considered an integral part of the evolution and legacy of the banjo.
The melodic or “Keith style” banjo can be easily differentiated by its unique sound. There's a cascading quality to it. It can sound almost like a harp or a harpsichord; some notes will continue to ring while other melody notes go floating by. This is caused by the consecutive notes being played, which classifies this style.
The “Keith style” differs from the Scruggs Style (Earl Scruggs) in that it offers note-for-note melody lines. Scruggs Style is based on chords and rolls with accents on the interspersed melody notes within chordal forms. Melodic Banjo also differs from Single String Style in the approach to the melody. In the Single String approach, the melody is played in a linear fashion. For instance, three or four notes will be consecutively played on the same string. Where as, in the Melodic approach, the melody is played note to note.

Many say that Bill Keith was the first Renaissance man of the five string banjo. He is considered the father of the Melodic style of playing. Keith co-authored the original Earl Scruggs banjo instruction book and record, and has also written several other banjo instruction books, including the first ones ever published in French and Italian. He has recorded several albums for Rounder, Green Linnet, and Hexagon, and has toured widely throughout North America, Western Europe, Japan, and Australia.
Sandra Brennan, from the “All Music Guide” writes: Bill Keith began taking banjo lessons at a young age, and also learned to play piano and ukulele. During adolescence, he played in a few Dixieland bands, but by the late '50s, became interested in folk music after listening to such inspirational artists as Pete Seeger and Earl Scruggs. Using instruction books, the Amherst college student began learning their two different styles.
Transcribed interview with Bill Keith of Woodstock, New York on July 19, 2000 (Revised: 6/13/01) by Bob Kerr. Portions of this interview were published in Banjo Newsletter Vol. XXVIII No.10 August 2001.
Bob: Before we dive into the D-tuners, could you share your earlier musical history?
Bill: Sure. I can't remember not being interested in music. My first instrument was a plastic ukulele. Then I took piano lessons for several years and in the process learned how to read music. During my early teens (living in the Boston area) I listened to the 'clear-channel, late night radio stations' that broadcast country music from the south and the midwest. Those stations are where I first heard the banjo. From the very first time I heard it, I loved that banjo sound so much that I decided to switch from the piano to the banjo.
Living in the Boston suburbs in the mid-1950's, I went to a local music store to find out about renting one and taking lessons. Since I didn't know anything about banjos and didn't know the music, I ended up renting a short-necked tenor banjo with four strings. I took lessons for a year and a half, learning from sheet music. Then, I ran into a guy who played the plectrum banjo, which had a longer neck and different tuning. My tenor teacher wasn't familiar with plectrum tuning, so he gave me a good book to start with and told me I was on my own. Within a couple of years, I was playing for square dances and in a small dixie-land band.
In the summer of 1957, I saw and heard someone playing a five string banjo and immediately realized that it was a 5-string banjo I had heard years before. So, less than a month after that, as an entering freshman at Amherst College, I bought my first five string banjo and got the Pete Seeger instructional book to work with. Among the several styles he taught, he included a simplified version of the 3-finger style in which the right thumb played only on the 5th string. But, he recommended that, 'if you like this style, you should go out and buy an Earl Scruggs record and/or a Don Reno Record.'
So, that's exactly what I did -- I bought some of their records and starting figuring out how to pay that style. I noticed that Earl's thumb played every string, not just the fifth. By listening to records and slowing them down, I figured out the Scruggs style, learned some of his songs and began transcribing them into piano notation. Once I did that, I could then figure out the tablature.
Bob: How did you learn to do tablature?
Bill: I had learned it from the Pete Seeger book. So, by the time my junior year rolled around (1959-60), I had transcribed enough of Earl's music to fill a thick workbook with his tunes.
Eventually, Keith began developing his own unique style, which became known as the melodic, chromatic or "Keith" picking style. This distinct technique was borne of his desire to play fiddle melodies on his instruments.
In 1958, he teamed up with fellow Amherst student Jim Rooney and began playing at local coffeehouses and on campus. Eventually they hooked up with promoter Manny Greenhill; with his assistance they founded the Connecticut Folklore Society, which sponsored a series of traveling campus concerts throughout New England.
Bill: I was jamming and playing in a local Bluegrass band. I also started playing with Jim Rooney, who also was at Amherst. We played in small clubs, on radio shows, did a show on the old UHF TV station in Springfield, Mass. and opened a show for Joan Baez at Dartmouth College. During the summers I practiced a lot and continued to play for square dances.
I also got to know a fascinating lady named June, the wife of a machinist friend of mine. She played fiddle and knew lots of obscure square dance tunes from Nova Scotia. One of the tunes was the "Devil's Dream" and the first time I heard June play it, I realized that I could play those same notes on the banjo. Following "Devil's Dream," I learned other fiddle tunes and this was the beginning of my melodic style of playing.
After graduation (1961), I moved to Boston and got to know other musicians in the Boston area and played in coffee houses with Jim. Jim and I eventually recorded several albums.
In late fall (1961), I enlisted in the Air Force Reserves and was stationed in the Boston area for six months of active duty and continued playing music with Jim Rooney, who had also moved to Boston. The following year (1962) we went to the Philadelphia Folk Festival and I won the banjo contest with "Devil's Dream." After active duty, I moved to the Washington, DC area and worked with Red Allen and Frank Wakefield. In December of 1962, I saw Earl Scruggs in concert for the first time. By then, I had transcribed, in music notation and tablature, most all of his instrumentals and a few vocals. Since this concert was produced by my friend Manny Greenhill, who got work for Jim and me in the Boston area, I was able to meet Earl after the show.
It was then that I showed him my workbook with all of my transcriptions of his tunes. He was pretty surprised. He wanted to see all of what I had done and how I had done it. I showed him what I had done, as well as an earlier songbook published by Peer International in which the printed music did not accurately represent the way he played his tunes. But, since Earl didn't read music he couldn't verify either the Peer songbook or my workbook, so, he put me to the test by asking me to play from my workbook while he watched. For the most part, my transcriptions were accurate. And, with Earl, himself, to correct any mistakes, we were also able to insure that the tab was correct.
He told me he was working on a new instruction book (Earl Scruggs and the Five String Banjo) and wanted to use my tabs in it. He invited me to come to Nashville and work with him on that book, which I did. I stayed with Earl and his wife, Louise, at their house, on and off for a few weeks. Using my transcriptions, we worked together on the instructional book and the instructional record that goes with it.
Together, we verified the songs as follows. I would play from my tablature what I had deduced from his records and he would tell me if I was right. I was also fortunate to travel with him on the bus and observe him as he played shows on the road and as they recorded their WSM Martha White radio show. So, by the time the instructional book went to print, we knew that the tablature was true and accurate. Every tune included in that book is my tablature, even the exercises.
At this same time, Louise was starting their music publishing company. Since you have submit a transcription of an original song or tune as part of the application for a music publisher's license, Louise asked if I would write out Earl's song "Nashville Blues", in what they call 'lead-sheet format.' My efforts with that helped in the formation of their publishing company - "Earl Scruggs Music."
I also had a chance to play backstage in some of the warm-up sessions for the Grand Ole Opry. At one of those times I was overheard by Kenny Baker, who brought Bill Monroe in to hear me. They both listened for a while and then at the end of the evening, I was offered a job as banjo player with Bill Monroe. So, in early March of 1963, I became a 'Bluegrass Boy.'
During these years, Keith began learning to make banjos with Tom Morgan.
Bill, tell us more about your interest in making banjos.
Later he, Rooney, mandolin player Frank Wakefield, and guitarist Red Allen formed the Kentuckians, which was his first professional gig. In 1963, Earl Scruggs contacted Keith to lay out the tablature for the instructional book Earl Scruggs and the 5-String Banjo. Later that year, Keith and his former Amherst classmate Dan Bump developed a new kind of tuning peg that was adopted by Scruggs who provided a name for the resulting company in 1964. Keith's recordings and performances during these nine months with Monroe permanently altered banjo playing, and his style has become an important part of the playing styles of many banjoists.
After spending only eight months with Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys in 1963 (Recording Sessions: 3/20/1963, 3/27/1963) Bill “Brad” Keith had already left his mark on banjo playing forever. As a Blue Grass Boy Bill Keith pioneered a never heard before “melodic style”, which allowed him to play intricate fiddle tunes note for note on the banjo. Bill Monroe thought highly of his playing and rushed into the studio, recording with Keith just a few weeks after he joined the band. Both "Devil's Dream" and "Salt Creek" were released on singles. Monroe avoided the confusion of two Bills in the band by always introducing Keith as "Brad", a shortening of Keith’s middle name, Bradford.
John Byrne Cooke writes: In the early 60s, Cambridge banjo picker Bill Keith raised Earl Scruggs' three-fingered method of banjo playing to the next level, an achievement that Bill Monroe recognized when he introduced Keith to the audience at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival. "I don't think there's a man in the country," Monroe said, "that can touch this boy when it comes to playin' a five-string banjo."
We are talking about the one and only “Bill Monroe”. To put this in perspective, consider that Bill Monroe is credited for developing the style of country music known as bluegrass, which takes its name from his band, the "Blue Grass Boys," named for his home state of Kentucky. Monroe's performing career spanned 60 years as a singer, instrumentalist, composer and bandleader. He is often referred to as "the father of bluegrass."

In 1939, Monroe formed the first edition of the Blue Grass Boys, and in October of the same year became a regular on the Grand Ole Opry. As a mandolin player, Monroe brought a virtuosity previously unknown in country music to his instrument. In 1945 he hired Earl Scruggs, who similarly elevated the role of the banjo. This version of the Blue Grass Boys, which also included singer/guitarist Lester Flatt, Chubby Wise on fiddle, and Howard Watts aka "Cedric Rainwater" on bass, made the first recordings that featured all the elements that later came to be known as bluegrass music. This particular group broke up when Flatt and Scruggs left to form their own group, the Foggy Mountain Boys.

Another defining version of the Blue Grass Boys was the so-called "Northern" band of the mid-1960's, featuring musicians not of southern rural origin, including Bill Keith and later Lamar Grier on banjo, Peter Rowan as guitarist and lead singer, and Richard Greene as the fiddler.

More than 150 musicians played in the Blue Grass Boys over the years. Many later became stars in their own right, including Mac Wiseman, Clyde Moody, Sonny Osborne, Don Reno, David "Stringbean" Akeman, Del McCoury, Vassar Clements, Buck Trent, Peter Rowan, Byron Berline, Carter Stanley, Doug Green, and Randall Franks. In 2003, CMT had Bill Monroe ranked #16 on CMT 40 Greatest Men of Country Music. As you can see, Bill Keith kept good company.

Bob: With what we now know about the rift Bill Monroe had with Flatt and Scruggs, wasn't this a touchy situation for you?
Bill: No, not really. Although I had figured out that the two of them didn't get along, neither Bill or Earl seemed to object to my working with the other.

Bill Keith is quoted saying “Then, the plan was that we were to back up Bill Monroe in an appearance on the television show. So we got together and rehearsed and got a few numbers to do on our own…we were pretty sure Bill would play. We [prepared for] Foot Prints in the Snow, and Kentucky Waltz, and whatever. We had our rehearsal, and the next day we scheduled another rehearsal that Bill was supposed to come to. But we got a telephone call that he couldn’t make that rehearsal, so we added a few more tunes to what we could play on our own. The next day was a dress rehearsal in the morning and then taping in the afternoon. But Bill wasn’t there for the dress rehearsal and so we added a couple more things and of course the point in time came and he still wasn’t there, so we did the TV show on our own.”
Keith left Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys to do more session work and by the year's end had joined Jim Kweskin's Jug Band (playing the plectrum banjo) where he would stay for four years. After that he played with the Blue Velvet Band. He set aside the banjo for a while in 1968 to become a pedal steel guitarist. Keith joined Ian And Sylvia Tyson's Great Speckled Bird, a country rock outfit, in which he also played steel guitar. After approximately a year, he went on tour with Jonathan Edwards, and later Judy Collins.
From his work with the Blue Velvet Band, he then formed Muleskinner with David Grisman, Clarence White, Richard Greene and Peter Rowan considered by some as the first Bluegrass “Super Group”. Keith spent much of the following period in session work and touring with Rooney and worked with him on his friends solo album "The First Whippoorwill", as well as recording several solo albums of his own, both in Europe and the UK. For 1976's Something Auld, Something Newgrass, Something Borrowed, Something Bluegrass he was backed by Vassar Clements (fiddle), Tony Rice (guitar) and David Grisman (mandolin). The album included a cover version of a Mick Jagger/Keith Richards composition, "No Expectations", as well as Duke Ellington's "Caravan". During the 80s, Keith toured a number of British clubs along with long-time colleague Jim Rooney, before forming the New Blue Velvet Band with Rooney, Eric Weissberg and Kenny Koseck.
He and long-time cohort Rooney also toured together in both the U.S. and in Europe during the '70s and '80s, with Keith developing a particularly large following in France. When back home in Woodstock, Keith began playing banjo for the Woodstock Mountain Review. In 1977, he worked briefly as a columnist for Frets magazine (see his front cover picture below). Later, in 1989, Keith, Rooney, Eric Weissberg and Kenny Koseck re-formed their old group, calling it the New Blue Velvet Band. Over the years he has performed with several other musicians, such as Tony Trischka, Jim Rooney and Jim Collier. Today, Keith style is still regarded as modern, progressive or “newgrass” in the context of bluegrass banjo playing.
Keith’s vast knowledge and intense focus on music theory becomes abundantly clear when you sit down with him for a banjo lesson. One of his former students told me “Try to get lessons from Keith, but beware because it’s heavy on the theory. I can honestly say that I learned as much if not more about music theory than I did about how to play the banjo. This being said, I wouldn’t trade it for the world, as the things he taught me have changed the way that I play other instruments such as the guitar and music in general.”
Bill, tell us more about your focus on music theory?
Bill Keith not only had an impact on Keith is also the designer of the Keith Tuners, the first modern (and by far the best) pegs ever made for the banjo. The tuners are made by Bill's company, Beacon Banjo Co. in Woodstock, NY and are available on his website and at quality dealers everywhere. Keith remarkably designed a specialized type of banjo tuning peg that facilitates changing quickly from one open tuning to another, while playing. Earlier famed banjoist Earl Scruggs had designed a set of cams which were added to the banjo to perform this task. Keith's invention made the external bulky hardware unnecessary, replacing two of the tuning machines already on the banjo, a more elegant solution. Scruggs himself became a partner in the venture for a while, and the product was known as "Scruggs-Keith Pegs" even though Bill Monroe had no part in designing the pegs. Known today simply as Keith Pegs, they remain state of the art. Bob Kerr stated that “there has been no greater impact on the playing and creative potential of the modern bluegrass banjo than the addition of the D-Tuner or D-Tuning Peg.
Transcribed interview with Bill Keith of Woodstock, New York on July 19, 2000 (Revised: 6/13/01) by Bob Kerr. Portions of this interview were published in Banjo Newsletter Vol. XXVIII No.10 August 2001.
Bob: So, where did this interest in D-Tuners begin?
Bill: The first tune on my first Earl Scruggs record ("Foggy Mountain Jamboree"), which I bought in 1957, is "Flint Hill Special." That was the first time I ever heard someone changing the pitch of a string while they were playing. It caught my attention right away and I tried to understand how that was being done. There are several other tunes ("Earl's Breakdown," "Foggy Mountain Chimes," and "Randy Lynn Rag") in which he also D-tunes and re-tunes while playing.
Earl told me that when he recorded "Earl's Breakdown" he had not yet developed a tuning device, so he turned the 2nd string tuning peg by hand. If you listen carefully, you can hear him retune while the rest of the band is playing. But, after recording it, he decided to add a separate peg that would enable him to change the pitch of the 2nd string so he could play "Earl's Breakdown" more accurately and consistently. Shortly thereafter, he added another peg for the 3rd string and used both tuners for the other D-tuner songs on that "Foggy Mountain Jamboree" album.
People called these extra pegs - 'cams', 'cheaters', 'winders', 'twisters' or 'Scruggs Pegs." Some players like Don Reno just reached up on the peghead and pulled on the strings when he wanted to raise the pitch. Since these special pegs were not available commercially, besides Earl, many people made their own versions of cam tuners. Some were crude and rudimentary. The two you see in figures #1 and #2 are two of the better examples.

Bob: Why this general interest in note changing in the first place?
Bill: As I understand it, changing notes while playing really began with the steel guitar. In 1955, an adventurous steel guitar player added a pedal to his guitar to change the tuning while he played. The song "Slowly" was the first recording that used this new pedal on the steel guitar. When Earl heard that recording he was inspired to apply the concept to the five-string banjo and he built his cams for that purpose. That's when he wrote those instrumentals for his "Foggy Mountain Jamboree" album.
There is a funny story about all of this. Earl installed his original cam for the 2nd string (to play "Earl's Breakdown") in the middle of his peghead. So, when he decided to add another cam for the 3rd string, he had to take out the original cam, fill up that hole and install two new ones, drilling separate holes for each. In the process, pearl inlay was chipped and the peghead began to look messy. So, to make things look neater, he took off the cover from the light fixture of Louise's floor polisher and used it to cover that area of his peghead. You can see it on the album cover of "Foggy Mountain Jamboree." Some people thought he was trying to conceal his mechanical device under that cover. But, he told me, he was simply trying to make it look better.
Bob: Were you also using tuners?
Bill: Shortly after hearing the "Foggy Mountain Jamboree" album, I had built a crude set of cams just to play those tunes. By the time I went to Nashville to work with Earl on his banjo instructional book, in early January of 1963, I had some better cam-style tuners. By then, Earl had met a fellow named Walt Pittman, in California, who built him a more precise set of cams than the ones Earl had built himself. Walt also replaced Earl's finger board with new frets and inlays.
During my first months with Monroe, I went back to Boston on several occasions for remaining military commitments and also to visit with my family and friends. One friend from college, Dan Bump, also played banjo, and like me, enjoyed figuring out how things work. In one of those visits, Dan and I talked about going into the banjo business in some way. At first, Dan wanted to make high-tech banjos with aluminum rims, cast fiberglass necks and other modern materials, but I wasn't sure how receptive the market would be for that kind of banjo. People seemed to like the traditional materials and techniques. So, we decided to re-engineer the cam-style tuners.
Having to drill holes was a big objection to the cam-style tuners. A lot of people don't want to drill holes in a fancy pearl inlaid peghead which would weaken it if not done properly. Another objection was their accuracy. Many of the cam-style tuners were better than turning a tuning peg by hand, but still not very precise.
So, after three or four hours of sketching out ideas on a legal pad, one afternoon, we arrived at the design of a new type of tuning peg. Essentially, we had combined the function of a standard tuning peg with the d-tuning function -- all within the regular tuning peg housing. It would no longer be necessary to drill extra holes through a beautiful peghead to install the cam-style tuners. Figure #3 is a present day model of our design.
Bob: So, how does it work?
Bill: Looking at figure #8 you can see all the parts. You can see the planetary gear set that is in the upper part of the housing -- the sun gear in the center, the 3 planet gears which move around it inside the ring gear, which is part of the housing. Since the sun gear and planet gears have the same number of teeth, the gear ratio is 4 to 1. Below the planetary gear set are the parts that make the d-tuning possible and are the key to our design. In the right-center part of figure #8 you can see the two discs and the small spring that connects them.

Outside the housing (figure #9) are the two thumb screws. Each one locks one of the disks, which set the high and low notes. Then, once you have set your high and low notes with the thumbscrews, you can change your tuning knob to a convenient angle and set the friction by adjusting the end thumb screw (figure #9).

That was a pretty good afternoon's work, wasn't it?!
Bob: It sure was!
Bill: After Dan and I got this new 'D-Tuner' design down on paper, we took it to my machinist friend, Loring, to see if he would build our first prototype. He took on the job, and a month later when I was back on tour with Bill Monroe, Dan mailed the first pair to me ( figure #5).
While we were on the road, I had a chance to try them out and fortunately they worked quite well. Our tour took us to California where I happened to meet Walt Pittman. After checking out the tuners he offered to make better looking nuts, washers and thumbscrews to replace the 'off-the-shelf' hardware that Loring and Dan had installed (figure #5).

Bob: When did Earl find out about these new tuners?
Bill: Upon our return to Nashville, after the tour, I showed them to Earl. He was quite impressed and wanted to be involved in some way. After leaving Bill Monroe in late December, 1963, I returned to Boston. Encouraged by Earl's response, Dan and I incorporated some improvements into our 2nd prototype (see Figures #6 and #7). We wanted to make them smaller so that the banjo could fit more easily into its case. We also decided to make the spool on the third string tuner (figure #6) smaller than the one on the 2nd string tuner (figure #7).

The first prototype had the same spool size for both strings, which meant the 2nd string tuner, lowering from B to A had to be turned further than the third string tuner, lowering from G to F#. So, in the second prototype, we made a small spool for the third string and large spool for the second string. In figures 6 and 7 you can see the difference in spool size.
And to finish up the 2nd prototype, I used the nuts, washers and set (thumb) screws that Walt Pittman had made for me. This pair looked great and worked even better than the first pair. So, Dan and I decided to start a business and begin manufacturing them.
Bob: How'd you do that?
Bill: We formed a corporation in late January, 1964, and I was elected President. I chose the name "Beacon Banjo Company" because of Beacon Hill in Boston and because it reminded me of Bacon Banjo Company, named after Fred Bacon, one of the finest banjo players in the early 1900's. Now, as a corporation, Dan and I invested a couple thousand dollars and issued ourselves stock.
That money financed the run of our first fifty pairs. We got the parts made at a local production machine shop and assembled them in Dan's garage. As a surprise for me, Dan had a tool made to stamp my name on them. The first few pairs made in the garage were stamped "Keith" on the flat surface of each tuner. Although our first and second prototypes were made of brass, and like most tuning pegs, would have eventually been either nickel or chrome plated, we decided to avoid the problems and expense of plating by making them out of stainless steel -- which works just fine. We also decided to make tuners for the first and fourth string, since cam-style tuners couldn't be installed on those strings. Having tuners on all 4 strings made a lot of new things possible.
As I said earlier, after Earl had seen the first prototype in Nashville 3 months before, he wanted to be involved in some way. However, he was endorsing Vega Banjos and they were using his name in their advertising. Because of that, we could only use his name on our tuners if he became part-owner with us, so we sold him some shares in the company. That allowed us to use his name and coincidently gave us some additional funding. We then advertised our tuners as "Scruggs-Keith Tuners."
Bob: At some point were they called "Scruggs Pegs?"
Bill: The various types of cams that were installed on top of the peghead were often referred to as 'Scruggs Pegs.' But, because the new tuners that Dan and I made were quite different and were our invention, these were not Scruggs Pegs. Ours were hidden under the peghead, were part of the tuning peg itself and did not contain cams. Also, Earl had nothing to do with the design and development of this new tuner. However, when Earl did become part owner with us and we began production of the next 500 pairs, all three of our names: "Scruggs-Keith-Bump", were stamped on the flat surface of the tuner where my name had been stamped on those first few pairs. During the remainder of the 1960's, his name remained on them, but around 1970 when he sold his shares back to the company, we changed the stamp to the "Keith Banjo Tuner."
Bob: How'd you get the word out?
Bill: Earl was using them on his public appearances and on TV. People saw and heard him, especially in the South. This became great 'word of mouth' advertising. We had a good response from advertising in "Sing Out" magazine, which reached an additional audience of people in the North and West. There was also a lot of local interest in the Boston area, as well as the folk scene in the Boston-New York corridor, Chicago, Denver, Berkeley, and LA.
Bob: How successful were you?
Bill: At the time, we had no idea how popular these tuners would be. We thought the demand might peak and then drop off. But, as it turned out, the demand didn't drop off very much. It became clear that we couldn't continue assembling them in Dan's garage, so we moved into a small building in Cambridge. Our new company also sold some other banjo parts and accessories, and for a few years even manufactured pewter plates, cups and candle sticks, pursuing an interest of Dan's.
A few years later, the company moved to Newburyport, Mass. and in the mid-seventies, moved to Putney, Vermont, where some of Dan's family lived. During much of this time period, I was less active in the daily business of Beacon Banjo because I continued playing music and touring with various bands.
During the seventies, Bluegrass music was growing in popularity and the tuners were selling pretty well. But, in the late 1980's, sales had fallen off and Dan wanted to pursue other interests. So, I decided to buy his shares of the company and become sole owner. I moved it from Vermont to my home here in Woodstock, NY. The following year, Dan died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. It came as a shock since he seemed in such good health and had had no history of medical problems. It was just one of those things you could never expect.
Bob: So, how many have you made since production began in 1964?
Bill: Based on the registration numbers on the guarantee card we include with each pair, we are now over 27,000, which doesn't include the custom orders we have done for Gibson and the ones we currently provide to Fender and Ovation and others. During our 38 year history, I estimate the total number to be about 30,000 pairs.
Bob: How has the price varied over the years.
Bill: The first pairs sold for $50.00, which, at the time, seemed expensive to Dan and me. By March of 2000, the price had increased to $200.00. But, compared to the increase in price of a car or a gallon of gas over the past 38 years, the tuners haven't gone up nearly as much.
Bob: How well have they held up?
Bill: From our first production run, we were very pleased with their durability, so, we gave them a five year guarantee. We later lengthened that guarantee since very few were returned because of manufacturing defects. I think that if they are well cared for, the tuners could outlast us all.
Bob: I take it then, that you also service your D-Tuners?
Bill: Yes. When the tuners stop working properly, it's usually because the grease has dried out. We are using a new grease containing teflon. For a small fee, we clean and lubricate them. We also install new leather friction washers, test them out and send them back to the owner.
Bob: Has there been much competition from other makers?
Bill: These days you hardly ever see cam-style tuners anymore. There are copies of our tuners made in Germany, "Schaller," and in Japan, "Gotoh." I'm sure they have cut into our market share, but I have also heard from a lot of people who have had problems with those copies. They might be less expensive, but they don't have our quality or guarantee and they don't seem to hold up very well.
Bob: Are there any recent developments you'd like to talk about?
Bill: Earlier this year, I began selling the tuners 'direct,' taking orders by fax and phone and accepting credit cards. We are still supplying Gibson, Stelling, Fender, Deering, OME and other makers and luthiers. And, soon you will be able to purchase the D-Tuner through our web-sites: "" and "".
And, it's still fun to meet new players and hear new ways they're using the tuners. Both Allison Brown and Casey Henry have written tunes using the D-tuners. Check out Alison Brown's "Girls Breakdown" and Casey's title track from her new album - "Real Women Drive Trucks." Bela Fleck has written, recorded and arranged several original tunes and a remarkable arrangement of "Amazing Grace," using tuners on all four strings. And, check out "Katmandu" on Bela's 'Tales From the Acoustic Planet Vol. 2' album!
Bob: What are you doing these days?
Bill: Presently, I am very excited about a new book coming out that I co-authored with Jim D'Ville, titled The Natural Way to Music. It is modeled after my banjo class. You can find out more about it from "".
I also teach students here in Woodstock. And, I travel to various locations around the country to teach. In July, I will be at Alan Munde and Joe Carr's Bluegrass Camp at South Plains College in Levelland, Texas. This year alone, I have already taught at the Maryland Banjo Academy, Banjo North and Westminster College in Western Maryland. In addition, I also conduct banjo workshops at some bluegrass festivals.
I've done some recording lately. At the end of May, I went to DC to work with Frank Wakefield on several cuts for his new album. And, in April, I went to Nashville to record with a Japanese group.
Bob: In closing, is there any one story that comes to mind that you'd like to share that would wrap this interview up?
Bill: Even though it has been almost 40 years, I still stay in touch with June Hall and her husband Loring. During a recent visit, June mentioned that her great nephew was working in Nashville "in a band with a funny name." She mentioned that he played saxophone. On an outside chance, I asked: "Does he play with the FleckTones?" And, she said - "Yes! His name is Jeff Coffin."
It seems amazing to me that the great nephew of the woman who inspired me in the melodic style and the man who built my first two prototypes is playing with Bela Fleck, who does such extraordinary things with both the melodic style and the D-tuners. It sure is a small world.
Bob: Bill, thanks so much
Bill Keith has truly impacted the way the banjo is played. From the creation of the “melodic style” to his innovative “D-tuner’s”, he undoubtedly has had a tremendous impact on the way that the banjo is played, but on countless musicians spanning decades.
First and foremost, Bill Keith had an impact on Bill Monroe. Jon Weisberger in 2004 wrote “in terms both of his [Bill Monroe] band’s music and his outlook, Monroe was on the way back up from his career low point of the late ’50s and early ’60s. That was due in part to his lineup, which included Del McCoury on guitar and lead vocals, and, more importantly, dynamic young banjo whiz Bill “Brad” Keith, whose melodic style innovations allowed for a more precise rendering of tunes than Earl Scruggs’ straightforward approach.”
Keith also had a huge impact on Jerry Garcia. “During the spring of 1963, when Bill Monroe's band with Bill ("Brad") Keith on banjo came through California, almost every banjo player attending the concerts, including Jerry Garcia, was blown away by Keith's revolutionary playing. Unlike Garcia, Keith had passed through the eye of the Scruggs needle. A musically literate Amherst graduate and member of the Boston-Cambridge folk scene, he had meticulously transcribed most of Earl's compositions into tablature (banjo notation) and could reproduce them with great accuracy. At the same time he was forging his own stunning approach, which had such underpinnings as his early piano and tenor banjo training; much exposure in New England to Don Stover's classy five-string work and Paul Cadwell's exquisite classical banjo playing; and the melodic banjo licks of Nashville session wizard Bobby Thompson and Kentucky banjoist Noah Crase—although it seems that Keith's melodic style developed independently from theirs.
Garcia reacted to Keith's playing immediately. It changed his life, as it did for a multitude of banjo players worldwide, and from that point on I didn't hear Jerry work as hard on any other banjo technique. He appreciated and extended Keith's subtle rhythmic accents, themselves an extension of Scruggs's syncopation filtered through Stover, and with great diligence he set to work mastering the fretboard "Keith-style." Banjoist and capo inventor Rick Shubb characterized this as "essentially playing a higher note on a lower string." Keith's banjo approach allowed for dazzling displays of arpeggiated (strung-together) passages that swooped dramatically up and down the neck like musical parachute jumps. This newfound freedom naturally lent itself to abuse, and hard-core traditionalists tended to dislike the style. Jerry loved the risk and high adventure of it, taking special pleasure in lines that ascended the scale. And he worked at it continuously—at home, at gigs, in between students at Dana Morgan's music shop, and even in his spare time after switching back to guitar, which he did a year later.
It's hard to think that all this banjo playing did not inform his evolution as a guitarist. Jerry told Jon Sievert in a 1988 interview: "I put my first real energy in music into the five-string banjo…I slowed the records down and painstakingly listened to every lick and worked them out. Having gone through that process with banjo, when I went to electric guitar I knew how to learn it. My taste in music is kind of informed by the banjo in a way, too. I like to hear every note. I like the clarity and separation of notes." Explaining to Sievert how he felt banjo technique colored his approach to accenting on the guitar, Jerry said: "A certain amount of it is related to banjo playing, where you have problem-solving continually going on. There are three fingers moving more or less constantly, and you have to change the melodic weight from any one finger to another finger. What that really involves is rhythmic changes…
Years later Garcia was affected by Bill Keith in a different way, as were a number of other banjo players around the country, when Keith took up pedal steel guitar and they followed suit. Garcia's crystalline country steel licks on Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young's 1970 hit "Teach Your Children" reached a much wider audience than his banjo playing ever did. That track might even contain the most listened-to pedal steel solo of all time.
One result of Garcia's intensive melodic banjo practice was that he developed a rather ornate, linear solo style. He didn't concentrate on reproducing the standard southern bluegrass banjo language—especially certain conventional "tags" (repetitive end-of-line figures) and other musical punctuation—even as much as Bill Keith had, which was already not as heavily as most mainstream players." Jerry Garcia's Musical Roots: The Banjo Years - Part 3 by Sandy Rothman.
Frank Overstreet writes of Del McCoury: “Del” told how he came to join Bill Monroe in an interview on July 4, 1992: “I did not know Bill at the time, but he came through Baltimore, Maryland, and stopped at the club where I was playing banjo with Jack Cooke. He only had Bessie Lee Mauldin and Kenny Baker with him, and he wanted Jack to go with him and play a show at New York University. Jack said, ‘yeah, I’ll go,’ so he got a band to take our place at the club. Jack asked Bill if he needed a banjo picker, and he said yes, so I went along and played the banjo. After that show, Bill offered me a job playing banjo, but I was young, and didn’t know if I could cut it, you know, I was just afraid. Everything was working good with Jack Cooke, so I thought about it for about a month, and finally decided I would go to Nashville and try it. A friend of mine, Bobby Diamond, had encouraged me to go, and if I remember correctly, he took me down there. I had called Bill, and he told me to go to a room in the Clarkston Hotel. I checked in, and I guess it was the next day, he called and said, come down to the Restaurant. When I came down, there was another boy there in the lobby with Bill, and we went in to eat. I seen that he was going to audition two banjo players, because the other guy was Bill Keith, and I was really scared then. When we got done eating, Bill said, we’ll go up in the National Life and Accident insurance Company building, that was just next door, and that’s where we auditioned. When we got there, Bill told me he wanted me to audition on guitar, and Bill Keith on banjo. I thought, man, this is kind of funny, because I hadn’t played guitar very much before. I played Monroe’s guitar, and he said, well, I’m going to try both of you. I’m going to get Keith in the Union today or tomorrow, so he can do this recording session with me. He tried me out for two weeks, and then got me in the Union.” Overstreet goes on to write: William Bradford Keith, who was called “Brad” when he was a Blue Grass Boy, recorded four instrumentals with Bill Monroe on March 20, 1963. They included his revolutionary chromatic version of “Devil’s Dream.”
From your perspective, who is the best banjo player you have ever played with or seen in person? Was there ever an individual who you were in awe of? Tell us about that experience. What are the top four criteria you used to identify the best banjo player in your life time?
As of late, I personally have enjoyed watching all 9 parts of Bill’s "Bluegrass Banjo 101" session which was held at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in 2003. I agree with one viewer who said that it should have been called "Advanced Melodic Banjo and Music Theory" by Bill Keith. The sessions are available on YouTube and on Bill Keith’s website at You will quickly see that he is truly a musical genius. During part four of the workshop, Keith plays “Devil’s Dream” which is a delight to listen to. You may also enjoy his amazing rendition of Ald Land Syne using all four of his Keith Tuners. As a beginning banjo player, I can say that my brief experience with banjo has already impacted my guitar and even mandolin playing style and technique.
Where should I personally go from here? As a guitarist who loves the blues and could jam for hours just on the 12 bar blues alone and one who has been bitten by the banjo bug with a special interest in the melodic style, I can’t help but wonder how to integrate the two. I found some insight at ( where Phil Gibson, an amature musician who has played the banjo for well over 30 years, shed some light on the issue in his blog. Gibson writes: “Melodic style…is an electrifying playing style. When you first see a melodic scale played skillfully on the banjo up close, it really can be an eye opening experience. Its bold and brash presentation can contrast considerably with banjos at the other extreme, such as quiet mountain banjos as they are deftly frailed to tell a tale. There are no emotions in melodics. For the most part; this style is used for getting the point of technical skill across to the listeners. But that’s not what it’s really all about. True, the world does love the fast breaks and staccato notes of a great banjo break, in any style, for that matter. But ultimately, it’s more about musical expression of what’s inside us than about how technically skillful we can become. For example, when I think of the blues, it’s not so much of brilliant solos, carefully crafted chords and complex rhythms…I think of the blues as a true musical expression of an honest cause. Conversely, I think of melodic style as emphasizing technical prowess over conveyance of musical meaning…Why not think of melodic style the same way we think of electric guitar runs and riffs; they can be precise melodies, but they can also emulate the blues. By introducing some blues techniques into melodic style we can add another dimension to our musical expression. We can start by simply modifying out approach to creating melodic runs. It seems to make sense to just break them up a bit more, to add well-placed spaces into breaks more frequently than has been done in the past and to use dotted notes more. For more, just start listening to electric guitar solos and you’ll start to see both similarities and differences with respect to the banjo. These basic steps will help to set apart our melodic runs and can even help define our own styles in a better way. Bottom line: yes, melodic style has certainly not been synonymous with soulful playing up until now, but there is nothing to stop us from adding more feeling to our melodic style playing.” (
Bill, what are your thoughts on integrating a more soulful bluesy feel to the “Keith style?” Of course this would no longer be the “Keith style” since others have went that direction. In addition, I don’t think that the blues tempo, which is somewhat sporadic and improvisational, would be the best for a square dance like the fiddle tunes are, but what about in a jam session? I guess what I am wondering is “How do you express your emotions through the music?”

Manuel designed the poster for the Al Ras (Open Sky) Festival at Barcelona.
The 2006 event featured American banjo player Bill Keith.

Bill Keith goes out of his way to inspire the next generation of banjo players and youth. In September of 2007 Keith was asked by Roy Coates if he would be available to give a presentation of the five-string banjo to his music students at Highland High School in Highland, New York. Coates writes “His presentation was enthusiastically received by the students, many of whom with iPods galore had never heard a banjo, let alone seen one being played by a master of the instrument. During our time together in the preparation for his visit I found myself listening to some fascinating stories of Bill’s that I thought might be of interest to the Hudson Valley Bluegrass Association members and others who might come across this website. When I approached him about doing an interview for the HVBA (Hudson Valley Bluegrass Association) he again was gracious and kind enough to agree. We sat down together at the Colony Café, better known as the “Bluegrass Clubhouse,” on the cold evening of 24 January 2008 between sets. I hope you enjoy the following interview as much as I enjoyed doing it.”

Roy Coates: Can you bring us up to date with your current musical activities?

Bill Keith: Well, Roy thanks for the interview. For two and a half years now I have been playing with a group of friends here in Woodstock. We call ourselves the Saturday Night Bluegrass Band and that seems at odds with the fact we play every Thursday night here at the Colony Café in Woodstock, just a block from the center of town. I should mention that we also play here and there in the area and have done some private parties and public events out at the Lighthouse and about, across the river, here and there.

RC: Who are the members of the Saturday Night Bluegrass Band? How and when did the band get together?

BK: The band is really essentially Brian Hollander, the guitar player, Tim Kapeluck, playing mandolin, Geoff Hardin on the bass, and Guy “Fooch” Fischetti playing the fiddle. Fooch plays the pedal steel sometimes with the band but not very much. Tim Kapeluck also plays fiddle and guitar. Geoff Hardin plays fiddle too, so quite a few combinations. Brian Hollander plays dobro. We started getting together, I don’t know how many years ago, six or eight years ago at Brian’s house in the afternoon. You see, he’s the editor of the Woodstock Times and they turn the paper in on Wednesday, so Thursday he has relatively little to do until he ruffles down to the weekend edition, I guess. In any case, we used to get together at his house every Thursday afternoon and then we decided to, sort of, take it public. Two and a half years ago we started playing Thursday nights here and have been doing it ever since, with the rare exception of closure due to snowstorm or holiday.

RC: Does the band have an approach to the music you program for performances?

BK: Well, gee, I’d say we certainly try to take advantage of everyone’s strengths. Brian is pretty much the one that keeps the repertoire rotating. We do some numbers frequently and others quite infrequently, but we, sort of, have been playing long enough to know each other’s musical space and there are rarely any enormous musical surprises, so we are all comfortable in the situation, even with tunes we haven’t played a lot. The only difference is when we got together at Brian’s house, we called it rehearsal and we’d occasionally do songs two or three times to work on the parts or stuff. But now we don’t do that, we just play them once!

RC: I know that you are in demand to appear nationally, sometimes in Europe and even Japan. Do you or the band have any current plans to appear outside of the home region this coming spring and summer 2008?

BK: Well, I do a couple of other things, of course, during the day I run the Beacon Banjo business, making banjo tuning pegs and, in fact, everybody has other interests in things they do. So we rarely get out of the area as a band…and let’s say we rarely take a job we can’t drive home that night from. I also teach at various music camps…banjo camps, and I’ll be teaching one in Florida, I believe it’s in late March. Then I will be at the Banjo Camp North in Massachusetts and the Midwest Banjo Camp in Michigan a little later on. In the Fall I’ll be out at the American Banjo Camp in Washington State, just after Labor Day. I’m hoping that Grey Fox, a wonderful local festival, will have found a new home and we’ll all be getting used to that new location, so, it will seem quite different, but I am looking forward, with hope, that I will be camping out at Grey Fox one more time this year, where ever it may happen.

RC: I would like to change direction a bit and ask you about your involvement in the Muleskinner Project. Who was responsible for your involvement in the band that created a whole new, and innovative direction in the Bluegrass genre?

BK: Well, I believe it was a fellow named John Delgatto, who used to run Sierra Briar Record Company. Before that he was employed by a small television station in Hollywood. It was a UHF station, I believe, back in the time when there was VHF and UHF…and who would have known that ultra high is higher than very high…well very high seems high to me, well anyway! The idea was to get together as many Bill Monroe veterans and or staunch-fan musician fans. Richard Greene, Peter Rowan and I had all played with Bill Monroe and David Grisman of course, was all for it. Now on the TV show, I believe, Stuart Schulman was the bass player…on the television appearance that was ultimately re-released by Sierra Briar in CD format and also in video cassette. In fact I have some of them. Then, the plan was that we were to back up Bill Monroe in an appearance on the television show. So we got together and rehearsed and got a few numbers to do on our own…and so rehearsed the numbers we were pretty sure Bill would play --Foot Prints in the Snow, and Kentucky Waltz, and whatever. We had our rehearsal, and the next day we scheduled another rehearsal that Bill was supposed to come to. But we got a telephone call that he couldn’t make that rehearsal, so we added a few more tunes to what we could play on our own. The next day was a dress rehearsal in the morning and then taping in the afternoon. But Bill wasn’t there for the dress rehearsal and so we added a couple more things and of course the point in time came and he still wasn’t there, so we did the TV show on our own. I guess we had to come up with a name for it, you know, it was really going to be “Bill Monroe,” and I guess, “His Blue Grass Boys” for the day, but that didn’t happen. So we sort of became ‘Muleskinner.’ I’m not sure when the name became attached to us, but we decided we were going to try to do something together, to make a record at least. We were all involved in other musical things, so we really knew in advance we were not going to be a band and tour together, but we wanted to record. So after one studio that didn’t seem to work out, we got into a nice little studio and turned out an album which was released on Warner Brothers. The personnel were slightly different. I believe John Kahn was our bass player on the album instead of Stuart Schulman. Clarence White also played a little electric guitar and we had drums on a thing or two and I played some pedal steel guitar on it. That was about the time I was getting into steel guitar. We were all pretty happy with the way it came out, so we went our separate ways and the record came out and it didn’t seem to attract much attention at the time and Warner Brothers put it on remainder and it disappeared. I heard it was available on CD at one point, I believe, through Amazon. I’m not sure if it is still, but I should look into that and get a few. I guess, you know, the industry likes to support bands that tour, and we weren’t doing that.”

RC: I have just finished reading an excellent new book on the life of Gram Parsons. It is entitled Twenty Thousand Roads, by author David N. Meyer, Villard, NY 2007. Your name was mentioned in connection with International Submarine Band member and guitarist John Nuese. How did you become acquainted with John Nuese?

BK: He lived in northwest Connecticut, in West Cornwall, at the time, that’s where his parent’s place was. His father was a well-known book dealer and art collector and had some original Thomas Hart Benton paintings and quite a nice estate up there on a hillside in West Cornwall. John had some musical parties there, and I attended. I may have met him as early as the Indian Neck Folk Festival just east of New Haven. That could have been as early as the sixties. John played left-handed guitar and later got into electric guitar and rock and roll and ended up connecting up with these guys out in California to form the International Submarine Band. I have their album and there is some very strange stuff on it too, very funny stuff. That’s kind of how I got to know Gram Parsons through him. Not that I hung out with Gram a lot; I hung out more with John on the east coast and then for a while he had a place in Nashville. In fact he may have sold his parent’s place and kind of moved to Nashville, but I haven’t heard much from him in recent years. In any case, I did hang out with the Submarine Band guys a little bit at the Chateau Marmont, where Gram Parsons was living…sort of a hippie hotel. It didn’t seem like money was an issue and they kind of lived life to excess. For example, I was there one evening and all of a sudden Gram says, “Hey, guess what, Elvis is playing in Las Vegas tonight, so let’s all fly up there and see the show.” I’m thinking, well, you know, that’s two months of work with Bill Monroe! So, I didn’t make that trip with him, I kind of regret it now, in retrospect, because it was just dollars, but I didn’t have it at the time, that’s all.

RC: Did you ever have an opportunity, while you were in California, to jam with the ISB, Gram Parsons or John Nuese?

BK: Well with Nuese, yes, on the east coast, but there was very little jamming with them on the west coast. At one point, that’s funny, I remember I was at one party at a motel. Maria Muldaur was there and Geoff Muldaur…and in came Bob Dyan, and he picked up a guitar and was singing and playing some for about a half-hour. That was kind of nice…and while I was in a restaurant sitting out there John Lennon walked right by my table…as close as Tim is to me right now…and it was kind of a big hit, and actually, I saw, Richard Thomas who played John Boy on the Walton’s on the street…and it was funny running into people you could see on TV.

RC: Speaking of Gram Parsons, what would you say about his contribution to American music? Can you comment on his approach to music and perhaps contrast that with your own approach?

BK: That’s tough to say…I mean, I think he loved country music…original country music, but he wanted to update it, to make it his own. I think he was able to do that --he had a great voice for it and I liked his compositions. I thought he was a real creative guy. I myself, I tend to be more of an analyst and make great efforts to understand the musical structure and even, I would say, the mathematical underpinnings. Not that the math is music, but it helps. It’s a tool to measure it, to understand it, to see how it fits together. I look for patterns that the music suggests to me…I try to work with them and anticipate what’s going to happen next and try to say something about it. That’s where the little bit of creativity creeps in, I hope, at least, that’s more on the improvisation level. I don’t write a lot of stuff or make a conscious effort. I’m not that good with words.

RC: Do you enjoy teaching?

BK: Oh yes I do, I certainly do, because, well, as I said, I’ve thought about not only the music but what a banjo player needs to know to do, at least what I do, and I’ve made an effort to systematize it and break it up into bite-size chunks. I don’t like to teach by rote. I like to teach by principles and by suggesting options of how things could happen and how a student can start playing his own music. I really do enjoy the moment you live for…that moment you see the student suddenly realize something and you know that he or she has a new tool, or a new way to look at what they are doing…that it’s not something they’ll have to write down and lookup in a book later, or something. It’s something they kind of know all of a sudden. I think I really teach for the rare occasions that that happens. It’s a little too rare, but….

RC: Several years ago you published a music teaching method entitled The Natural Way To Music, An Organic Approach to Understanding & Playing Music, Jim D’Ville & Bill Keith, published by Natural Way Music, 2004. As a music educator here in the Hudson Valley I can testify to its effectiveness in teaching, among other things, the challenging and difficult concept of improvisation. I use it in my high school music classroom and at my home teaching studio with some of my more advanced private students. How did you come up with this method book?

BK: “Well, I had been teaching groups and workshops and I tried to insinuate my approach based on the circle of fifths but also include the banjo information…well, because, to my way of thinking, it’s the banjo information…the rolls and chord positions and all that stuff [that] makes it possible to do the musical message and really, in the last analysis, the musical message is, what I think, the knowledge of how the music works is the more important message in the long run. Once you’ve got the mechanics, it’s what you need to know to play. So that became the larger part of the workshops I did and trying to refine that. One of the students at a two-day event, I think we were about four hours a day for two days, and one guy was taking copious notes and I could see him making connections and realizing stuff. He came up to me afterwards and introduced himself as Jim D’Ville and said he’d like to work with me to write an instructional music book based on my method. So for about two and a half years we worked on it and we got it to its present state. That’s the book you see…and it’s really a book about music theory but in the sense that it is not theory. It’s fact. It’s really the way things are and how to operate…how to use that knowledge to make things happen.”

RC: Can you comment on your association with the HVBA?

BK: People in this area are so lucky to have the HVBA. With two monthly jam sessions and other special events there are ample opportunities to network and play music. I joined the organization as soon as I found out about it and even helped out by printing their mailing labels back in the early days. Keep an eye on their website for special events such as the possibility of instrument workshops and concerts by out-of-town artists.

RC: Bill, on behalf of the HVBA, thank you so much for your time and for this interview.

BK: Thank you.

Bill Keith and the Saturday Night Bluegrass Band went on to play another excellent set as the Colony Café fireplace crackled and the rustic, dark-wooded interior provided just the right ambiance for great Bluegrass. At the end of the evening there was a new date being discussed amongst the band members for a possible April performance at the Rosendale Café, stay tuned! Then there’s always the Colony Café, Woodstock, NY, every Thursday Evening at 8:00 pm. Come often, relax and enjoy.

Bill Keith is still going strong with an upcoming session at the American Banjo Camp in September of 2010.

Hope you enjoyed!!!

Andy Atkins

Nosferatu - Posted - 01/12/2010:  15:06:35

Look up Bobby Thompson and read more about him.

Edited by - Nosferatu on 01/12/2010 15:12:59

tombriarhopper - Posted - 01/12/2010:  15:44:33

okey dokey?

pastorharry - Posted - 01/12/2010:  16:11:09

A great banjoist in his own right, but let's give credit where credit is due for the "melodic" style.....What Hugh said!

"the melodic banjo licks of Nashville session wizard Bobby Thompson "

'Bout says it all!

Alex Z - Posted - 01/12/2010:  16:33:45

And Carroll Best, before either of those two?

It is possible that the techniques for "melodic" playing were invented in more than one place.

The KIDD - Posted - 01/12/2010:  16:43:53

Hey man , thanks for posting.. Ive enjoyed readin about Bill over the last 32 yrs, talkin with him on the PH , and just recently studied with him in OH at one of his INTENSE!!! 6 Hr workshops with 5 hr jam afterwards. Dude has still got some NRG and CAN keep up with us youngins. His knowledge of the FB boggles the mind, but the way he breaks it down opened a HUGE door for me.
Great post!

Banjocoltrane - Posted - 01/12/2010:  16:53:32

WHY does every thread about Bill Keith turn into this?
The thread is about Bill's a fan posting biographical information, an interview

It'd be nice if some people on this website could allow that to transpire without throwing in yet another "Bobby Thompson" or attempting to derail the thread with a silly who created "melodic banjo" war.


BTW, for anyone interested in Bill Keith be sure to Look up Bluegrass Breakdown and Roanoake with Bill Monroe and Bill's some of the finest banjo playing ever recorded, and afterwards you probably won't even care where "melodics" came from.

Edited by - Banjocoltrane on 01/12/2010 16:59:12

steve davis - Posted - 01/12/2010:  17:13:43

I've always been amazed and delighted by Bill Keith's playing.
I wish I could play that good.

banjoken - Posted - 01/12/2010:  17:29:05

Originally posted by Banjocoltrane

WHY does every thread about Bill Keith turn into this?
The thread is about Bill's a fan posting biographical information, an interview

Exactly Jody, it really is ashame.

pick1936 - Posted - 01/12/2010:  19:26:21

I am in awe at the very long, and detailed write up,, I have most of Bills' pickin on cassette, and L.P.,,, and He was, and IS very very good, BUT Not as versatile, Rolling, and solid as Bobby Th..ompson, Now don't get mad, Thats The way I feel, and JusT My Opinion..

(Fastest Rabbit Dog In Carter Couny today) Tom T Hall Tune From bluegrass album, 1972, Bobby takes The longest,, winding,, Complicated,, and fantasticl Melodic Run I have Ever heard.

Nechville. In Higginsville.

banjojason88 - Posted - 01/12/2010:  20:54:11

Thanks for sharing this article. I really enjoyed the part about the D-tuners. Where does that interview come from, cause I would like to see the pictures as described by Bill.

Flying Eagle - Posted - 01/12/2010:  21:00:05

Originally posted by Banjocoltrane

WHY does every thread about Bill Keith turn into this?
The thread is about Bill's a fan posting biographical information, an interview

It'd be nice if some people on this website could allow that to transpire without throwing in yet another "Bobby Thompson" or attempting to derail the thread with a silly who created "melodic banjo" war.


BTW, for anyone interested in Bill Keith be sure to Look up Bluegrass Breakdown and Roanoake with Bill Monroe and Bill's some of the finest banjo playing ever recorded, and afterwards you probably won't even care where "melodics" came from.

And just think, the Renophiles haven't even chimed in yet. He was better'n all those guys ya know... and Earl too!!

Goldstarman - Posted - 01/12/2010:  21:00:10

Jody I was thinking the exact same thing.

Goldstarman - Posted - 01/12/2010:  21:07:42

Jody I was thinking the exact same thing.

Ronnie - Posted - 01/12/2010:  23:43:44

I am not getting into this, but some people still argue that Henry Ford invented the automobile.

pastorharry - Posted - 01/13/2010:  01:13:10

Come'on Ronnie, everybody knows it was the Wright bros.!!

John Allison - Posted - 01/13/2010:  05:45:31

Good article about a fine picker and a very personable individual. I met Bill Keith in June of 2006 at the Midwest Banjo Camp and enjoyed many of his classes there and at the past 4 camps as well as his jam sessions and playing at the faculty concerts. Nice tribute and thanks for the post.

And Harry, the Wright Brothers invented the cough drop not the automobile.

gottasmilealot - Posted - 01/13/2010:  06:04:07

The topic is Bill Keith. Off topic posts hidden. If someone wants to start a topic on the origin of the melodic playing style, that's fine.


robbif - Posted - 01/13/2010:  06:07:35


Welcome to the BHO and thanks for mentioning my 2003 Grey Fox video of Bill's workshop.

You can also see him in my 2008 and 2009 Banjo Masters Workshop videos.

It was only after the 2008 Grey Fox that I was surprised and honored that Bill
(and his banjo picker webmaster Thor) had also placed the 2003 and 2008 videos
on his website!

You can also hear the Bill Keith Band in my 1981 recording from the Towne Crier in Beekman, NY.

Bill also participated in the pilot program for the Bluegrass in the Schools program by the Hudson Valley Bluegrass Association.

I found Bill to be a very friendly and approachable guy with an obvious load of talent
and musical knowledge.

Being a longtime frustrated banjo picker who hasn't disciplined himself to practice regularly, I'm still struggling to learn Bill's Devil's Dream and Sailor's Hornpipe after they were introduced to me by my mentor Bob Isenhour over 40 years ago!

Edited by - robbif on 01/13/2010 06:14:21

stelling man - Posted - 01/13/2010:  06:45:17

Everyone knows Bill Keith Invented the Melodic style of banjo playing, so why should there be any contraversy..


steve davis - Posted - 01/13/2010:  07:22:03

I've seen Bill play, twice.The first time was at the Brockton Performing Arts Center.
When I arrived with my wife and two friends (A bit late)we found standing room only.
We were met at the door by an usher who asked, "Four?".I nodded."Follow me",he said.
He led us to the front row seats to the right and quietly said "Mr. Rooney's parents couldn't
be here,tonight.Please enjoy their seats".

Wow...Bill,Jim and Peter Rowan (I don't remember the bass player's name) just a few feet away.
"Hero" sensory overload.

Second time was at Johnathan Swift's in Cambridge.He,Tony and Bela
played the cuts from their new album"Fiddle Tunes for Banjo"...Great

Edited by - steve davis on 01/13/2010 07:44:59

robbif - Posted - 01/13/2010:  07:30:18

A few years ago I went to see Béla Fleck at the Bardavon Theater in Poughkeepsie, NY. There was Bill just standing on the sidewalk in front. Near the end of the show, Béla mentioned that he was a little nervous since his mentor, Bill Keith, was in the audience.

Thor - Posted - 01/13/2010:  08:13:39

While I appreciate (and share) your enthusiasm for Bill's contributions to the banjo world, over half of your post (the Bob Kerr interview) can be found on Bill's web site:

Also, you might want to be careful when you post stuff like this:

Scruggs himself became a partner in the venture for a while, and the product was known as "Scruggs-Keith Pegs" even though Bill Monroe had no part in designing the pegs.

...obviously this is a mistake.

Banjocoltrane - Posted - 01/13/2010:  17:50:28

Originally posted by gottasmilealot

The topic is Bill Keith. Off topic posts hidden. If someone wants to start a topic on the origin of the melodic playing style, that's fine.


Thank you

robbif - Posted - 01/13/2010:  18:07:18

Actually, somebody did start a melodic style topic recently.

aatkins - Posted - 01/13/2010:  19:00:09

The D-Tuner interview is on Keith's website Here is the reference: "D-Tuner Interview Transcript Bill Keith - Woodstock, New York July 19, 2000 (Revised: 6/13/01)" Hope this helps. It's nice to hear the comments about the posting and hear from the man who actually took the video. I just got started picking and I can't stop. Any CD's that are a must have?

Have a great day.


Tango_grass - Posted - 01/13/2010:  21:23:48

Bill is one of the coolest guys and best musicians I know. He has been very kind to me over the past few years and his encouragement is something I'll cherish for years to come.

If you have a question, ask him, I'm sure you'll know about it in the end then anyone on your block!!

aatkins - Posted - 01/14/2010:  15:49:08

I couldn't agree more. I emailed him some of the info I had gathered from various sources and asked him to proof read my document, which he did and emailed me back within 24 hours with his personal phone number - he told me to call him anytime. Now that's a good old boy. I have not called, but it's the point that matters - Bill is a great guy.

steve davis - Posted - 01/14/2010:  16:00:23

When I ordered a set of tuners and a Jones pickup in '08 he talked on the phone for a while answering questions and talking banjos.He's super.

madkelt2004 - Posted - 01/15/2010:  10:00:41

Bill Keith fans might want to think about attending the Suwannee Banjo Camp that will be in High Springs, Florida in March.
Learn from and jam with Bill under the live oaks at a very good banjo camp!

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