Beacon Banjo Company

Bluegrass Hall of Fame Member Bill Keith Dead at 75

Banjo Innovator Worked With Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys and Others

Banjo stylist Bill Keith, elected earlier this month to the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame, died Friday (Oct. 23) at his home in Bearsville, New York, at the age of 75 following a battle with cancer.

William Bradford Keith was born Dec. 20, 1939, in Boston. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy and studied French literature at Amherst College.

After having studied ukulele and piano as a child, he became interested in the banjo, first the tenor version of the instrument. In junior high and prep school, he played in various Dixieland bands.

He became interested in folk music while in college, a curiosity led him to the five-string banjo and to Pete Seeger’s seminal instructional book, How to Play the Five-String Banjo.

He was soon experimenting with creating his own distinctive sounds. Early on, he succeeded in developing a flexible, melodic style that enabled him to play fiddle tunes virtually note for note.

While at Amherst, he met fellow musician (and later author) Jim Rooney. The two would play together and in various bands over the next decades. It was Rooney who inducted Keith into the Hall of Fame. The two were also founders of the Connecticut Folklore Society.

Through a mutual acquaintance, banjo master Earl Scruggs invited Keith to Nashville to assist in writing the tablature for Scruggs’ own instruction book, Earl Scruggs and the 5-String Banjo. In addition, Keith was pivotal in developing the pitch-changing device that became known as the “Scruggs tuner.” Scruggs used the effect on songs such as “Flint Hill Special” and “The Randy Lynn Rag.”

When Bill Monroe heard Keith playing the old fiddle tune “The Devil’s Dream” backstage at the Grand Ole Opry in 1963, he immediately offered him a job in his band. Keith accepted, and for the eight months he played with the Blue Grass Boys, Monroe referred to him as “Brad,” on the grounds that it would be confusing to have two Bills in the band.

It was with Monroe that Keith played his first Newport Folk Festival gig, although he would subsequently perform at that venue with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band.

Among the other groups and artists Keith played with were the Blue Velvet Band (with Rooney, Eric Weissberg and Richard Greene), Ian & Sylvia, Judy Collins, Jonathan Edwards and John Herald.

At various times, he recorded either as a soloist or co-artist for Prestige Folklore, Rounder, Green Linnet and MCA Records.

Keith moved to Woodstock, New York, in 1970. At the time of his death, he was the owner and operator of the Beacon Banjo Company there.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.