(photo copyright Fred Robbins, used by permission)
William Bradford Keith (12/20/1939-10/23/2015) joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys in 1963. Bill Monroe called him Brad Keith because he didn’t want another person named Bill in the band. What he did want though is for people to hear the new kind of banjo playing that Bill Keith had come up with- something that was later dubbed Keith style, or Melodic Style. What that means in simple terms is that a person playing in melodic style plays all the notes of a song whereas a person playing Scruggs style generally does not. Bill Keith opened up entirely new ideas and possibilities for banjo players everywhere when he came up with this style. He was a master at playing fiddle tunes and could play them literally like no other banjo player.
Butch Robins talks about Bill Keith and melodic playing in this video starting at about the 7:15-12:50 mark. He even shows us literally the differences between Scruggs and Melodic style as he plays Cripple Creek in Scruggs and Melodic style. Since Butch does a much better job explaining that, I will let him do it for me- https://vimeo.com/111785340
Bill Keith was an accomplished banjoist before he came up with the melodic style, in fact I would be willing to bet most people who play Scruggs style banjo do so in many ways because of the efforts or Bill Keith transcribing many Scruggs solos. These transcriptions were used in the Earl Scruggs instructional book that was practically required reading for beginning players.
After leaving the Blue Grass Boys, Bill Keith joined Jim Kweskin Jug Band and played mostly plectrum banjo (a very chord based method of playing as opposed to melody note type playing) and after that he joined forces with David Grisman and played jazz for a while. As his knowledge of music theory grew, so did the musical selections he tackled and recorded. Jazz standards such as Duke Ellington’s Caravan,
Felix Arndt’s jazz classic Nola ( here is a video of banjo masters Ryan Cavanaugh and Bela Fleck, both hugely inspired and motivated by Bill Keith, playing Nola),
Dizzy Gillespie’s A Night in Tunisia http://
and Irving Jordan’s Jordu were recorded and played by Keith and his bandmates. The banjo was once again exciting people in new ways and inspiring a generation of players in different ways than Earl Scruggs had.
Bill is not only known for his banjo playing, but also for a handy little bit of banjo equipment magic known as the Keith Tuners. These are specially made banjo tuners (the things you tune a string with, not the things you make sure your banjo is in tune) that allow you to change the note your string is tuned to in a quick and accurate way. Keith Tuners are used by players all around the world.
Bill Keith did not ever just sit back and rest on his laurels, he was a true musician and good guy and could be found giving music theory workshops and attending jam festivals up until nearly the end of his life. Fred Robbins, thankfully captured many of these workshops and generously shares them with the world– He was a musical genius, a giver of knowledge and an inspiration until the end. On October 1, 2015 he was inducted into the IBMA Hall of fame.
On October 23, 2015 he lost his battle with cancer. He will be truly missed.
Thank you Bill Keith. Rest in peace brother.
So, in celebration of his life and musical gifts to us, let’s have a listen to one of his recordings. I like this one because it has it all, jazz (Caravan and Jordu), Celtic (Rickett’s Hornpipe), Keith tuners (Auld Lang Syne) and bluegrass (Farewell Blues and others)-
Something auld, something newgrass, something borrowed, something bluegrass
|Publisher:||Somerville, MA : Rounder Records, ©1998.|
Location: Recordings-CDs- Level 4
Call Number: M1630.18.K45 S66 1998