20 December 1939
Boston, Suffolk County, Massachusetts, United States
23 October 2015 (aged 75)
Bill Keith ( William Bradford Keith, December 20, 1939 – October 23, 2015) was a five-string banjoist who made a significant contribution to the stylistic 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."
Keith was born in Boston, Massachusetts. He attended Amherst College and graduated in 1961. In 1963 he became a member of Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys. Keith's recordings and performances during these nine months with Monroe permanently altered banjo playing, and his style became an important part of the playing styles of many banjoists. After leaving the Bluegrass Boys, he joined "Jim Kweskin Jug Band" playing plectrum banjo. He began playing the steel guitar and soon after 1968, found himself working together with Ian and Sylvia and Jonathan Edwards. In the 1970s Keith recorded for Rounder Records. Over the years he performed with several other musicians, such as Clarence White and David Grisman in Muleskinner, Tony Trischka, Jim Rooney and Jim Collier. Today, Keith style is still regarded as modern or progressive in the context of bluegrass banjo playing. He was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame at an awards ceremony in Raleigh, NC on October 1, 2015 and delivered a heartfelt address on that occasion, just three weeks prior to his death. He died of cancer on October 23, 2015.
Keith made a mechanical contribution to the banjo, as well. He 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 extra 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". Known today simply as Keith Pegs, they remain the state of the art, and Bill Keith continued to manufacture and market them personally as the primary product of his own company, the Beacon Banjo Company, until his death. Beacon Banjo tuners continue their proud tradition, now in the hands of his son, Martin.
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