Bill Keith - Remembering an Icon

by David Bandrowski

This past Friday, October 23rd we lost a true banjo innovator and icon.  Bill Keith passed away at his home in Woodstock, New York, at the age of 75 following a battle with cancer.

Bill Keith was largely credited with inventing or perfecting the melodic style of banjo.  There are the big 3 styles of 3 finger banjo playing, the Scruggs Style, the Reno style, and the Melodic or "Keith" style.  The style that he perfected allowed him to play fiddle tunes note for note.  Bill Monroe heard his playing backstage at the Grand Old Opry in 1963 and hired him to join The Bluegrass Boys.

Besides his ground breaking banjo playing, Bill also was an inventor.  He perfected the Scruggs tuners and created the Keith Tuners that would do the same job as the Scruggs tuners, allowing you to tune to a different pitch and back mid song, but the Keith tuners did not cause you to drill extra holes in the peghead of your banjo.  These went on to become the D tuners of choice for banjoists.

Personally, I feel honored to have spent time with Bill.  After Hurricane Katrina, my wife, dog, and I relocated from New Orleans to Woodstock, New York.  Bill lived just up the road from me and I would often walk over to his house and try to pick up all of his wisdom about playing the banjo and music.  Those lessons really opened up my mind and fingers to all of the possibilities the banjo had.  Those are days I'll never forget.

Bill was inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame at this year’s IBMA convention in Raleigh. He was there on stage in a wheelchair to accept his induction and delivered a moving acceptance address which everyone there felt privileged to hear. Everyone there knew that this was going to be their last time together but it was so wonderful to know that he lived to be there to accept the justly deserved acknowledgement for his contribution to music.

On behalf of myself and everyone at the Deering Banjo Company, we will truly miss our dear friend.


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