Bluegrass Banjo

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Bill Keith (b. 1939 in Boston, Mass.) ranks among the greatest innovators in the history of the five string banjo. Not only is he considered to be the father of Melodic style banjo playing, but he is the inventor of Keith Tuners, the first modern tuning pegs that allow accurate movement from one note to another on a single string.

Keith began his musical career on the piano, but he learned to play a tenor banjo after he saw Pete Seeger play one with the Weavers, a popular folk music group during the 1950’s and 60’s. Keith soon moved from tenor to five string banjo and, with his partner, Jim Rooney, performed at bars and folk clubs throughout the New England area. In 1962, Keith won the banjo contest at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, an achievement which did not go unnoticed by Bill Monroe. When Monroe introduced Keith to the audience at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, he said, “I don’t think there’s a man in the country that can touch this boy when it comes to playing’ the five string banjo.”

Bill Keith’s first professional job as a musician was playing banjo with Red Allen and mandolin player Frank Wakefield. He recorded with Allen and Wakefield for the Folkways label. He next played with Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, but as Brad Keith rather than Bill. Monroe wanted only one player named Bill in his band, so the men settled on the name Brad for Keith by shortening Bradford, Bill Keith’s actual middle name. From Monroe’s band, Keith moved to the Jim Kweskin Jug Band in 1964. He played banjo and guitar with Kweskin and learned pedal steel guitar as well, but Kweskin’s band split up in 1968. Keith then joined Great Speckled Bird, Ian and Sylvia Tyson’s country rock band, where he played both banjo and steel guitar. After about a year with Great Speckled Bird, he went on tour with first Jonathan Edwards and then Judy Collins, but soon decided to form a band of his own. That band was Muleskin, and its members were David Grisman, Clarence White, Richard Greene, and Peter Rowan. Keith spent much of the Mule skin period doing session work and touring in Europe and the UK. He later left Mule skin to continue touring British clubs with his long-time associate, Jim Rooney. He and Rooney would eventually form the New Blue Velvet Band and continue to tour and record with that group. Bessie Lee Mauldin, Bill Monroe, Melissa Monroe, Joe Stuart, Bill Keith and Del McCoury at Bean Blossom, October 13, 1963.

Bill Keith is now a living banjo legend. In addition to his ongoing work as a performer and as the manufacturer/vendor of Keith Tuners, Keith has written several banjo tuition and tablature books and recorded instructional tapes to accompany them. He did all the music, tablature, exercises, and the recording for "Earl Scruggs & the 5-string banjo".. He currently owns and operates the Beacon Banjo Company in Woodstock, New York.


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