By Michael Hofer
© 2001

A New Direction For Banjos

The popularity of the Scruggs style of playing has continuted to escalate throughout the world of banjo playing, but a new direction that began unfolding largely do to the work and exposure of this man Bill Keith.

Bill Keith
Bill Keith
Crazy Creek

Bill Keith first introduced melodic/chromatic banjo playing to the world in 1963 when he became a member of Bill Monroes Bluegrass Boys. This yankee from Boston, was the first non southerner ever in Bills band. He brought a whole new dimension to banjo playing introducing his new style, which virtually steals note for note what a fiddle player plays. This new style named after him, much like Scruggs style is named after Earl. And like Earl he didnt entirely invent it, but he sure did the most to develope and popularize it from infancy.

Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Bill Kieth began taking banjo lessons at a young age, and also learned to play piano and ukulele. During adolescence, he played in a few Dixieland bands, but by the late '50s, became interested in folk music after listening to such inspirational artists as Pete Seeger and Earl Scruggs. Keith developed his own unique style, which became known as the melodic, chromatic or "Keith" picking style. This distinct technique was borne of his desire to play fiddle melodies on his instruments. Keith unlike Reno and Addock didnt confine his picking to single strings he also included using multiple strings in his playing. This minor differance has been a source of debate amongst banjoists and fans for years. As to who should be credited for what style, purists will argue that single string melodic banjo is not "Keith" but "Reno" style. Don himself made no such claims nor has Eddie Adock beefed about not having a "style" named for his work. Such distinctions are left to the banjo fans to decide for themselves. Most will not dispute though Bill Keith put melodic banjo on the map as much as Earl Scruggs put 3 finger picking on the map.

What Is Keith Style Banjo?

Keith style is a melodic/chromatic style banjo playing and is without a doubt one of the most vicious types to learn. Unlike Scruggs style using one melody note and 3 fill in notes in roll patterns, every single note is a melody note, and when you are playing an average speed of 120 beats per minute, that translates to about 8 notes per second for a banjoist to play. To say the least mapping out the music is much more difficult than using roll patterns. However its one of the most beautiful and exciting types of banjo playing that there is. And its opening doors for music that could never before be created on banjos.

In 1958, Bill teamed up with Jim Rooney and began playing at local coffeehouses and on campus. Eventually they hooked up with promoter Manny Greenhill and together founded the Connecticut Folklore Society, which sponsored a series of traveling campus concerts throughout New England. After graduating at Amherst College, Bill spent a short time in the Air Force Reserves, then afterwards began learning to make banjos. He formed a new band called the Kentuckians. He was approached by Earl Scruggs in 63 to help lay out the tab for his instructional book. Later that year, he and a buddy developed the peg that allowed tuning changes rapidly and Earl lent his name to the product. Also in 63 Bill joined Monroes Bluegrass Boys for an 8 month stint where he introduced his new style of playing to the world.
After he left Monroes band, he has continued to play music in several bands, worked for Judy Collins, as a staff member of Frets Magazine for a time and continues today to be a living icon as a banjo pioneer.

Bill plays on a top tension banjo made by Great Lakes a banjo company no longer in business. Great Lakes was out of Ann Arbor Michigan.

Bills discography record is extensive a link to it is posted on the MORE ABOUT page.