They say it’s all been done in music. And whoever “they” are, I’m afraid they’re probably correct. But we’re only a generation removed from when pioneering and innovative musicians were rewriting the ways of musical method; even in the set-in-stone, tried-and-true way of traditional bluegrass.
Bill Keith many be known by just as many people by the name “Brad” Keith because of the nine months he spent as a member of Bill Monroe’s illustrious Bluegrass Boys in 1963. Though it was a very short stint in Bill Monroe history, the result was some of the most iconic, groundbreaking, and beloved bluegrass banjo recordings ever captured, regularly prefaced by Bill Monroe introducing “Mr. Brad Keith” on the banjo.
July 1963: Two Days at Newport, Live at Mechanics Hall, and some of the Smithsonian Folkways compilations covering Bill Monroe include Bill “Brad” Keith’s banjo work, and depending on who you talk to, it could be considered one of the best eras in Bluegrass Boys history. It was also the same period guitar player Del McCoury was briefly in the Bluegrass Boys. And when the rest of the bluegrass world heard those recordings, it changed the sound of the banjo forever.
William Bradford Keith was born on December 20th, 1939 in Boston, spent his youth in Massachusetts, attending Amherst college, and graduating two years before he would join Bill Monroe out on the road. In less than a year with the band, he would become the most influential banjo player since Earl Scruggs.
Taking Scruggs’ three-finger picking style and augmenting it to where all the finger strikes hit on the melody, Bill Keith was able to play some of the sweetest, most compelling banjo runs ever heard up to that point. Without getting too technical, Keith innovated a way to play fiddle tunes (the foundation of bluegrass) on a banjo. Where Scruggs would strike each string on a run up and down a scale, including notes that worked, but were not part of the melody, Keith only stuck to the melodic tones, and the result was honey to the ears. It later became known as the “Keith” style of banjo picking.
And that wasn’t the only innovation that Keith had a hand in, and helped change the style and tone of the banjo in bluegrass and beyond. Bill designed a style of tuning pegs that allowed the player to change the open tuning of a string while playing, making a note either drop down, or raise up to give it extra “twang” during a run. Once again, it was an improvement off of a similar tuning set up first pioneered by Earl Scruggs, and Keith’s was better. But there was no competition between the two men. Scruggs partnered with Keith and the tuners became known as the “Scruggs-Keith Pegs.” Today they’re known just as “Keith” pegs manufactured by Keith’s Beacon Banjo Company, which is still in operation under the management of Keith’s son Martin.
Bill “Brad” Keith also played with scores of other notable musicians over his life, including Clarence White, David Grisman, Tony Trischka, Jim Rooney, Peter Rowan, and performed on the much-underrated Band-style song by The Bee Gees “Marley Purt Drive.”
Bill was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame on October 1st, and despite his advanced age and health issues, was able to attend the ceremony in Raleigh, North Carolina and deliver a speech. He was also honored at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival on July 17th by some of the greatest living banjo players, including Bela Fleck, Tony Trischka, and Ryan Cavanaugh who described Keith as the “banjo Jedi master.”
William Bradford Keith passed away on Friday, October 23rd, mere weeks after his Hall of Fame induction. He was 75-years-old.