Bill Keith first tipped his trademark drivers cap to bluegrass audiences at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in 1961. He entered and won its prestigious banjo contest by playing two standard fiddle tunes, Devil‘s Dream and Sailor’s Hompipe, with a new and unique approach to bluegrass banjo. What Bill demonstrated on that historic day was a way to duplicate melodic arrangements of fiddle tunes for bluegrass banjo. Prior to this new technique, fiddle tunes were played in the typical Scruggs style and only approximated the melody--about two notes per measure.
A critical analysis of Bill Keith’s banjo technique and musical ability is a daunting task. I can only give my personal observations and insights about his playing techniques and musical abilities. Most of Bill Keith’s talent comes from possessing an extraordinary musical intelligence and endless curiosity. Bill is contemplative and critical about his approach to the 5-string banjo as well as to music in general. He has an in-depth knowledge of scales, modes, and chord theory. His open-minded acceptance and love of all forms of music such as jazz, classical, popular, etc. is the source of his endless inventiveness.
Bill discovered, early in his career, a way to play fiddle tunes and melodic lines by searching for an adjacent string to play a particular note. He wanted to find a smoother way of playing melody than Don Reno’s single string approach. This was accomplished by first laying out the correct left hand configurations or chord positions and then using multidirectional right hand rolls to meet the demands of the tune...
Jack R. Baker
Banjo Newsletter, December 1997