Bill Keith: IBMA Distinguished Achievement Award

Bill Keith’s Distinguished Achievement Award from the International
Bluegrass Music Association deserves a separate post of its own, I think.

Bill is best known for developing the “melodic style” of banjo playing,
the most important and widely used extension of Earl Scruggs’
three-finger banjo technique. Melodic banjo playing uses ingeniously
coordinated right- and left-hand fingerings to allow the player to
execute fast scales and scale-based passages smoothly and efficiently.
Fifty years later, banjo pickers are still playing licks that Bill
devised, and melodic banjo playing is still referred to as “Keith
style.” I think it’s fair to say that without Bill to show the way, we
would not have the music of Ben Eldridge, Courtney Johnson, John
Hartford, Alan Munde, Tony Trischka, Béla Fleck, Scott Vestal, Jens
Kruger, Alison Brown, Noam Pikelny, and many others. Bluegrass music
would be much the poorer without Bill’s contributions and musical

His second great contribution was his work transcribing Earl Scruggs’
recorded banjo solos. His transcriptions eventually formed the heart of
“Earl Scruggs And The 5-String Banjo” (often called “the Scruggs book”).
Published in 1968, at a time when interest in bluegrass banjo was
spreading beyond the southern states where it had emerged, the Scruggs
book became an immensely important resource. Countless banjo players
have relied on its tablatures and exercises (also penned by Bill) to
help them unravel the mysteries of the style. Forty–five years later it
remains an essential part of any serious picker’s library.

Somewhat less monumental, but still noteworthy, is his invention of the
Keith peg, an ingenious mechanism designed to replace the cam “D-tuners”
that Scruggs had used for quick and accurate retuning in “Flint Hill
Special,” “Foggy Mountain Chimes,” and other tunes. Finally, Bill has
been a highly visible presence in the sphere of bluegrass banjo
instruction, with several books and videos to his credit. He frequently
teaches at bluegrass and banjo camps throughout the country, and at
festival workshops. He remains approachable and encouraging to young
players, always willing to jam and discuss the music that he lives and

The criteria for the Distinguished Achievement Award specify that it
should be awarded to individuals who have “proven to be forerunners in
their particular field of endeavor, and/or fostered bluegrass music’s
image with developments that will broaden the music’s recognition and
accessibility.” I can think of no one who deserves the honor more than
Bill Keith.

Ira Gitlin

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