Bill Keith: In Memoriam


Sadly, Bill Keith died on 23 October, 2015.  He was to me first a banjo god, then a banjo hero, and ultimately, a friend.

Bill was well known and highly regarded in the banjo community, not only for his bringing melodic-style play to the forefront of three-finger style, but for his co-invention with the late Jim Bump of Keith Tuners which not only obviated having an extra set of cam actuators on the peghead (“Scruggs tuners”), but made possible the accurate on-the-fly retuning of all four strings. Heck, if you want to go all out, install 4 Keith Tuners in addition to a set of Scruggs tuners–talk about some interesting possibilities!

Furthermore, it was Bill Keith who took it upon himself to tab out the body of Earl Scruggs’s recorded work and then convinced him to publish the book Earl Scruggs and the 5-String Banjo.  Unfortunately, their joint effort led to a financial disagreement and a lawsuit, and while they did settle, they never reconciled.

In fact, it was their differences that leads me to write this story about Bill. When I was operating my banjo-centric music store, ZEPP Country Music, Inc., I sold Keith Tuners, Keith Tuning Pegs, and Bill Keith-branded strings.

One evening, while I was on the telephone chatting with Bill, he lamented that he had recently been at a bluegrass event also attended by Earl Scruggs, who was to be honored one evening.  He told me that he had taken with him all his hand-written transcriptions for the book to show Earl and mentioned even taking along his first edition hardcover copy of the book, all in hopes of reestablishing communication with Earl*.

He then told me that his was a rare copy of the book whereupon and wherein Earl’s name had been misspelled!  I was curious, so he explained that in the first printing, “SCRUGGS” had been printed in a rather stylized font, and no one had noticed that it had been misspelled “SGRUGGS” wherever that font had been used.

That happened to be the cover, the dust jacket, and the title page inside, which is effectively the dust cover illustration in black and white.

scruggs_titleAccording to Bill, the first person to notice was–naturally–Mr. Scruggs himself.

While Bill was telling me his story, I had wandered back to my teaching studio where I kept my personal hardcover copy of the book.  Guess what?  Mine, too, is the misspelled edition.  I took it with me the next time Bill and I would be together, and asked him to sign it.  He pulled his copy from his car trunk and showed me not just Earl’s signature in it, but the stamp where it had been entered as evidence for the suit Bill filed against Scruggs seeking remuneration for his work.

As he signed my book, he laughed and said: “Be sure Earl doesn’t see this, or he’ll never sign your copy!”.


I always figured that I’d simply present it to Earl with a blank page open, but I just never had the chance, I’m afraid.

The real irony, I suppose, is that I’d had my copy of the book for over 30 years at that point, and I had never noticed the misspelling!

Adieu, Bill, my friend; you shall be sorely missed.

*Bill was very disappointed, because he told me that when he and Earl came upon each other in the hall, Earl would neither look at him nor acknowledge his presence.

The Dreaded Bum-Diddy–What’s Up With That?

With his seminal, 1948 publication (the first edition was mimeographed!) of How to Play the 5-String Banjo, the late Pete Seeger created the first book aimed at teaching “folk” style banjo.  I.e., his book was not about classical style for the parlor and not about the minstrel style taught in the late 19th Century; it was about how everyday folks in the mountains and on the farms and in the mines played their traditional and homespun music.

Happily, the book is still in publication ( and covers many aspects of playing the instrument.  It’s well worth having and makes for some very interesting reading.

In the book, Seeger presented a right-hand technique that he referred to as “a basic strum.”  He used this style frequently as accompaniment to his voice, and many of us old “folkies” learned it from his book back in the ‘50s and ‘60s.  The style is now often called “up-picking” or “Seeger-style.” 

bum-dittyIt’s quite a simple approach:  One picks upward on a single string, then a beat later brushes a chord down across several strings using the back of one’s ring (or other) finger, which is in turn  followed a half beat later by the sounding of the 5th string downward with the thumb. 

For those who read music, this repeated quarter-note-followed-by-two-eighth-notes is an easy pattern of “one two and three four and”, but many banjo players and would-be banjo players cannot read music.  So, to explain this rhythmic pattern, Seeger called it the “bum-titty bum-titty” pattern.  There are many verbal things that suffice to demonstrate this oh-so-common rhythm; one of my favorites is “cheese hotdog cheese hotdog.”  

Give a listen:

Unfortunately, Seeger’s being the only book available until ca. 1970, many of us learned this pattern and then taught it to others. Furthermore, in his introduction to clawhammer (which he called “frailing”), he applied the same rhythm with the only difference between his up-picked “basic strum” and down-picked “frailing” being whether the single notes picked on the first and third beats were picked upward or downward.

So, I and lots of other people–including many authors of the subsequent method books over the next few decades–learned clawhammer using the “bum-diddy” rhythm, ensuring its place in the banjo lexicon (note that the term has been “cleaned up,” lest someone take offense at the term “titty”).

Fast forward a few decades to Dan Levenson who astutely observed that clawhammer players of old-time music don’t actually play “bum-diddy bum-diddy” all that often. Instead, they tend to play what is sometimes referred to a “bump-a-diddy” or simbump-a-diddyply “diddy diddy diddy diddy,” i.e. a stream of eighth notes (occasionally interrupted by leaving out an eighth note for emphasis). 

Here’s what this sounds like:

Dan started preaching his “Ain’t No Bum-Diddy” observation, and it has really helped people to learn clawhammer far more easily.  So, you’ll find that many modern pedagogical clawhammer approaches don’t even teach bum-diddy, and you’ll also find many who started with the bum-diddy bemoan that fact and the difficulties that it caused in moving forward, especially regarding the incorporation of a technique called “drop thumb.”

Even Pete Seeger himself said he would not have started with that pattern were he able to do it all over!  So if you’re just starting out and want to learn to play old-time banjo, do yourself a favor: find a teacher or method that isn’t based on bum-diddy, and teaches you how to get right into clawhammer as it’s most often played.