D-Tuner Interview Transcript
Bill Keith – Woodstock, New York
July 19, 2000 (Revised: 6/13/01)
Portions of this interview published in Banjo Newsletter Vol. XXVIII No.10 August 2001
By Bob Kerr
The modern-day bluegrass banjo has gone through some fascinating historical transformations from the hollowed-out gourd instruments that came to America from Africa via slave trade.
Through the needs of the music, arguably, there has been no greater impact on the playing and creative potential of the modern bluegrass banjo than the addition of the D-Tuner or D-Tuning Peg. With this in mind, I had a chance to talk with Bill Keith about his tuners, the history behind them, how they came about and how they work.
Bob: Bill, first, thank you for taking the time to do this interview, as well as to personally install your second and third string D-tuners on my banjo … which is what inspired me to ask you for this interview.
Bill: You’re more than welcome.
Bob: Before we dive into the D-tuners, could you share your earlier musical history?
Bill: Sure. I can’t remember not being interested in music. My first instrument was a plastic ukulele. Then I took piano lessons for several years and in the process learned how to read music. During my early teens (living in the Boston area) I listened to the ‘clear-channel, late night radio stations’ that broadcast country music from the south and the midwest. Those stations are where I first heard the banjo. From the very first time I heard it, I loved that banjo sound so much that I decided to switch from the piano to the banjo.
Living in the Boston suburbs in the mid-1950′s, I went to a local music store to find out about renting one and taking lessons. Since I didn’t know anything about banjos and didn’t know the music, I ended up renting a short-necked tenor banjo with four strings. I took lessons for a year and a half, learning from sheet music. Then, I ran into a guy who played the plectrum banjo, which had a longer neck and different tuning. My tenor teacher wasn’t familiar with plectrum tuning, so he gave me a good book to start with and told me I was on my own. Within a couple of years, I was playing for square dances and in a small dixie-land band.
In the summer of 1957, I saw and heard someone playing a five string banjo and immediately realized that it was a 5-string banjo I had heard years before. So, less than a month after that, as an entering freshman at Amherst College, I bought my first five string banjo and got the Pete Seeger instructional book to work with. Among the several styles he taught, he included a simplified version of the 3-finger style in which the right thumb played only on the 5th string. But, he recommended that, ‘if you like this style, you should go out and buy an Earl Scruggs record and/or a Don Reno Record.’
So, that’s exactly what I did — I bought some of their records and starting figuring out how to pay that style. I noticed that Earl’s thumb played every string, not just the fifth. By listening to records and slowing them down, I figured out the Scruggs style, learned some of his songs and began transcribing them into piano notation. Once I did that, I could then figure out the tablature.
Bob: How did you learn to do tablature?
Bill: I had learned it from the Pete Seeger book. So, by the time my junior year rolled around (1959-60), I had transcribed enough of Earl’s music to fill a thick workbook with his tunes.
Bob: What else was happening?
Bill: I was jamming and playing in a local Bluegrass band. I also started playing with Jim Rooney, who also was at Amherst. We played in small clubs, on radio shows, did a show on the old UHF TV station in Springfield, Mass. and opened a show for Joan Baez at Dartmouth College. During the summers I practiced a lot and continued to play for square dances.
I also got to know a fascinating lady named June, the wife of a machinist friend of mine. She played fiddle and knew lots of obscure square dance tunes from Nova Scotia. One of the tunes was the “Devil’s Dream” and the first time I heard June play it, I realized that I could play those same notes on the banjo. Following “Devil’s Dream,” I learned other fiddle tunes and this was the beginning of my melodic style of playing.
After graduation (1961), I moved to Boston and got to know other musicians in the Boston area and played in coffee houses with Jim. Jim and I eventually recorded several albums.
In late fall (1961), I enlisted in the Air Force Reserves and was stationed in the Boston area for six months of active duty and continued playing music with Jim Rooney, who had also moved to Boston. The following year (1962) we went to the Philadelphia Folk Festival and I won the banjo contest with “Devil’s Dream.” After active duty, I moved to the Washington, DC area and worked with Red Allen and Frank Wakefield. In December of 1962, I saw Earl Scruggs in concert for the first time. By then, I had transcribed, in music notation and tablature, most all of his instrumentals and a few vocals. Since this concert was produced by my friend Manny Greenhill, who got work for Jim and me in the Boston area, I was able to meet Earl after the show.
It was then that I showed him my workbook with all of my transcriptions of his tunes. He was pretty surprised. He wanted to see all of what I had done and how I had done it. I showed him what I had done, as well as an earlier songbook published by Peer International in which the printed music did not accurately represent the way he played his tunes. But, since Earl didn’t read music he couldn’t verify either the Peer songbook or my workbook, so, he put me to the test by asking me to play from my workbook while he watched. For the most part, my transcriptions were accurate. And, with Earl, himself, to correct any mistakes, we were also able to insure that the tab was correct.
He told me he was working on a new instruction book (Earl Scruggs and the Five String Banjo) and wanted to use my tabs in it. He invited me to come to Nashville and work with him on that book, which I did. I stayed with Earl and his wife, Louise, at their house, on and off for a few weeks. Using my transcriptions, we worked together on the instructional book and the instructional record that goes with it.
Together, we verified the songs as follows. I would play from my tablature what I had deduced from his records and he would tell me if I was right. I was also fortunate to travel with him on the bus and observe him as he played shows on the road and as they recorded their WSM Martha White radio show. So, by the time the instructional book went to print, we knew that the tablature was true and accurate. Every tune included in that book is my tablature, even the exercises.
At this same time, Louise was starting their music publishing company. Since you have submit a transcription of an original song or tune as part of the application for a music publisher’s license, Louise asked if I would write out Earl’s song “Nashville Blues”, in what they call ‘lead-sheet format.’ My efforts with that helped in the formation of their publishing company – “Earl Scruggs Music.”
I also had a chance to play backstage in some of the warm-up sessions for the Grand Ole Opry. At one of those times I was overheard by Kenny Baker, who brought Bill Monroe in to hear me. They both listened for a while and then at the end of the evening, I was offered a job as banjo player with Bill Monroe. So, in early March of 1963, I became a ‘Bluegrass Boy.’
Bob: With what we now know about the rift Bill Monroe had with Flatt and Scruggs, wasn’t this a touchy situation for you?
Bill: No, not really. Although I had figured out that the two of them didn’t get along, neither Bill or Earl seemed to object to my working with the other.