The banjo world has lost another of its heroes.
On Friday, October 23rd, 3 finger playing legend Bill Keith lost his battle to cancer.
To those who are unfamiliar, Bill Keith was an icon in the world of bluegrass banjo. A former member of Bill Monroe’s genre-defining “Bluegrass Boys” (here’s a nice piece from the NY Times).
He’s also considered the father of the “melodic” style of 3-finger banjo playing (also known as “Keith” style), and his playing has surely inspired and influenced countless pickers.
Years ago while still in early throes of bluegrass (aka “Scruggs style”) banjo learning, I spent a good bit of time listening to Bill Keith, trying to figure out how he navigated around the fretboard to create such wonderful music.
Scruggs style banjo is characterized by the continuous rolling sound of the 3 fingers. Much like the up and down motion of the clawhammer stroke, maintaining that alternating pattern with the 3 fingers is pivotal to creating the driving pulse that is perhaps the single most defining feature of the bluegrass sound.
And, also like with clawhammer banjo, trying to play all the notes of a fiddle tune while maintaining that drive presents a challenge. Prior to Keith, most bluegrass players — Earl Scruggs included — would simply leave those notes out, and leave their playing to the other instruments
Not Bill. By applying his sharp analytical mind and creativity to the challenge, he figured out ways to play all those notes without sacrificing the rolls, and in so doing gave birth to what would become known as “melodic” style of 3-finger banjo.
This week’s tune, Sailor’s Hornpipe, is recognized by most as the theme song to the “Popeye the Sailorman” cartoons. And given my own voracious appetite for Popeye cartoons at a young age, it’s quite possible that this was the first “fiddle tune” I could sing from start to finish.
So when I first heard Keith’s rendition years ago, it was an ideal vehicle through which I could fully appreciate his special way of adapting fiddle tunes to the banjo. And I was hooked.
He was appealing to a banjo aesthetic I didn’t even realize I possessed, and may have even helped to shape it.
The arrangement I play here is most certainly “melodic” in its approach, as I’ve tried to capture as many of the melody notes from the tune as possible.
But the 2nd measure in particular contains a special nod to Bill. The measure opens with a B, played on the open 2nd string.
The next note needed is the D, which is higher in pitch than the preceding note. The natural inclination here would be grab that note on the 3rd fret of the 2nd string, or the open 1st string. Like this:
The fretboard logic we’ve internalized tells us that notes higher in pitch will either be found by going up the neck or to an adjacent string tuned to a higher pitch (one reason why the high pitched 5th string gives those with prior stringed instrument experience such fits).
But, if you’re desire is to keep the thumb, middle, and index fingers rolling (i.e. no finger plays two notes in a row), then there are times it makes sense to play that higher note on a string that’s tuned to a LOWER pitch. In this case, we get that D note on the 3rd string at the 7th fret. Like this:
If you’re not used to doing such things, then you’re liable to feel some unsettling dissonance the first few times you try it, and your instincts will dutifully strike out in protest the first several times (and you may have to loop through this phrase a few times).
Yet, it’s a perfect solution to this type of problem, one that’s common to both the fingerstyle and clawhammer player who wishes to faithfully render notier tunes on the banjo. Picking patterns like this are found all throughout Keith’s playing, and are essential components in any melodic player’s library of licks.
For me, it’s these type of stylistic idiosyncracies that make the banjo such a cool instrument.
So this week’s tune and its arrangement (and the flat hat) is for Bill Keith, gone but most certainly not forgotten.
gDGBD tuning, Brainjo level 3-4
For more on reading tabs in general, check out this complete guide to reading banjo tabs.