NEW YORK — Bill Keith, a banjo player who modernized his instrument and expanded its musical reach, died on Friday at his home in Woodstock, N.Y. He was 75.
The cause was complications of cancer, said Claire, his wife of 39 years.
Widely referred to as Keith-style picking, Mr. Keith’s signature technique was an extension of the rolling style popularized by the pioneering bluegrass banjoist Earl Scruggs in the 1940s and ’50s. Mr. Keith rethought what the instrument was capable of as a result of his desire to play such classic fiddle melodies as “The Devil’s Dream” in linear, note-for-note fashion.
In effect, he transformed the banjo from a largely percussive instrument to one with previously unforeseen melodic potential. In that way he became a bridge between the traditional banjo stylists of the mid-20th century and the more freewheeling latter-day players such as Tony Trischka and Béla Fleck.
Mr. Keith studied piano while growing up in Boston in the 1940s and did not become enamored of the banjo until he was a teenager, when he heard late-night broadcasts of country music coming from radio stations with strong signals in the South and Midwest.
He made up for lost time while at Amherst College in the late 1950s, devoting himself to Pete Seeger’s classic instructional manual, “How to Play the 5-String Banjo,” and playing at hootenannies in local coffeehouses with the singer and author Jim Rooney, his college roommate.
The two became regular performers at Boston’s Club 47 (now Club Passim) and, in 1962, released their first album, “Livin’ on the Mountain,” on the Prestige Folklore label.
In 1963, after hearing him play “The Devil’s Dream” backstage at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Bill Monroe, the acknowledged father of bluegrass, invited Mr. Keith to join his band, the Blue Grass Boys. The arrangement lasted only eight months, but it afforded Mr. Keith the opportunity to record with Monroe and to perform with him at festivals and at colleges throughout the Eastern United States.
After leaving the Blue Grass Boys, Mr. Keith joined the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, a Boston-based combo that appeared on bills with both rock and folk acts. He remained with the Kweskin band until 1968, and toward the end of his tenure there he became the pedal steel guitarist for Great Speckled Bird, a country-rock group.
He also did extensive studio work during this time, often as a steel guitarist, appearing with Richie Havens, his fellow former Kweskin associates Geoff and Maria Muldaur, and even the Bee Gees.
He moved to Woodstock in the early 1970s and did more studio work, with Judy Collins, Loudon Wainwright III, and others. Throughout his career he also recorded a number of albums, both as a leader and in collaboration with other musicians, including his fellow improvisation-minded “newgrass” progressives Peter Rowan and David Grisman.
William Bradford Keith was born on Dec. 20, 1939, in Boston, to Eldon Keith and the former Vernie Lucile Pruet. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. He served in the Air Force Reserve after graduating from Amherst with a degree in 18th-century French literature.
Mr. Keith received an early break in 1963 when Earl Scruggs invited him to Nashville to help him lay out the tablature for his instructional volume, “Earl Scruggs and the 5-String Banjo.” It was during this time that Mr. Keith and a college friend, Dan Bump, invented a special tuning device, now commonly known as a Keith Tuner, that enables banjo players to change pitches with greater accuracy.
In 1964, Mr. Keith and Bump founded the Beacon Banjo Company, which manufactures and sells banjo tuners as well as Mr. Keith’s banjo strings and his instructional books on music theory and the mechanics of the five-string banjo.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Keith leaves two sons, Charles and Martin, a brother, Allan, a sister, Mildred Drummond, and four grandchildren.
Mr. Keith’s tenure with Monroe was brief, but the impression he left was enduring. “Brad, he understands music,” Monroe once said of Mr. Keith, whom he always referred to as Brad, a shortened version of his middle name, because as he explained, there was already someone named Bill in the group. “He’s a good listener and he’s a good man to listen to.”
“Before he came along,” Monroe went on, “no banjo player could play those old fiddle numbers right.’’