Local Spotlight: Beacon Banjo Company
Home of the innovative and widely popular Keith Banjo Tuners, Beacon Banjo Co. is located in Woodstock, New York, and boasts a clientele of world-class musicians from around the globe. Since 1964, the company has been a full-service banjo emporium, selling tuning pegs, tuners, parts, books, and music, as well as banjo servicing and repairs. Proprietor and luthier, Martin Keith, now holds the reins to Beacon Banjo, taking over the business from his dad, Bill Keith, a renowned bluegrass musician who started Beacon Banjo a month before the Beatles invaded America in 1964. Inside+Out Upstate NY chats with Martin about living and working in the Hudson Valley.
How did the company get its name: “Beacon Banjos”?
When I asked Bill about this, he said he simply liked the word. Before beginning the tuner company, he and his founding partner Dan briefly had a business turning pewter vessels and pitchers, and they called that “Beacon Pewter.” They both grew up in coastal Massachusetts, so perhaps there was a lighthouse at the root of the inspiration. Once we relocated to upstate NY, it was not uncommon for people to think we were located in Beacon – but in reality, we’ve been headquartered in Woodstock since the mid-1980s.
Please share a few anecdotes about your dad, Bill Keith, for those who may not have been familiar with his music.
Bluegrass is sometimes called the “jazz of country music,” and Bill is an excellent example of why. Despite the banjo’s reputation as a folk and hillbilly instrument, it is capable of remarkable sophistication and long, flowing chromatic runs that are difficult to match on guitar or mandolin. He was fascinated by jazz harmony and music theory. His instructional book, The Natural Way to Music, is not specific to banjo or any other instrument. Instead, it is a look at the geometry and structure that underlies music as a language. He loved math and puzzles and approached music with that same analytical curiosity.
His musical biography is long and varied, with album credits ranging from Bill Monroe (the “Father of Bluegrass”) to Hall and Oates and the BeeGees, alongside long and fruitful associations with David Grisman, Tony Rice, Vassar Clements, Tony Trischka, Bela Fleck, and many other giants of acoustic music. I’ve even had tracks appear on my Spotify playlist, which inspired me to look up the personnel, only to discover that he was one of the players on the session. Karen Dalton’s wonderful 1971 album “In My Own Time” is one favorite, which features his pedal steel guitar playing.
He’s certainly fascinating; what prompted Bill to pick up the banjo?
He heard the banjo on the radio and just fell in love with the sound. His first real banjo education came from the Pete Seeger songbook, and he remained a fan and admirer of Pete for the rest of his life. After that, he transcribed and notated many of the classic recordings of banjo pioneer Earl Scruggs – those transcripts eventually became a book of tablature that is still available. At the same time, he was working on vintage cars with a dear old friend, Loring Hall. After long days in the shop, Loring’s wife June would cook dinner and play fiddle tunes from her native Cape Breton. Bill set to work transcribing those fiddle tunes, which was the genesis of the melodic banjo style that became his trademark and continues to influence today’s banjo players.
What makes Beacon Banjo tuners unique?
The product at the core of our business is the “Keith Banjo Tuner” – it’s a tuning gear that allows the player to quickly switch between two different tunings for a single string, accurately and repeatably. It was initially designed to enable quick changes between “open G” and “open D” tuning; however, players soon discovered the musical applications of bending the string mid-song to play melodies and licks that would otherwise be impossible. The string-bending sound is very particular and really catches the ear.
Over the decades, many now-classic tunes have been written to incorporate the technique. For anyone curious, I’d suggest looking up “Earl’s Breakdown,” “Flint Hill Special,” or Bill Keith’s arrangement of “Auld Lang Syne.”
What is it like carrying on your dad’s legacy in music?
My dad’s musical shoes would be nearly impossible to fill – he changed the direction of how his instrument is played and was considered the best in the world for many years at what he did. However, he never pushed my brother or me in any particular musical direction. Instead, he let us find our path and encouraged us to pursue it. He bought me a drum set in 4th grade–a very brave act! As a result, I’ve ended up finding my musical home as a bass player, mostly playing jazz. His technical insights into instruments undoubtedly helped inspire my other work-life as a builder and restorer of guitars. I am glad that I could share some of my progress as a luthier with him before he passed. I sure wish he could see what I’m up to these days – I think he would enjoy it.
Have you made any changes to the business or how the company runs now that you run Beacon Banjos?
Our business model has a few core features that we’ve worked hard to maintain: family ownership, all-USA manufacturing, and hands-on customer service. In recent years, we’ve streamlined some of the basic features such as invoicing and shipping using e-commerce tools that are now available. Still, our plan remains to keep the day-to-day operations unchanged from how Bill ran the business for 30 years. Our tuners are still made in the same machine shop we’ve worked with since 1964. And everything in the box (including the box) is produced within a couple of hours of our office. This means our margins are smaller, but we remain committed to keeping our quality high and maintaining our long-term partnerships with our suppliers.
In this video, the brilliant Russian acoustic guitarist Alexandr Misko uses a full set of SIX Keith D-tuners on his custom acoustic guitar! Check out his arrangement of the pop classic, “Careless Whisper.”
Keep it local–we appreciate that! How do your customers find you?
We have the great fortune of having a well-established place in our specialized market; our tuners have been popular since the mid-’60s, and there is a large body of music that can only be played by using them. Therefore, most of our marketing is word-of-mouth. However, in recent years, adventurous guitarists such as Jon Gomm and Alexandr Misko have discovered our product and introduced it to a much broader audience, mainly via YouTube videos which together have racked up tens of millions of views. That has been a tremendous asset in building the brand in the guitar market.
How did Beacon Banjos wind up in Woodstock, New York?
We are a home-based family business, so our Woodstock location is purely a result of Bill Keith’s move to Woodstock in 1970 to be part of the thriving folk and acoustic music scene that was taking place here. Artists like Happy and Artie Traum, Geoff and Maria Muldaur, Jim Rooney, Bobby Charles, Eric Weissberg, and even Bob Dylan were all living and working in Woodstock at that time, so it was a very fruitful and productive community. And, of course, once you move here, it’s hard to get excited about leaving.
Does living in the Hudson Valley impact the products you create or your business in general?
We serve a broad market both nationally and internationally, so our location is not tied tightly to our business model. However, Woodstock still has strong name recognition as a town with a rich history in music, and our clients will often still make that connection.
What local business should we know about that is integral to your company?
The Copy Hut in Kingston. A wonderful print shop that does all of our books, instruction sheets, insert cards, and stationery. They are great to work with, reasonably priced, and highly competent and professional. They are also mainly operated and staffed by women, which is another excellent reason to support them.
In addition to running this business, you also run Martin Keith Guitars. What does your typical day look like?
Like any small business operator, I have about 10 things going at any given moment. I have to divide my time between filling orders, answering emails for Beacon Banjo, and building new instruments for custom-order guitar clients. I field visits and repairs for an ever-widening base of local musicians who trust me to keep their instruments in good order. And, I have a wife and an 8-year old daughter, so each day is basically a 4-ring circus of trying to squeeze 12 hours into 8.
Guitar designed by Martin Keith
What’s next for you?
We are continuing to reach out into new markets with our core product, the banjo tuners. Having decided to keep our business at a family-owned scale, we are not pushing too hard on developing new products at the moment since we are presently pretty well-suited to the size and demands of our market. However, I’d love to use Beacon Banjo as a platform to preserve and promote some of Bill’s musical legacy by adding some of his albums and instructional materials to our offerings. Bill was a passionate and generous teacher and loved sharing everything he could with anyone that wanted to learn. I’d like to find ways to continue sharing his contributions with new generations of banjo players and musicians.
It seems fitting to someone who’s contributed so much to the world of music and the community. Thank you, Martin!
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