Ben Keith, 1937–2010

The guitarist who shaped Neil Young’s sound

As a Nashville sideman, multi-instrumentalist Ben Keith developed a subtle, signature sound on the steel guitar and was a member of country music’s “A Team,” a group of top session artists in the 1950s and 1960s. Keith contributed the evocative steel guitar lines in Patsy Cline’s 1961 hit “I Fall to Pieces” and graced the records of such artists as the Band, Linda Ronstadt, Waylon Jennings, and Ringo Starr. But his place in pop music history was cemented by his collaboration with Neil Young, on whose albums and concert tours Keith was a frequent presence over four decades.

Keith was born Bennett Keith Schaeufele in Fort Riley, Kan., and grew up in Bowling Green, Ky. Skilled on electric guitar, piano, and saxophone, as well as pedal-steel, Keith shortened his name on the advice of a secretary at Nashville’s musicians’ union, said Tennessean.com. In addition to his contributions to other artists, he produced two albums of his own work. He also produced Jewel’s 1995 debut album, Pieces of You, “after meeting the then-unknown singer” at Young’s California ranch, said LAWeekly.com. The album went on to sell some 12 million copies.

“Keith met Young in 1971 in Nashville, where the rocker was working on what would become his commercial breakthrough album, Harvest,” said The Washington Post. Keith’s lonely wail “became a signature of Young’s folk- and country-slanted material.”As Keith recalled in a 2006 interview: “I came in and quietly set up my guitar—they had already started playing—and started playing. We did five songs that were on the Harvest record, just one right after the other, before I even said hello to him.” Keith was staying at Young’s California ranch when he suffered a heart attack and died last week.

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“He opened doors outside the realms of mainstream country and proved that the steel guitar could be interesting to a broader audience,” said steel guitarist Steve Fishell. “Ben Keith didn’t need to show off to stand out.”

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