Since the mid-1960s, Will Scarlett has played with a wide range
of musicians and in a host
of different musical styles.
He collaborated regularly with guitar virtuoso Steve Mann and toured with folk blues master Brownie McGhee. He recorded
with Hot Tuna (an offshoot of the Jefferson Airplane), the bluegrass group Old and in the Way, legendary guitarist Dave Bromberg, folksinger Rosalie Sorrels, Steve Mann, mandolinist and composer David Grisman and guitar singer cult hero Jerry Garcia. He has performed with Zydeco accordion players Clifton Chenier, Andre Carriere, Andre  Thierry, and Buckwheat Zydeco and French-Boss Nova-Latin-Jazz-Folk guitarist Albert Benichou, among others.

Born in New Hampshire in 1948 and raised since the age of 2 in Berkeley, CA, Will was a Quaker “coming up.” He played bugle in elementary school and trombone in junior high school, and sang in a church choir. Harmonica playing took the front seat sometime during high school and has been driving ever since.

Will’s musical career took off in 1966 when
he hooked up with Dan Paik, Carlin Arriola, “Dynamite” Annie Johnson, Hank Bradley, Phil Marsh, and Richard Saunders to form the Cleanliness (is Next to) Godliness Skiffle Band. They served as the house band for the legendary Jabberwock Club
in Berkeley (predecessor to the now famous Freight and Salvage). At the time, Will was the live-in janitor for the Jaberwock and Dan Paik was the club’s manager. A “freight train” style rhythm harmonica player, Will credits Dan with teaching him 12-bar blues.

In the crazy heat of 1967, Will Scarlett played the Berkeley Folk Festival at the Greek Theater with the Skiffle Band. It was here that he met James Cotton.
The following year, Scarlett accompanied Brownie McGhee on a six-week tour
of eastern Canada (filling in for the ailing Sonny Terry). Will’s fond memories
of the tour include a show at Le Hibou that was filmed by the CBC and a chance to play “Blackwater Blues” with Brownie and Lonnie Johnson. Returning to the Bay Area, Will was asked by Jorma Kaukonen to play and record with him and Jack Cassady during twelve consecutive shows at New Orleans House in Berkeley. Will’s groundbreaking style of harmonica graces the first two Hot Tuna albums, where he can be heard overblowing a single G Hohner Navy Band harmonica in all keys.

Will played on Dave Bromberg’s first two albums (the song “Delia’s Gone” is a particular beauty). On folksinger Rosalie Sorrels’ album “Traveling Lady,” Will played “Lovin’ of the Game” in the key of A Flat on his G harmonica. He appeared with the band Old and in the Way at the Keystone in Berkeley, and provided harmonica on their soundtrack to the Angie Dickenson film “Big, Bad Mama.”

The years have brought gigs and collaborations with blues, jazz, folk, bluegrass, rock, traditional and old time musicians to
o numerous to list, (but we’ll try) along with many magical highlights. Among those highlights, Will had
the opportunity to sit
in and play with musicians Rev. Gary Davis, Doc Watson, Lonnie Johnson, Doug Kirshaw  and many others.

In 1967, Will had the honor of giving Jr. Wells one of his own customized, aluminum-framed harmonicas (the opportunity arose when Will’s friend Steve Mann was opening for Jr. Wells and Buddy Guy). At Brownie McGhee’s 80th birthday party in 1983, Will experienced the odd joy of discovering that one of his hand carved harps—lost in 1970—had made its way through the hands of Carroll Perry, Sonny Terry, and James Waldman.

Though his teachers were many, Will’s biggest musical influence was Steve Mann. A dear friend and collaborator for 42 years, Steve led Will down unexpected musical paths that inspired improvisation and fueled his urge to learn. Reading Helmholtz’s “On The Sensations of Tone” led Will to explore music science and the system of tuning known as just intonation. Which in turn, prompted Will to study with composer, theorist and eccentric musician Harry Parch at UCSD. (A note to the musically literate: Parch’s instruments included

the 11th and 13th harmonics, a tuning that Will applied to his G harmonica in ’72).

Will is always happy to share his experiences and pass forward his knowledge.

In 1973, he helped lead a songwriting workshop at the Berkeley Blues festival with T. Bone Walker and Luther Allison. As recently as 2009, he took part in workshops with Joe Filisko at the SPAH (Society for the Preservation and Advancement of Harmonica) Convention.

Current harmonica players such as Joe Filisko, Richard Sleigh, Jason Ricci and Octavia Carlos can move Will to tears with the beauty and fluidity of their playing. And, the appreciation is mutual; Will and Jason each credit the other as an inspiration.

Whether teaching individuals or playing along with and learning from a new generation of players and harp technicians, Will continues to celebrate the harmonica and help others do the same. Completing the cycle, Will finds inspiration in the musicians that he has inspired…

“Toss a seed out the window and before

you know it, there’s a new generation

to learn from.”

Today, Will teaches harmonica by

appointment, records with a variety                       

of musicians, performing throughout

the Bay Area.

“Scarlett is the Poet Laureate of the


– Folk and Blues singer Barbara Dane 

(shown with the beloved, late Faith Petric)                        


Several of the original Skiffle Band members played Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage on June 12, 2010... what a great show!