San Quentin has a rich history of talented musicians performing inside its walls. The list includes BB King, Johnny Cash, Santana, Metallica, Michael Franti, Common and many more.
Yet the majority of San Quentin’s musicians never had a visitor’s pass. They wore blues, performing for friends on the yard or in worship bands. Whatever instruments they played, they all relied on music to stay positive through their incarceration and promote their rehabilitation.
One of these musical men-in-blue was Paul McClafferty, who before his parole played nightly on the H-Unit yard with his acoustic guitar, singing original songs and leading fellow guitarists. His guitar skills stood out immediately, and like all polished musicians, he made it look easy.
McClafferty was quick with a wisecrack and satirical lyrics, and equally quick to notice a string out of tune or to share helpful tips on technique.
He said it would “really suck” if he couldn’t play music in prison, noting his guitar was the first package item he ordered.
“It’s so awesome they let us have instruments in here. My guitar has helped me get through some tough days,” he said. “A lot of it is the people you get to play with too. It brings people together.”
McClafferty joked they could stick him in solitary and he’d be fine — as long as he had his guitar and writing supplies.
He started playing at 13. One day he noticed his dad’s old guitar in the garage covered with dust and with only three strings. But his dad said he could have it. He never looked back, learning one string at a time.
“I played Smoke on the Water until everyone got sick of it,” said McClafferty, grinning at the memory.
An early influence was Matchbox 20 and its singer Rob Thomas. McClafferty liked the band’s unique sound and the broad appeal of their lyrics.
A song that particularly spoke to McClafferty was 3 AM, about Rob Thomas’s mom dying of cancer. McClafferty lost his own mom at 12. His guitar became a refuge from grief and uncertainty, giving him “a different world to live in.”
“When you’re learning something new, it’s exciting; it gives you energy,” he said.
McClafferty played rhythm guitar in a reggae beach band, playing a mix of covers and originals. The group was inspired by reggae greats like Bob Marley, Iration, and Rebelution.
McClafferty’s sound is a mix of folk, rock and country, but can jump to spot-on covers of Rebelution or Sublime. While he loves to play covers, a big passion is song writing — the challenge of creating a unique sound.
“When you sit down and write a song and play it, it’s an amazing feeling,” he said. “Just remember the old musician’s advice — make sure you only write stuff you’re willing to sing for the rest of your life.”
McClafferty led songwriting sessions on the H-Unit yard, molding others’ lyrics into legit songs, bringing their creativity to life before their eyes — and ears.
He explained that playing guitar and writing songs has helped him to grow and learn. “One thing that would benefit a lot of people here would be a huge music program,” he said. “Music helps people more than they know.”
He encourages aspiring musicians to never give up. “I didn’t think I’d ever be able to play, but I stuck with it,” he said. “Just remember, some days you’ll feel like it’s never going to work, but keep at it.”
McClafferty was looking forward to getting a nice electric guitar after his release — maybe even a Gibson Les Paul — and is excited to see what the next chapter of his musical life will bring.