This post is brought to you by my favorite pop chord progression: G-D-Em-C.
Lower register G sounds like youthful fun, jangly and up-tempo. Higher register D builds up the song's energy. You play with just four strings of the guitar and yet you can dance to it. And then there's the E minor. The E chord sounds like a stocky, sure-footed guy, with a booming voice, ready to fight. You take away that G# to turn it into an E minor and it sounds like the same guy only with a hole through his soul. He's dark and depressed now and he needs to be saved. And then we come around to that redeeming C chord, Do-Mi-Sol, pleasant like the sound of a slot machine vomiting tokens into your tumbler.
Learn those four chords and you can write a hit song, if you were so inclined. Even if you can't play worth a damn, if you know how to work those chords you can still do wonders.
I got my first guitar when I was ten years old -- a classical Yamaha guitar. My mom bought it from my uncle who'd spent many lonely nights with it as a civil engineer in Jeddah, singing his favorite Bread songs and probably, at other times, swinging it wildly to fend off Bread-hating ass-rapists at the construction camp.
The first songs I learned were Beatles songs. Back in grade school and early high school, I was friends with a guy named Rommel who was also a big Beatles fan. It was the early nineties yet our notebooks were full of pasted-on photos of John, Paul, George, and Ringo from the 60s and early 70s. I learned guitar first and Rommel soon followed suit.
Nineteen years later, with LOTS of practice, I can still play only a few chords well. I can't climb up and down the scales or do Van Halen-esque two-handed tapping. Rommel, a few years after learning how to play guitar, became the legendary guitarist of possibly the most famous Pinoy death metal band in the country. He's now an eye doctor, I hear.
Let's go back to college. It's 1997, I'm in my Humanities 2 class at UP Diliman discussing musical instruments. I'd written a few songs but was mostly still into poetry. But I'd been playing guitar for many years now to believe that I was a very decent musician. The teacher, an attractive young woman, asks for volunteers who can play the guitar in front of the class, sort of a live demonstration just for fun. I immediately raised my hand. So did another guy from the back row, an unassuming Engineering student by the name of Lenin.
The next meeting I brought my guitar. Lenin asked to go first. To my amazement, he plays (if I remember right) Man in The Mirror, that Tuck Andress jazz piece they used to play at that Bob Garon show. He plays almost flawlessly and the class applauds enthusiastically at the end.
My turn. I don't know where to begin. I announce "This is a chord progression that the Eraserheads uses in some of their songs" (I now forget which songs and maybe I was wrong) and commence strumming the G-D-Em-C pattern, nervously and clumsily. The class looks on, unimpressed. The teacher saves me from further embarassment and tells me I'm excused. Almost a decade of guitar playing by then and all I could show for was G-goddamned-D-E minor-C.
Still I believed in those four chords. I kept hearing melodies in my head built around those chords. And later the words just sort of wrote themselves into the melodies.
That same year I wrote two songs using that chord pattern. There's Fran (see previous post) and Ambing, a song that has achieved some notoriety through the years. Just this afternoon outside the Mandaluyong courthouse, I passed a couple of tambay types singing Ambing while horsing around. If I'd stopped in my barong and briefcase to tell them I wrote (and sang) that song they wouldn't believe me. Or they'd punch me in the face and steal my wallet.
The old Yamaha sits beside my office desk. Like me, it's now battered, slightly out of tune, and world-weary. And like me, after all these years, it's earned the perfect right to sing the blues.