What Is The Nashville Number System?
The Nashville Number system is the greatest thing ever invented for the working musician. The principles are basically the same. There are some differences but I will point those out as we go along.
When Neil Matthews created the original Nashville Number System in the late 1950’s, he was looking for a way to help he and the other members of the Jordanaires, Elvis Presley’s Vocal Backup Group, learn vocal parts more quickly. Charlie McCoy, A Nashville session musician and music leader of the Hee Haw television show, took what Matthews created and, together with some of his recording session friends came up with the system musicians use today.
For musicians, the Nashville Number System is a chord charting system that makes charting and transposing keys easier and quicker. With this system, the scale degrees of the major scale, C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C, are changed to numbers. The major scale using the Nashville Number System would be 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8.
In the last lesson, I talked about half steps and whole steps and how in certain orders, I call formulas, can be used to create chords and scales. If you will remember, the formula for the major scale traditionally is whole step, whole step, half step, then 3 more whole steps and another half step, sometimes noted W-W-H-W-W-W-H. I also said in my Guitar Number System we will note it with numbers, 2-2-1-2-2-2-1. You can in turn, use this formula to create the major scale in any key.
This numerical approach to music is the language professional musicians use to communicate everyday in Nashville and other music centers live and in the recording studio. Studio musicians will listen to a demo recording of the song to be recorded and write out their own number chart as the sound engineer plays it from the control room. Then they record the song, each creating their part based on the number chart the just made. All the parts we hear in the music we love is created this way, right there on the spot. There are no pieces of paper with lines and little black notes on them. It’s all done with number charts.
A number chart for the Bob Segar classic “Old Time Rock and Roll” would look like this:
1 1 4 4
5 5 1 5
1 1 4 4
5 5 1 5
Start Thinking In Numbers
Did the number chart above to “Old Time Rock and Roll” surprise you? Some musicians are caught off guard by how simple it is when they first see one. I am now going to explain how it works. Again, this is very Important, so please pay attention.
With traditional printed music, the kind with lines and little black notes on sheets of paper, everything you are supposed to played is written on the paper and you play it just like it is written.
With the Nashville Number System, the number chart represents the chord progression of the song. Musicians read the chart and interpret it musically in their own way based on their experience. Most musicians using this system play by ear so interpretations vary, sometimes greatly.
In the number chart above, each number represents a chord created from that scale degree. When the numbers are equally spaced as these are, each chord is held for 4 beats. A split bar is one with more than 1 chord in a measure. When you see 2 chords written as (1 4), it means it is one measure with 2 chords, held 2 beats each.
There are other elements of the Nashville Number System that we will get to later but what I have gone over so far is the basis of it. Just remember, use the system I gave you to find the major scale in whichever key you are working in and then change the scale degrees to numbers, then write your chart.
The Nashville Number System Video
Aaron Tomberlin is a guitar player and teacher who has his own website. His video below about the Nashville Number System should help reinforce the information I have provided for you.
Start Making All Your Charts With Numbers
So what’s so great about the Nashville Number System? Earlier, I told you about how musicians use this system when they record CD’s in the studio. Let’s look at some ways musicians use it when playing live on stage.
For bands playing in clubs around town and at other venues, they know that other musicians and singers are always dropping by wanting to “sit in” with them and do a song or two. If someone in the band doesn’t know the song, they can either write a quick number chart or, one of the other musicians might simply hold up fingers to indicate the numbers, the chords to be played.
Let’s say Karen Johnson wants to sit in and sing a Carrie Underwood song. She tells the bandleader and he spreads the word. The bass player, who always carries all his charts with him, pulls out his number chart for “Jesus Take the Wheel”, which was originally recorded in C. Karen says, “You know guys, my voice feels a little rough tonight, let’s take it down to Bb. No problem, the bass player knows all he has to do is play all his notes 2 frets down. He can use the same chart because it was written with numbers, not letters. All he has to do is mentally transpose the song applying the numbers to the new key. That’s the beauty of The Nashville Number System.
A Typical Nashville Number Chart
Nashville Number System Charts
Below you will find 2 charts for the Country classic “Your Cheatin’ Heart” by Hank Williams Sr. The first chart is the song charted with chords in the traditional method followed by a chart done the Nashville Number System way.
Nashville Number System Cheat Sheet
Above is a kind of “cheat sheet” you can use until you get use to using this system. In the left hand column under “Key”, are the main keys you will be playing in. To the right of each key name are the letter names for the notes in that key’s major scale.
At the top, to the right of the word “Key” are the corresponding numbers for the letter names. The 8 column contains the octave note for each key, which is simply the same note as the tonic, the key name note, but an octave (12 notes) higher. The notes in the 9 and etc. columns are altered chord notes. You don’t need to worry about them right now so just ignore them.
If you run across any keys not on this chart, like C# or Db, just use the formula and hopefully you can figure it out.
How To Use The Number System
I want to go back over the advantages of using numbers systems in different musical situations. Honestly, if you have no plans of being a professional musician in a major music capital like L. A., New York, Atlanta or Nashville, playing by numbers is an option that would certainly help you but isn’t a necessity. If you do want to go to a big music city and play with the pros, it is an absolute requirement.
Have you ever been in a situation with people you respect and they all knew something that you didn’t? How did it make you feel? It made you feel pretty worthless didn’t it, especially if you knew you should have learned about whatever it was they knew, but just didn’t. That’s how you will feel if you move to one of the big music centers and don’t understand how to read and write number charts. Basically, you won’t be able to work. When they are writing charts, they won’t write number charts and then write chord charts for those who can’t read number charts. They will expect you to be able to read number charts.
So, how can these number systems help you in your life as a professional musician. First, something you probably don’t realize if you’ve never tried to work in one of these pro towns, is that musically, things are done quite differently than they are in your hometown. When you wanted to play music in hometown U.S.A. you got all your musicians together, practiced for several weeks or months, and then went out and found places to play.
In the big time it’s quite different. When it comes to music related, money making work in Nashville, it comes from several sources. You have the big recoding artists who all carry their own bands. Only the best musicians get these jobs, and even then you have to know somebody. There is also work with what I call the used to bees and wanna bees. Artists of yesteryear that still work, many times don’t carry their own bands so they will come to Nashville looking for bands to back them up because they know Nashville players can learn their music very quickly. I did a lot of playing with these types of artists. You usually meet them in a central location where they have reserved a rehearsal hall. Then you have 3-4 hours to rehearse with them and learn their show and then head out on tour. To learn that much material in just a few hours, the Nashville Number System must be used. It’s the only way to get it done.
There are also artists that haven’t gotten a deal yet but they go out and play when they can. You might get a little more rehearsal time with them, but you still have to learn a lot of material in a short amount of time. You might go out and work a week or a weekend with one and then work with a different one the next week.
To survive in Nashville and work, you must get to the point where you can learn music very quickly and perform reading the charts you have written. The number system is streamlined enough to allow you to do that.
The last way you will use the number system is when you are playing gigs and people want to sit in. You may or may not know the song they want to sing but if you have a number chart you can get through it. Many times a singer will want to change the key of a song. With the number system, you won’t have to change your chart because the numbers apply to any key. With traditional chord charts you would have to re-write the chart to transpose the song. That’s the beauty of the Nashville Number System and the Guitar By Numbers system.