The Nashville Number System
I had heard about the Nashville Number System for years, every since my father had been making records in Nashville. I got the basic gist of it in a few seconds, but not until recently have I grasped the true beauty of it's profound simplicity.
The Nashville Number System is a way to write chord charts using numbers instead of chord letters. The chart can be played in any key without having to rewrite the chart because the numbers remain the same regardless of the key you're playing in. It's a real time saver. Say for instance you wrote a song in the key of G, and the chord progressions goes something like this:
G B C G
Here's the Nashville Number System version:
1 3 4 1
Let's say the song is too high for the singer. Just lower the song to the key of E. Instead of having to rewrite the entire chart from scratch, you use the same exact chart. In whatever key you play it in, the chart is still: 1341. Pretty cool, hey?
It's all based on the major scale, you know, DO-RE-MI-FA-SO-LA-TE-DO. In the key of C, which has no sharps or flats, the letters would be: C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C. Again, in the key of C, it would be written in numbers, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-1. Notice that it doesn't keep going up to 8, but back to 1. That's because even though the note sounds higher, it's still a C note, just a higher version of it. It's an octave of the lower C on number 1. So, if you can count to seven, and memorize the major scale in every key, you can do the Nashville Number System.
The number system is a great means of communication in the studio. It allows everyone to stay pretty much on the same page, as it were. The charts can be as simple or as complex as you like. Obviously the simpler and clearer the chart is, the easier it will be to read and follow along.
To each his own.
Although there's no one single way to write a numbers chart, the ultimate goal is clarity. You wouldn't want to write a chart with so much information that it's difficult to read. In fact, good musicians can usually figure out where the song is going. Just make it a good road map. You can add arrangement information and basic chord definitions, such as the following, where it's designated who takes the "fills":
1 3 4 1 : fiddle
1 3 4 5 : fiddle
4 3- 2- 1 : steel
4 5 1 1 : piano
In the previous example, the fiddle takes the fills on the first eight bars, then the next four are taken by the steel guitar, then the last four are taken by the piano. It's important to know who's playing the fills, so that you don't have everyone playing over each other. Of course, you can add codas, double bar repeats, diamonds, retards, signals for louder or softer sections, etc. Use any of the traditional tools of written music, but instead of having to read "fly paper" (or full) charts, you have a simple easy map to follow.
I have bought several copies of Chas Williams' excellent book called "The Nashville Number System". I've given at least seven copies to friends of mine, so it's obvious that I highly recommend the book. Anyone, regardless of musical style or genre can use this system to great advantage. Even if you write out the full score, it's a great way to have a backup for easy transposition.
I've studied music all my life. Why should I care?
Because not everyone else did. There are some amazing musicians that are not classically trained. For the beginning musician, it's a great way to build confidence, while giving him or her a means of communicating with other musicians. It will simplify any piece of music by reducing it to simple numbers. For a musician that has a few years under his or her belt, it is a great way to give you the basic outline of a song, and let you take it from there.
So, that's how they do it here in Nashville. I gave you an extremely simplified explanation of the system, but I encourage you to read Chas Williams' book on it. It goes into much greater depth. Whenever a young musician asks me what they should do to get into the music business, this is one of my biggest tips: Learn the number system!
Still more stuff...
- Being taken seriously.
- How my father became a star.
- So, you wanna' be a country star?
- Who do you like better, Garth or Gershwin?
- You'll eat what you're served...
- The Media: Out with the old, in with the new.
- It's great exposure.
Thoughts on some of the people I've played with or known.
- Charlie Rich
- Freddy Fender
- Smokey Robinson
- Jo-El Sonnier
- Randy Meisner
- Billy Swan
- Flaco Jimenez
- Augie Meyers
- Doug Sahm
- Jerry Lee Lewis
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