The Nashville Number System
The Nashville Number charts are a standard way to write out chord progressions and arrangements for songs that do not require reading music. This approach came about in the 1950s as the studio crew known as the A Team was recording around the clock in studios like the Quonset Hut and RCA Studio B with artists like Elvis, Brenda Lee, Roy Orbison, Marty Robbins, and countless other Country, Pop and Rock artists. I believe credit for this system lies with the Vocal group the Jordanaires who sang backup on most of the record dates in Nashville at that time.
Simply put, each scale tone is given an Arabic numeral. Thus, a C scale would be 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 instead of C-D-E-F-G-A-B. Each chord is assumed to be major, unlike the diatonic chord progression. My theory about this is that the lion’s share of most Nashville songs were written on guitar with the “3 grips” instead of piano as the Brill Building and Tin Pan Alley writers were doing. A progression might be C-C-D7-G instead of C-C-Dm7-G7 as you would naturally play in key on piano.
If a note is sharp or flat, that sign is after the number symbol. I thought this was really illiterate as a newbie to Nashville until I realized that it wasn’t an analysis (b7, etc.) but the pitch name (7b would be Bb in the key of C). A minor chord is notated with a – after the chord, so Dm in the key of C would be 2-.
Nashville Number Charts make it very easy to change the key in which a song is to played. For instance, for the first take of a session, you might play a song in C. If that key is too high for the artist, the second take might be in Bb. If you’re using a Nashville Number Chart, there’s no need to transpose in your head or rewrite the chart. Here’s an example:
In Nashville Number parlance a 12 bar blues would look like this:
1 1 1 1
4 4 1 1
5 4 1 5
Each number represents one measure. Thus, if you’re in C (1=C, 4=F, 5=G) the progression is:
C C C C
F F C C
G F C G
If you’re in Bb the Progression is:
Bb Bb Bb Bb
Eb Eb Bb Bb
F Eb Bb F
You can see that, by using the Nashville Number system, a band can instantly transpose an arrangement to any key. It’s also a lot easier to call numbers out to a band, than it is to call letters – CEE, DEE, BEE, GEE, e.g.
Here’s another number progression written in numbers.
1 1 2 2
4 4 1 1
1 1 6- 6-
4 5 1 1
Below, I’ve included a play-along in a Blues style in Eb and G. Follow the chart as you play along with the mp3. First, play quarter notes on the root of each chord. Then, see if you can compose a bass part.
Learning the Nashville Number System will help you quickly chart tunes. This in turn enhances your personal practice, and makes you more interesting to band leaders and other potential employers. It’s well worth spending the time to learn it properly. Good luck and have fun!
Peace and Low Notes,
Roy C. Vogt
Bass Instructor, Belmont University, Nashville, TN
About the Author – The creator of Teach Me Bass Guitar, the world’s most comprehensive bass guitar course, Roy Vogt has been a master educator for more than thirty years. The bass professor at prestigious Belmont University (Nashville, TN), Roy has mentored hundreds of students – including legendary Willie Weeks – who now tour and record with such notable stars as Trisha Yearwood, Faith Hill, Little Texas, Michael W. Smith, Lady Antebellum, Chick Corea, Sir Tom Jones, Blood Sweat and Tears, Yanni, and countless other music icons. Adept at everything from Punk to Funk, the simplicity of Country and Blues to the complexity of HyperJazz and World Beat, Roy has done it all, and k nows how to teach you to do it, too. For more on Roy, visit his web site. For more on Teach Me Bass Guitar, read Lane’s review.
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