Ok, it’s around 1976 and for the first time I am taking my hobby of music and sharing it with whoever will listen. I’m now on stage almost every Saturday night playing my banjo, fiddle and, when asked, my guitar. I’m now an Opry performer. Yes, that’s right, an Opry performer. During the 70’s I played the Opry several weeks each month. Not the famous Grand Ole Opry farther south of Elizabethtown but the famous “Small Town Opry” in Rineyville, Kentucky. It was a wonderful show each and every Saturday night with sell-out crowds almost every week. Other regular performances I appeared where I could sharpen my skills as a young musician was at all the music jamborees throughout the state. I also was a regular for the local square dancing Club, “Hardin County Fair Squares” and still managed to find time to play in a band of my own. At these parking lot square dances they would fill local supermarket parking lots with huge crowds, using a hay wagon for a stage and filling the parking lot with square bales of straw for makeshift seats. The music and fun would continue throughout the night. That was a wonderful time in my life and little did I know that the knowledge I learned from those early shows of my career and the musicians who played them would benefit me the rest of my life.
It was there that an old seasoned musician recognized that I didn’t understand music theory and taught me one of the most valuable pieces of information a musician can receive--The Nashville Number System. We would sit backstage before and after the show and during our breaks. He began to explain chord progressions and numbers to this young player and how that knowledge would make me a better musician. I will admit it took a few months for the light to come on but it eventually did. Over the years this knowledge has helped me become a better musician in the recording studio and on stage. So let’s look at the most overlooked fundamental subject of the music world and why so many beginners refuse to learn or just aren't taught.
Where did the Nashville Number System come from? My research indicates that one of the first groups to use this system was The Jordanaires, the famous gospel group that provided the back up vocal tracks on most of Elvis Presley’s gospel albums. Later this method was greatly improved by Nashville’s famous harmonica player, Charlie McCoy. The numbered system is a trick used by seasoned musicians to figure out quick chord progressions and patterns on the fly. While it has been used by musicians for many decades Nashville eventually received the credit for this music system. I think it was because of its popular use in recording studios across the south and Tennennee in particular. The beauty of this system is you need not a masters degree in music to use it and you DO NOT HAVE TO LEARN TO READ MUSIC.
Over my teaching career I’ve developed my own approach to teaching the Nashville Number System that I use for my younger students with good results. It seems that this method also helps the older student to catch on fastier to its uses.
The music scale consists of seven notes, EFGABCD and there are seven numbers in the system. Each note or chord as we will refer to them as has assigned numbers for identification. Now it’s important for you to know that a group of chords that go together in harmony is referred to in music as a chord progression. I like to teach that the word progression means a family of chords that go together like a household family. The three most important members of that family being, Mom, Dad and the Kids. Mom or the main key that your playing in is number 1. Dad being the second chord in the progression or family is number 4 and the children become our number 5 chord. For instance, if we want to play any song in the key of G, G will become the number 1 chord. Number 4 will be used for the C chord and number 5 for the D. See example below,
1 4 5
So, the numbers 1,4,5 tell us the three main chords to any progression we may want to play. With this being said it also makes changing keys in a song easy and fast. This can be applied to any key by always using the main key of the song as number one and counting or saying the letters of the musical scale as if saying your A,B,C’s. Remember 1,4,5 is the main body of the family you wish to build on. Now these numbers can be arranged in any order but one of the most popular progressions used on thousands of songs is the old standby of 14151. That would translate into GCGDG.
That covers the three most important numbers in the system so let’s look at the other four out of the seven. In a lot of cases a song will have an odd or mysterious sounding chord. This is often the minor chord of the progression, known in the music world as the relative minor. There’s another word that means family: relative. Just backing up my earlier statement about the family unit of numbers. So, an easy way to find the relative minor in any key is the Nashville Number System. It will always be the number 6 chord. See example below,
1 45 6
The E chord is the relative minor for the G progression called E minor. Please note this also works for any key you choose to play in.
Now we have covered four of the seven numbers in the system. Let’s explore the second chord in the system or the number 2 chord. The general rule I was taught years ago is if there is a number 2 chord in the the song 99.9 % of the time the number 5 will follow it. The number 2 chord in this family can be like an aunt or uncle. Some students refer to it as the Grandmother of the family. Grandparents aren’t immediately part of your main family but are seen often. That’s like the number 2 chord in our number system. I have played thousands of songs over the years and I have found this to be true almost every time. One example I can give and you will understand easily is the key of G. Anytime you play the number 2 chord in that key the number 5 will follow. If you’re an experienced musician you will understand the point I’m making. If your a beginner, the important thing to remember is 5 after any 2 will almost always lead to success in finding the next chord played.
The chord progression for Amazing Grace in the key of G:
1 4 1 1 2 5 1 4 1 6 5 1
G G7 C G G A D D7 G G7 C G Em D G
Remember, in music theory the 7th chords can be played between any two major chords.
Well, we have now covered numbers 12456 in the Nashville Number System. Let’s look at the only two left. Just like the number 2 chord we reviewed earlier the number 3 and the number 7 were taught to me in this manner.
Look at number 3 and number 7 as second or third cousins in your family. You don’t see them very often but they are a part of the family. The only exception to this is in Bluegrass music. We Bluegrass musicians use the number 3 and the number 7 chord a lot. I think these chords along with a capo are what gives bluegrass that high lonesome sound. I’m not saying these numbers or chords can’t be found in other styles of music but are more common in Bluegrass and old time music. For example:
Little Maggie ( Bluegrass Standby) Key of G 4/4
1 7 1 5 1
G F G D G
The Old Home Place ( Bluegrass Standby) 4/4 Capo second fret Key
1 3 4 1 5
G B C G D
1 3 4 1 5 1
G B C G D G
The Nashville Number system has so many more uses and I could write for hours on them. We have only covered the main basic lessons here. I hope you will take the time to study the Nashville Number System and learn all you can about music theory. The two combined together will produce a great musician and will help you learn a new song and new progressions quickly.
Taking Local Music To The World