How to Use the Nashville Number System for Guitar

Getting into the world of music feels like a fun and entertaining activity until you get to music theory and sight-reading. Tabs are simple - all you have to do is follow the simplified numerical system, and you're good to go. However, this system is sort of like a "cheat sheet" that teaches you to play mechanically in one tuning and one specific key. If you really want to take it to a new level, there's got to be some music theory and sight-reading involved.

But there are ways to make all these things more accessible, while still being able to learn music the proper way. There is one particular system that helps musicians read music faster and even implement it to multiple different keys. It is especially useful for session musicians who need to learn, perform, and record many different pieces in one session. We're talking about the so-called Nashville Number System.

So, what is this Nashville Number System?

This transcriptional tool was developed sometime in the late '50s by a guy named Neal Matthews. It is a numeric system that makes it easier for musicians to transcribe, write down, and read chord progressions. Before we get into it, we need to point out that there's some basic music theory knowledge you need to know to fully understand it. You'll have to be acquainted with the notation system, bars, reses, sharps and flats, and time signatures.

The idea was to have a system based on Roman numerals, with each number representing a scale degree and a corresponding chord. Also, there are other things involved in this system, like figured bass and other symbols that fully explain the chord qualities. It pretty much resembles some of the older systems developed back in the 18th century, which were used for various instruments.

Anyone can use it, from novice up to professional-level guitar players and other musicians. Of course, the higher level musicians will always be able to implement it better and be open to using different chord inversions according to the given melodies on top of them.

How to use it

So how do you implement this system in real life? How does this whole thing work? Like we said - each chord is turned into a Roman numeral according to the scale degree of the root note in the given key. Let's take the C major scale for example - C, D, E, F, G, A, B. Presented in Roman numerals, these are converted to I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII respectively. So if you have C, F, and G in your chord progression, it will be written as I, IV, and V instead. Of course, each song has the key written down at the very beginning, so you know which numeral corresponds to which chord.

Another example: if we're talking about a song in G major scale, a chord progression that's written as I, V, VI, IV will be G major, D major, E minor, and C major.

What's more, this numerical system also includes a few other symbols which will further narrow down and specify exact chords. For instance, a "-" symbol or a lowercase Roman numeral indicates a minor chord. Dominant 7th chords include "7" in the name, augmented chords include "+" symbol, and many other types of chords also include their own symbols, including major seventh, minor seventh, diminished, and half-diminished seventh chords.

What are the advantages?

What's great about the Nashville Number System is that it makes it way easier to transpose music. Tabs are limited to one tuning and one position, while sheet music and classic notation can be a bit tough to transpose right there on the spot. Even classic chord charts will make it more complicated.

It comes as a convenient solution for frequently touring and session musicians who don't have enough time to learn vast repertoires in short periods of time. In these cases, Nashville Number System is a lifesaver for guitar players. Of course, as we already mentioned, there should be some basic music theory knowledge involved in order to grasp the system fully. But once you have that covered, even the beginner musicians can implement the system quickly.

Entire books of songs and standards have been written using this system. For instance, "The Real Book" of jazz standards uses the Nashville system for chord progressions, along with standard notation for main melodies. This way, you can have a basis of chord progressions and melodies and then create your own arrangements using the system as the primary tool.

Overall, the Nashville Number System is both easy and fun to use. You can also apply it to your own original music and make it easier for your band members to learn songs quicker.

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