Nashville’s a funny little town.

Yesterday somebody hired me to record a quick guitar/vocal of one of his songs. Anywhere else in the world (in my mind at least), people want to play and sing their own songs. Nashville is a songwriting city. People write songs for other people to sing.

And because they want to pitch they’re songs to publishing companies, they need a good demo. A lot of the recording work done in Nashville is demo work. Fun stuff, he?

So with all these songs being written, and all these demos being recorded, and all these session musicians being hired, somewhere along the way the Nashville Number system developed.

It’s an informal (but very precise) way to quickly write up chord charts for songs. Combine a well-written, one-page chart with a room full of good musicians, and they’ll be ready to lay down a take in just a few minutes.

The chart tells them what chords to play and how many bars are in each section of the song. And since the chords are written as numbers (hence the name), you can change the key of the song on the fly without anyone skipping a beat.

“Hey, the singer says this song would work better for her in D instead of E.”

The band says, “Okay!”

And we’re off.

If the first line of the songs was supposed to be D A Bm G, now it’s E B C#m A.

But it doesn’t even have to be that complicated. No one’s rewriting anything, because all the chart says is: 1 5 6- 4.

Pick a key, any key. And if you know the system (and a little bit of music theory), you can play the song.

Change the key to G? Okay. G D Em C.

How about F? Ugh. I’m an acoustic guitar player. Playing in F is no fun. But I know if I capo on the 5th fret I can play it in C. Okay great. 1 5 6- 4 turns into C G Am F.

That’s the basic gist of it.

If you put in the effort to learn how to read and write number charts, your life will get a little easier (and a little cooler, perhaps?).

To see it in action, check out the latest weekly video I posted today for my VIP members. In it, I walk you through one of the charts for a song from my upcoming album. Fun stuff!

Get signed up here:

Joe Gilder
Home Studio Corner

5 Responses to “What’s this “Nashville Numbers” thing anyway?”

  1. Chris 'face' Janton

    I am a classically trained musician. I know what figured bass is, having spent a couple of years learning how to do that (ask me about a German 6th sometime and we can spend a few weeks not making music). I can also speak solfeggio (mostly fixed “doh” as opposed to the more difficult fixed “doh” – is this Homerian music?)

    I *really* wish I could have found someone who could/would translate Nashville Numbers into figured bass, since the translation from I to 1 or ii to 2- is easy enough, and I would have had a huge amount of music opened up to me. The tougher markings are the inversions – a first inversion I chord is hard to write unless you know how to do it – 1/3 – pretty simple where the 6 under the I is harder to do (at least on a computer).

    For clarity I think I would prefer the “2-” notation instead of the implication that 2 is minor (I know it, but I like being reminded). The ii is pretty clear.

    When I went hunting for a translation I was appalled – there are dozens of versions of NNS described with no “AUTHORITY” to declare the one, true way 😉 I read music – there has to be “ONE TRUE WAY” 😉

    Thanks for the brief and useful demonstration of the utility of NNS. Would you please enter my wayback machine and put your addendum into my Music Theory 110a, 110b, 210a, 210b sequence so I can be more better?

    Note also – New York (east coast) bias from training and recording – Los Angeles folks were “laid back” and no one *ever* mentioned Nashville, but I knew where the real players were 😉

  2. ironman2819

    That is actually NOT the “Nashville Numbering system” or whatever pompous self-centered title you want to give it…. it IS however the standardized roman numeral chord notation for major scales….

    How overtly ridiculous to think that nashville invented a system that has been in use for longer than nashville has been known for its music…. but like all other revisionist historians we now hear of this tripe….


    100% unadulterated BULLSHIT!

  3. Jerome

    My brief yet informative time in Nashville was great. If you want to be in a place where they are really making it happen musically , and if you’re into people who have some serious chops then Nashville is for you. Not a lot of Autotune happening there.
    I had the good fortune years back to chat with Tim McGraw’s band leader / guitarist Darren. Who when I asked “How do you learn to play so well” replied . “You turn on the radio and do what they do!” I initially thought he was not interested in sharing (and probably was) but there is a lot of truth and wisdom in that brief statement. Thanks Joe for helping decipher a little more of Nashville’s brief yet HIGHLY useful tricks of the trade.


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