A guide to help you become a better student of the resophonic guitar

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Nashville Number System

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As we move forward talking about music theory, it is important that we can talk in terms of patterns rather than absolutes. The Nashville number system gives us a way to talk about notes, chord patterns, and chord progressions in a way that lets us transfer what we know about one chord or one key to other chords or keys. It is a lingua franca that not only let's us talk about music in terms of transferable patterns, it lets Dobro players communicate with those pesky mandolin and fiddle players without losing our minds.

Ever hear this conversation at a jam between a mandolin player playing in A and a Dobro player playing in G while capoed on the 2nd fret:

Mando: What chord does it go to when the verse goes "and my baby took my dog?"
Dobro: It goes to a D.
Mando: My D or your D?

Try this conversation instead:
Mando: What chord does it go to when the verse goes "and my baby took my dog?"
Dobro: It goes to a "five"  chord.

Essentially, the Nashville number system talks about notes (and the chords that use those notes as roots) in terms of numbers.

So instead of thinking of the scale as do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do, and instead of naming those steps differently depending on what key you are in, (as in Key of G: G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G; or Key of C:  C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C) we just call them 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.

So Mary Had a Little Lamb goes 3,2,1,2,3,3,3. Doesn't make any difference what key it's in, that's the pattern.

So in this blog, here are the conventions I will use.

  • Arabic numbers refer to the note's sequence in the major scale. 1 is the root, the note that the key is in. 
  • If I put a flat symbol in front of the note, that means it is flatted (played a half step lower than normal). So I might say something like "The money note in a dominant 7th chord is the b7 [pronounced flatted 7]." If you were playing in G, that would be an F natural. If you were playing in C that would mean Bb [pronounced B flat). 
  • The same for a sharp symbol in front of a number, it means it is sharped (played a half step higher.) I think we put the # and b in front of the number to avoid confusion like thinking 7b meant an F flat in G (which would be an E--yikes, see, that's why we put them in front!)
  • Capital Roman numerals refer to major chords that use that note as the root. So if I notate a chord as IV, anyone playing in G would know that to mean the chord of C major (C being the fourth note in the key of G). If you were playing in A, IV would be D major.
  • Lower case Roman numerals refer to minor chords that use that note as the root. So ii would mean a minor chord based on the second note of the scale. In the key of G, that would be A minor. In the key of A, that would be B minor.

Although the Nashville number system makes life a lot easier, you need to aware that we use numbers a LOT to mean other things, like string numbers and fret numbers. Try not to mix them up. Sometimes we mistakenly bar on the fourth fret when told to play a four chord. Or we say things like "I play the five [note] by picking the second [string] on the third [fret]."

Now that we have a language to talk in, we'll start talking about how chords are built and how they combine into chord progressions.

1 comment:

  1. ...and the bartender says "What'll you have?" The Dobro says "I'm thinking G string" and the mandolin says, "Make mine a double."