What is The Nashville Number System?

I have recently been asked to address the issue of the number system, or as it’s sometimes called, “The Nashville Number System” (note that in Knoxville, it’s always referred to as “The Knoxville Number System”).

I was a little reluctant to deal with this subject because it brings back some painful memories of trying to remember what a “3” chord is in the key of B flat, so I could cue the bass player, who not only didn’t know the number system, but who also apparently had never heard Old Home Place. It’s harder to do than you think, when you’re also trying to remember what happened after you “ran away to Charlottesville.” By the time I had shouted out “D Flat!” I was already working in a sawmill and it was time for the chorus (with the bass player starting that chorus with a big sour D flat instead of an F). 

The number system is something everyone needs to know. We who play bluegrass music need it more than people in other genres of music because of our heavy use of the capo. 

For those who are new to the music, or who may have arrived at Bluegrass Today.com by an erroneous link that was supposed to direct them to chewinggumfacts.com, a little explanation and history of the capo may be in order: The capo is a device, usually metallic (the cloth capos that were experimented with in the 1970s were a spectacular failure), that is used to raise the pitch of a stringed instrument, enabling the player to use open-stringed chords further up the neck. 

The capo was originally made by accident by a drunk welder in 17th century England, who was attempting to make a hair clip for his wife. He liked it so much, he made 100 of them, but still had no idea what they were (nor did his wife, who left him for the local farrier later that year). The pilgrims, who also had no idea what they were, took them along to the New World, where they attempted to sell them to the Indians in exchange for what is now Massachusetts. After five minutes of hearty laughter on the part of the Native Americans, the pilgrims offered to settle for a small plot of land that is now the site of a Friendly’s restaurant in Braintree, MA.

It wasn’t until the late 1700s that James Madison, our nation’s fourth president, attached one to the neck of his guitar on a whim (he was feeling pretty good after having put in a long day of drafting constitutional amendments), and was heard to exclaim, “What a wonderful little item. Now I can be in the key of B and still play a G-run!”

But we were talking about the number system, weren’t we? The point is, if you have one or more musicians using capos, and some of those musicians have those capos placed on different frets from one another, it’s as if you have people playing in a host of different keys (even though they aren’t, or so we hope). This creates a huge problem if you’re in a situation in which not everybody knows the song.

Imagine if you had a band in which the bass player was playing in B, the guitar player was capoed on the second fret, playing out of A, and the banjo player was capoed on the 4th fret playing out of G. Then suppose not one of these pickers actually knew the song (you think this hasn’t happened?). This would leave someone, a mandolin player perhaps, or maybe someone in the audience, to call out three different chords every time a chord change happens. You can see the musical mess this would make.

The number system eliminates all of that because instead of calling out the chord, you would be calling out the number of the chord, which is universal, regardless of how you’re voicing the chord. Not to get theoretical on you, but the number represents the root note of the chord based on where it is in the scale of the key you’re in. For example, in the key of G, G equals “1”, C is the “4 chord,” and D is “5.” In formal music circles, the “1” is also known as the “tonic,” or sometimes the “quinine.” All you have to do is learn what the 1,4,5,2, etc, in every key you normally play in is, and you’ll never have to hear the name of a chord again (and aren’t you just sick of chord names anyway?).

The other beauty of the number system is that you can silently signal the chord changes just by using your fingers, which is so much more subtle than having to shout, “Hey buddy! It goes back to G here!” This only requires the ability to count to seven with your hands, and with the majority of bluegrass songs, only one hand is needed.

Anyone playing music in Nashville knows this system; it’s taught in the schools there in kindergarten (usually right before nap time). It’s also the accepted method for charting in Nashville studios or on live shows. This is why, as mentioned above, it’s often called the “Nashville Number System.” Any musician in The Music City who doesn’t know the numbers is sent to a high-security detention center in Las Cassas, TN (which is exactly 15 miles from nowhere, at least according to Jim and Jesse).

Classical musicians and composition majors would normally approve of the number system, since it’s based on solid music theory. However, in country and bluegrass music, we take a few liberties with the theory. For example, when we refer to a “7” (i.e. the Love Please Come Home chord), we really mean a flat 7. If you attempt to play a major 7 where a flat 7 should go, well, just don’t. If a song has an actual major 7 in it (e.g., an F# in the key of G), it would be referred to in Nashville as a “flat 1,” a term which would make most classical musicians cuss a blue streak in 18th century German. If you do have a formal composition background, please don’t approach a bluegrass jam session and say “That’s really a flat 7,” or “That’s not a 2, it’s really the 5 of 5.” No one cares.

By the way, if you want an example of great use of a “flat 1” chord, listen to the chorus of Larry Cordle’s The Fields of Home. If you’d like other examples, you may have to write them yourself.