The Nashville Numbering System is a method of denoting chord letter symbols by using roman numerals, and it's one of the most important concepts taught in guitar lessons, really useful when dealing with chord progressions.
In this tutorial, we're going to learn how to use the Nashville Number System in a number of different situations. Are you ready?
In the following, you find a chart with the Nashville Numbers for the keys of C and G. The table shows the chords of the C and G keys and their scale degree in Roman numbers (I,ii,iii, IV,V, vi, vii°).
Uppercase and Lowercase numbers
Roman Numbers can be written in uppercase or lowercase: this indicates the type of chord
- The roman numbers for Major chords are written in uppercase (e.g. C, G, F)
- The roman numbers for Minor chords are written in lowercase (e.g. Am, Dm, Em)
- The roman numbers for Half-diminished chords are written in lowercase and with the ° symbol (e.g. Bm/b5)
- We can have other symbol like the 7, for example, V7 denotes a Dominant chord in the fifth degree of the scale
In this way the Nashville Number System also shows the types of the song chords.
For example, the progressions I V vi vii° in the key of C is composed of these chords: C G Am Bm/Bf
Let's have a look at the chords table below. As you can see, the first chord of the scale is denoted with the roman number I, the second with ii, the third with III, and so forth. Pay attention to the uppercase and lowercase letters:
How To Use Nashville Numbers Table
Let's say we take one of the more common progressions known as the I-IV-V, or the 1-4-5
Now suppose that your band mate says: "This song is I-IV-V"
We look at the table above, and immediately we know that:
- In the key of G the chords are G C D
- In the key of C, the chords are C F G
Easy, isn't? What you have to do is to understand the relationship between the chord and its scale degree number. In this way, you can denote chords with numbers and deal with progressions and chord substitution easier.
Another powerful device used to manage keys and chords (and much more) is the Circle Of Fifths, that deserves a separated tutorial.
Here below you find a complete chart showing the chords for all the keys.
This table is useful for knowing the chords in a key, and for transposing songs to another key.
As an exercise, try to find the chords for a I-IV-V song in F major key (solution at the bottom of the table).
The chords for a I-IV-V song in F major key are: F Bb C
Each scale degree has a specific function in the rules of modern western harmony, and knowing how to combine them is the foundation of chords progression theory.
1st - Tonic
The I chord is the tonic chord, the root chord that all other chords are based off of, for now on we will use the key of C, so C will be our tonic chord.
2nd - Supertonic
The ii chord is the supertonic chord, which is one musical step above the tonic. The reason it is lowercase ii and not II is because the supertonic is often a minor chord. So in the key of C the ii chord is Dm.
3rd - Mediant
The mediant chord or the iii chord is also a minor and is the least used in most chord progressions. For the key of C the iii chord is Em and is a very weak chord compared to the others in the key.
4th - Subdominant
The IV chord is an F major which is known as the subdominant, it is very commonly used in many progressions and is one note below the dominant.
5th - Dominant
The V chord is the dominant chord, in this case a G. This chord is the second most important to the tonic or root chord of the progression, the dominant is used for tension as it often wants to resolve to the back to the tonic.
6th - Submediant
And then we have the vi chord, another minor chord and in this case Am. This is known as the submediant chord and provides a great contrast with the tonic.
7th - Leading Tone
And finally we have the vii chord, the leading tone. This chord is played in a variety of ways but always has the feel of needing to lead right back into the tonic, thus a leading tone.
Here is a helpful pdf reference sheet with the chords for all the major and minor keys.
Chord Progressions and the Nashville Number System
A Chord Progression is based on the Root-Note of the chord, so in the Key of C, the Root is C.
To make a simple chord progression, you simply add the Subdominant chord, which will always be the 4th note, in this case, E, and the Dominant chord, which is always the 5th, in this case, G.
Some people like to make the 5th chord a Dominant Chord by adding a minor seventh, which is OK.
It's a matter of personal preference, and what kind of sound you want.
The I IV V chords are used because they can harmonize with every other note in that scale.
A standard major chord progression will always be I IV V, or in this case, C major, F major and G major chords.
In the video below, the Jamplay guitar instructor Randall Williams explains the bit of theory you need to understand chord progressions:
So now that we have an understanding of chord progression basics and the Nashville numbering system, let’s look at some of the more common and simple progressions out there. We will stay in the key of C for all examples.
One of the most basic progressions used in folk music and reggae is I-V, or C-G.
These simple two chord songs can be very popular such as Camptown Races or Alouette and even the Beatles Yellow Submarine. Often a 7th is added to the V or dominant chord in these songs.
Another popular progression is the blues progression I-IV-I-V-I and of course 7ths can be added to make C-F-C-G7-C.
There are so many variations on the blues progression and it doesn't take much skill to play around with it, early blues songs and early rock are based around blues progressions.
In Rock n Roll another common progression is I-bVII-IV, now that means the seventh chord is a major and flat.
C-Bb-F is used by Roy Orbison in You Got It and Boston in their song More Than A Feeling, in fact variations of this progression are well known by those in rock and pop rock.
And finally another basic one is the pop rock lydian progression of I-II-IV-I, notice that the II is not a minor (ii) in this situation.
C-D-F-C was used in Eight Days A Week by the Beatles and Mr. Tambourine Man by the Byrds.
Now sometimes these chord progressions mentioned above are used for verses, choruses, and sometimes bridges.
Rarely is the same progression used throughout the entire song
However it is important to recognize these progressions.
After a while you will start to pick them out when you hear new songs, and even later still you will learn to appreciate subtle changes that songwriters make to common progressions.
That way they can create a song that will be liked, yet will still be a little different than the rest. Remember to always pay attention to the way in which various chords sound with each other, a tonic, dominant, and so on mean nothing if they cannot work off each other.
Each time you now learn a new chord, notice how it sounds when played before or after other chords you already know. Experiment as much as possible with chords, keys, and as many chord progressions as you can find!
Now you should have a good understanding of the Nashville Number System and its use in composition, improvisation and songs transposing. Below you find some useful resources for moving forward with the study of chord progressions:
- Chords in Keys Pdf - Free Download - This reference chart contains the chords (3 tones and 4 tones) for all the major and harmonic minor keys.
- Rockabilly chord progressions Lesson Series - This lesson shows you how to play the I IV V chord progression in Rockabilly style.
- Randall Williams Complete Lesson Series - In this video lessons series, teacher Randal Williams explains chord progressions theory and songwriting for acoustic guitar.
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