When I first moved away from a small town on the Florida coast to pursue my dream of playing music in Nashville in 1990, I set my sights on being the best all-around guitarist that I could be. Whether it was live, in the studio or teaching, I always wanted to be the guy that stood out and made a lasting impression. I felt comfortable in the studio and playing live since I had played in so many bands growing up. I felt comfortable reading charts, tabs, musical notation and could feel my ear training skills getting sharper. With all that being said, I was big fish in a small pond, but now that I was in Nashville, and I quickly learned 3 important things!
- Nashville was a much bigger pond.
- The “game” was different here, and…
- There was a secret weapon that Nashville cats knew about and this secret weapon was the “Nashville Number System” (NNS). As it turns out, it has become the BIGGEST game changer in my playing and understanding of music for over 30 years now.
What I found was this NNS, is not only a way for musicians to communicate and notate their musical ideas within charts for live/studio playing, but that having a good grasp of the basic concepts would change the way I viewed music forever. It was THE best skill that I could add to my toolbox…and even with that, it was a cinch to learn! Let’s break this concept down.
Suffice to say, music can be analyzed in half steps. Because of this and some physics rules, there are only 12 notes for a musician to chose from (A, A#, B, C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#), that continually repeat (in octaves) on a given instrument. However, we rarely play all these notes in a song because doing so, gives us no stability, tonal center or key. All popular music (rock, blues, jazz, classical etc) is all based off the major scale. Even minor keyed music and jazz modes are all derivatives of the major scale.
If you have been exposed to music at all in your life, this major scale structure has been indelibly tattooed into your musical psyche. It’s the benchmark and backbone of ALL music.
So check it out! If a half-step is the distance between 1 fret and the next, then a whole step is twice that (moving up or down two frets). If a whole-step=W and a half-step=H then our major scale is constructed like this: W W H W W W H. This is true for EVERY key! So, if we play any note on the guitar and proceed with our “W W H W W W H” structure, we will get the major scale. Since melody patterns, harmony and chords created from this “code” are always equidistant from each other (no matter what the tonal center/key is), the NNS allows us to think about music in a very elementary, yet powerful way. Once we get proficient at this, we can just about ignore note letters, sharps and flats by naming the notes by their assigned number instead. Just having a basic concept of this is helpful, but getting proficient at it, will literally change the way you think about music forever.
Using the colorful NNS grid that I have provided, you can easily prove the scale pattern with the keys that I have included. If you really want your mind blown, test what I am saying here. For every key represented on the left, play the first note under the “1” and play the notes up the scale to the right like 1, 2, 3 ,4 ,5 ,6 ,7. Notice the WWHWWWH pattern that appears EVERY time. Also notice that the green chords are major, the red chords are minor and the purple chords are diminished. The major scale pattern is where we get these different flavored chords. Yes, this also works for every key.
So how will the NNS help you?
- Easily identify the key to any song
- Know the naturally occurring melody/harmony notes and chords for any song
- Know how to quickly transpose keys
- Endless other studio and live applications
Most players have at least heard about NNS or thought about this concept to some degree or another, but when you really get it under your belt, in your mind and under your fingers, that’s when you will be able to literally play songs after one listen, record a song in the first take, like they do in Nashville and have a general overall better understanding of music. It really is powerful stuff!