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Published on January 8th, 2013 | by Sam


Nashville Number Primer- Country Chord Progressions Part 1

Country Chord Progressions

Sample Chart

Country Chord Progressions Part 1

Country music has long been celebrated and mocked for being a simple music for simple people. I can’t disagree with that, but it’s also one of the things about it that I really love, usually honest music for honest listeners (with a bit of a cash grab thrown in for good measure). But let’s not kid ourselves, which style of music doesn’t have its share of hacks?

The chord progressions are one thing abut country music that make it simple. Almost all of this music is diatonic, and other than the ‘Disney half step up key change’ it rarely even changes keys or key centers in a song.

Three Chords and the Truth

You’ve heard that expression I’m sure, but here’s the truth about three chords and the truth… it’s (almost) the truth!! Really, most of country music is made up from 3 chords; the I chord, IV chord, and V chord.

Now there are other chords in the style of course, mainly the minor chords ii, iii, and vi, but they are heard with much less frequency. The magic in this style though is the different things the writers do with such little material.

Nashville Number System

Nashville Number System is a murky topic that many players think is very complicated. Really it’s a way of organizing and describing chord progressions regardless of key. It’s a great way to communicate with other musicians and can help reduce the time of explaining a new song to someone, especially when the key might end up changing.

This is ONLY a primer, there are much more detailed resources on this topic. If you’re really interested check out some of these websites and resources:
Hub Pages
Nashville Number System – Chas Williams (Amazon link)

The basic idea is that each scale degree can have a chord built from that note. Then each chord is numbered in order.

In C:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Jazz and classical musicians will use Roman Numerals, but Arabic numbers are common with this system.

In major keys (which is what 99% of country music is written in) the 2, 3, and 6 chords are minor. Use either a minus sign or small m to denote minor chords.

2- 3- 6-

Dmi Emi Ami

The 7chord is rarely (I’ve never seen it) used in this style. But if it were it would be diminished, which is notated with a small o.

Dominant Chords are tricky because using a 7 would make a chord look like two different chords. For example 57 looks like a G followed by a B chord. Many musicians end up using carets around these chords when they are dominant, <5> would be G7.

Chords outside of the key are notated with a b symbol. So if you wanted a Bb chord you would write b7. Bb7 would be <b7>. F# diminished would be #4o.


The other part of Nashville Numbering System is the spacing. This will tell you how many beats each chord will last. Typically a set space, like a TAB on the keyboard, will be used. Then if you see more than one chord in that space you’ll know generally where the changes happen.

1     1     4  5  1

Would be the 1 chord for two measures, 4 chord and 5 chord each for 2 beats.

Sometimes musicians will underline when 2 chords happen in a measure.

4  5   1

If you would like an even more detailed look into using the Nashville Numbers take a look here or at the other links mentioned earlier.

In part 2 we’ll look at common country chord progressions and how to use them.


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5 Responses to Nashville Number Primer- Country Chord Progressions Part 1

  1. Pingback: Country Chord Progressions - Part 2 - Sam Smiley Music

  2. Mike says:

    What a great article, you really know what you’re talking about.. I’ll be bookmarking and reading more. Thanks!

  3. Tim McCrea says:

    Thanks for the informative article and resource links. I recorded a song with Nashville studio musicians this summer and they used the number system. They were kind enough to give a general explanation while they converted my typical chord chart/lead sheet to number scheme.

  4. Pingback: Chromatic Country Licks | Fundamental Changes

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