The Nashville Number System

Natural-born musicians, singers and songwriters do not necessarily have a sound grip of music theory. What they do comes from the heart, and being confronted with a studio setup can be intimidating.

Neil Matthews understood this. He was born in Nashville in 1929, served with the US Army during the Korean War, and after his discharge he achieved fame as a member of the Jordanaires.


Chords as numbers

With Nashville becoming an important recording center in the late 1950s, and with the Jordanaires backing so many players and singers, Neil devised a system of transcribing music by writing out the chords as numbers rather than by using chord names.

Music by fingers

Known as the Nashville Number System, this allows anyone with only a basic knowledge of music theory to follow chord structures, even when improvised, for the chord changes can be communicated mid-song simply by someone holding up the requisite number of fingers.

The score is written out as a series of numbers, with the key written at the top of the chart. The numbers do not change if the singer or the music shifts into another key, they simply become relative to the new root note.


The beauty is that the system is universal. It is now understood and used way beyond Nashville, and frees up musicians and songwriters to concentrate on the creative work, rather than struggle with music theory.

Neil Matthews did not actually invent the system, for it is based on the Roman numeral system to represent chords. Subsequent to Neil’s work, Charlie McCoy has further developed the system.

Online tutorials

There are now several books available, along with online tutorials that will teach you how to play the Nashville Number System. It looks complicated when viewed for the first time, but with a little practice most musicians can begin to think in numbers rather than chords.


The Big O

Roy Orbison is not country music, but Roy Orbison sure is Nashville.

Just a few weeks ago the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum opened an exhibit commemorating The Big O and the 50th anniversary of Oh, Pretty Woman.

Sun Records

Along with Orbison’s prescription glasses and other memorabilia, the exhibit includes a 1961 Gibson 335 guitar, owned by studio musician Jerry Kennedy and played on the record.

Roy had started out with Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis, enjoying a national hit in 1956 with Ooby Dooby. Nothing much happened chart-wise for him after that so he concentrated on song writing.


Move to Nashville

In 1959 Roy moved to Nashville where he signed up with RCA Nashville, recording at what is now the famed RCA Studio B. The studio was new, having been built only a year or so previously.

Roy’s tracks for RCA didn’t go far, and a year later he signed with Monument Records, still recording at RCA.

Close miking

Under studio engineer Bill Porter, Roy experimented with close miking and the use of strings. On the breakthrough hit, Only The Lonely, they built the mix from the top down rather than from the bottom up. The close-miked background voices and Roy’s voice came first, with the rhythm section way down in the mix.

The record of course was a smash, and the sound became closely identified with Roy Orbison, and with Nashville.

Style change

From then on there was a run of hits, with Roy’s style changing from the doo-wop sound to a rocking, operatic sound. By the time that Oh, Pretty Woman came along, it was different again.

The track has one of the best-known riffs in popular music. There were three guitarists present that day, namely Wayne Moss, Jerry Kennedy and Billy Sanford, along with Roy himself, who played his 1962 Epiphone Bard acoustic 12-string into a microphone.

The guitar sound is curious, in that it evokes the image of a woman disappearing into the distance.

Today, RCA Studio B is also under the Country Music Hall of Fame, which operates regular tours of the facilities.


Scotty Moore’s world-changing guitar

One of Nashville’s most famous residents, Scotty Moore, also happens to be one of the men who changed the world.

That happened 60 years ago, not far away, in Memphis. In 1954 Scotty, bass player Bill Black and a young singer with the unlikely name of Elvis Presley, got together at Sam Phillips’ recording studio and laid down That’s All Right.



It wasn’t the first rock ‘n’ roll record but it marked the beginning of the rock ‘n’ roll revolution, and pretty well every popular music trend that followed.

Scotty moved to Nashville in 1964, when Elvis was lost in a haze of ever worsening movies, and he has been here ever since.

Now 82, he has worked as a recording engineer, session musician, recording artist and music shop owner.


In 1965 Scotty put out a solo album entitled The Guitar That Changed The World, containing instrumental versions of the Elvis hits on which Scotty had played.

The tracks have more of a Nashville sound to them, and they were indeed recorded at Nashville, in the Colombia Recording Studio at 804 16th Avenue South, in the early part of 1964.


There was the fact too that this was an album that featured the production sound for which Nashville was then becoming famous, and accompanying Scotty were D J Fontana and Buddy Harmon on drums; Boots Randolph on saxophone; Bill Purcell on piano; Jerry Kennedy on second guitar; Bob Moore on bass; and the Jordanaires.

Scotty used a Gibson Super 400 on the album, but in the early days with Elvis he had used a Gibson ES-295, an instrument originally conceived as a jazz guitar, which he bought in 1953 from the O K Houck Piano Company in Memphis.

Guitar greats
In mid 1955 he went back to Houck and traded in the ES-295 for a Gibson L5, before a little later going on to the Super 400.

Sam Phillips fired Scotty from his job as Sun manager for making the album for Epic. Further, the album reportedly barely made back its production costs.

A sad story, perhaps, but time has been kinder to Scotty who is now rightly regarded as one of the guitar greats.


The licks of country guitar

Modern country guitar, Nashville style, has its origins in blues, bluegrass, rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, and way back, the courtly plucking of the lute in Medieval England and Europe.

The characteristic is a picking style used with plectrum, fingers or both; and the use of open tuning to achieve licks that have a distinctive twangy tone, using string bends and finger slides to get to a lonesome cowboy sound that isn’t heard in other city recording studios.



The traditional country players used a semi-hollow body guitar equipped with humbuckers, an electric pickup that uses two coils to cancel out the interference (“buck the hum”) picked up by coil pickups.

Close up

This produces a clean sound that is further enhanced by the close-up recording techniques in most Nashville studios, where placing of the microphone close in gives presence and brightness, and where the “live” feel is an important part of the mix.

Country guitarists will often be following the signature licks of a fiddle or a banjo, or the drawn-out sounds of a steel guitar.

Jazz picking

There is too an underlying jazz approach, notably in the solos, in which the licks melodically translate the underlying chord changes using arpeggio-based picking that goes back to the days of English, Irish and Scottish folk music.

Technically, the country guitar player’s building blocks are the major and minor pentatonic scales, the major scale and the Mixolydian mode, major and minor chords and their corresponding arpeggios, and dominant sevenths and ninths.

Solid body

These days, most country pickers will turn up at the studios with a solid-body electric guitar equipped with single-coil pickups and light-gauge strings.

Classic tube amps are favored because they give the honest, authentic sound of American music, and when recording, even if the amps are housed in booths, it is usual that the doors are left open enough to get a little bleed that adds to the live sound of the music being played.


The Fingerstyle Guitar Of Chet Atkins

Chet Atkins is of course one of the great names of Nashville, and it is his name that is often affixed to the fingerstyle technique of guitar playing.

Chet was from Luttrell in Tennessee and started out as a session player, going on to become a solo artist and then a producer. As traditional country music wilted under the onslaught of rock ‘n’ roll (for which he himself was partly responsible), Chet was one of the musicians who helped create the Nashville Sound, giving country a more produced and modern style.

The Fingerstyle Guitar Of Chet Atkins

Walking bass

The fingerstyle technique was achieved with using the thumb of his right hand to play a walking bass line, and his second, third and fourth fingers to play rhythm and melody.

With so much going on he actually manages to sound like two players playing at the same time.


The strings are plucked with the fingertips or fingernails, or sometimes by picks attached to the fingers, which allows the guitarist to perform so many actions simultaneously.

This is how one good player can sound like a whole band, as he can play bass, harmonic accompaniment, melody and percussion at the same time.


Disadvantages are that players who bite their nails are off to a losing start, and that when playing on an acoustic guitar the volume is going to be notably lower than when using a plectrum.

The advantages however are many. Up to five strings can be plucked simultaneously, strumming variety gives more depth, there is less need for fretting hand damping in playing chords, and the separate musical lines make the style suitable for solo work.


Chet didn’t invent the fingerstyle: He was influenced by players such as Merle Travis and Django Reinhardt, and the technique of plucking strings with the fingertips goes right back to the days of the lute and the vihuela.

But he did make it all his own, and these days it is often referred to simply as “Chet Atkins style”.

The Fingerstyle Guitar Of Chet Atkins

Nashville Tuning Adds Jangle

What is usually referred to as “Nashville tuning” and sometimes as “high-strung tuning” is a way of transforming your guitar playing by using the same chord fingering but changing the strings to create a jangling sound.


It was being used in Nashville in the early 1960s and might well have stayed there were it not for Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, who found himself in 1964 in San Antonio in Texas, listening to George Jones’s band.

Intrigued by the sound that Jones’s guitar player was getting from his instrument, Keith struck up a conversation.



To achieve the sound, the guitar player had removed the existing strings from his guitar and restrung it using the octave strings from a 12-string guitar set.

The high E and B strings were tuned as normal but the G, D, A and low E strings were tuned an octave higher.

Bright sound

In other words no bass strings were being used, and as a result there was a bright treble sound that could never have been achieved by cranking up bass strings because they would have broken!

Intrigued, Richards began experimenting and a few years later used the technique on Jumpin’ Jack Flash, where it can be clearly heard on the intro.

Nashville tuning subsequently crossed over into rock and pop, and can be found on tracks as diverse as Hey You, by Pink Floyd; and Dust in the Wind, by Kansas.

Six-string sets

The Stones returned to the technique a few years later on Wild Horses, with Mick Taylor playing a six-string Nashville tuned guitar and Richards playing a 12-string. 

Buying a 12-string set of strings for a six-string guitar used to mean throwing away six strings, but today high-strung sets can be purchased, although they are unusual and sometimes hard to find.

Use the technique to transform your sound, and experiment with a capo to create a mandolin effect. If you can dub this guitar over another guitar track, the effects really can be dramatic.


Floyd Cramer’s slip-note piano style

Floyd Cramer was one of the architects of the Nashville sound. Born in Louisiana he worked for a while as a pianist on the Louisiana Hayride radio show and then in 1955 moved to Nashville, becoming a session musician and backing singers such as Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline, Eddy Arnold and Brenda Lee.

In 1960, during the recording of Hank Locklin’s “Please Help Me I’m Falling”, Cramer used a style of playing that had not been heard before on a piano. Described as a slip-note style, it was familiar to guitar and steel guitar players, who would slide a half tone. Cramer however was using a whole-tone slur, hitting a note and sliding almost simultaneously into the next. He explained it gave more of a lonesome cowboy sound.


What happened in 1960?

Late in 1960 he released his own single, “Last Date”, a haunting melody that featured the slip-note sound and which was kept from hitting the top spot in the national charts only by Elvis’s “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”which ironically featured Cramer himself on piano.

So how is it done?

Essentially it is a two- or three-part right-hand chord with the slipped note providing a melodic embellishment.

A slow grace note is added on the beat a whole step below the target note, yet slightly louder than the target, with the target note just past the beat. A third note is played above the target note at the same time as the grace note, and held through the target and at the same volume as the grace note.

Cramer’s own style is sparse yet sensitive. In the intro to Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” he uses half-step blue notes, played softly in the upper register, adding an upper note to make the sound even bluer.

Other variations evolved with other players, but the sound is always unmistakably Nashville.

How to get the tic-tac bass sound?

During the late 1950s a very distinctive bass sound began to emerge on Nashville recordings. Players had begun to use a six-string bass guitar to double the acoustic bass lines, and the technique produced a distinctive click that became known as tic-tac bass.

This sound can be heard clearly on Patsy Cline’s Walkin’ After Midnight, Elvis’s Little Sister, and Working for the Man, by Roy Orbison.

Danelectro Dano 63 Long Scale Bass

Classic hits

Tic-tac became wildly popular in the 60s, and crossed over into surf music and other popular genres, but it has remained one of the classic Nashville sounds and is a staple of Nashville sessions.

Dan electro had been the first company to make a six-string electric baritone guitar, followed closely by Fender, and the creation of the tic-tac style had followed closely behind the introduction of these instruments.

Longer scales

Nowadays of course there is a large choice and it is possible to approximate the sound on other bass guitars.

But for preference you still need the six-string baritone, because this style of guitar has a longer scale length so that it can be tuned to a lower pitch.


The baritone is tuned a fourth lower than a standard guitar. The open strings are B-E-A-D-F#-B.

Other tuning s can be used too, with some players going a tone-and-a-half below standard with C#-F#-B-E-G#-C#, but this can be demanding and frightens the life out of novice players!

Tonal range

Hold the guitar comfortably, because the low notes can rumble around your chest if you hold it too high. But with the guitar plugged into the amp, you will see just what a great tonal palette the baritone bass has.

Those early Nashville bass players hit on a sound that was all their own, ushering in the era of the electric baritone bass, an instrument that initially was thought would have only a limited appeal.  Nowadays, every studio needs one.

Fender Jaguar Baritone Bass

The beat is the core of any great mix. If the drums are not on point your mix will be off kilter from the start. Oh, it will sound okay, and many undiscerning people will probably not notice but for the true aficionado will. This is the first in a series of posts designed to help you get the most out of the Nashville recording studio and your Nashville drummer. 

How to Achieve Outstanding Mixes with Drum Recordings

Drums and Microphones

While there are several ways to do this I find that these 5 things help you to capture the best possible sound. Getting that recording perfectly starts with how you mic up a drum kit.  Follow these drum recording tips and you will wow everyone with your mix quality.  There are two basics when recording drums (a) using the overheads and supporting this with a close mic or (b) build the kit using individual mics and saving the overheads for cymbals only.

  1. Make sure you have a decent kit – without this you will be fighting a losing battle anyway.
  1. Begin with your overheads – if you are using a stereo pair see how they sound. Are you results balanced. This is the time to decide whether you want more separation or if the sound you are currently getting sufficient.
  1. Move the overheads around – don’t be afraid  to experiment to get him exact sound that you are looking for. If you recording vocals and drums this is important, you don’t want the drums to drown out the vocals.
  1. Pressure Zone Mics – these are cheap and can be taped to the wall in front of the drum kit. Blend the sound in to give your mixes that live feel.
  1. What does the drummer actually hear – the Nashville drummer makes all of the playing decisions so knowing what sounds he can hear is very important when making a great music mix. Adding sound from this direction into the final mix adds energy to the mix. It will feel like you are in a club.

Most experts say that drums are the most challenging instrument in a recording drum studio. To get the best sound it is best to use multiple mics and for ultimate effects in your Nashville drum recording make sure the drums compliments the song whether instrumental or vocal.

That’s all for today kiddies, but do come again for another lesson on making great mixes with drums.

How to Achieve Outstanding Mixes with Drum Recordings

Recording vocals is no easy task, and since vocals are one of the most important components of any track, it is important that it is done right. One of the biggest advantages of availing the services of a recording studio is that they have the right equipment and enough expertise to ensure that the vocals are recorded optimally. Here are some of the best practices for recording vocals.

Best Practices for Recording Vocals 1

Choosing the right microphone

You will generally have three types of microphones to choose from as a vocalist. The large diaphragm condenser microphone is a popular choice since it is able to capture the loudest and softest sounds with unparalleled clarity. Alternatively, you can pick a dynamic microphone, which is ideal for loud singers who their voice to create an impact. The third option is a ribbon microphone, which are great for bright or harsh sounding voices that are in need of slight mellowing.

Getting the visual sightlines perfect

Although this is not entirely necessary, it is useful to maintain eye contact with the control room while you are singing. Since the professionals in the control room are going to be watching you, you might as well seek reassurance and emotional feedback from them while you, as the artist, are recording your vocals.

Finding the ideal position for the microphone

It doesn’t matter how good a microphone you have to record your vocals with – it must be positioned properly. This is where professional recording studio technicians can come in handy, since they generally know the distances and angles that work. Trial and error is normally needed though, since no two singers get the best results at exactly the same distances and angles.

Best Practices for Recording Vocals 2

Wearing headphones

The importance of wearing good-quality headphones while recording vocals is often understated. Artists should ensure that both their ears are covered with phone cushions so that spill is eliminated altogether. It is equally necessary that the headphones are hooked onto a powerful amp and that they fit perfectly.


At the Record Shop, we make sure that vocalists are briefed about and guided through the best practices for recording vocals. What do you think is the most important thing a singer should keep in mind while in the recording studio? Let us know in the comments section!