Transcription Errands – Chord Charts and the Nashville Number System


Hi friends,

As a professional bassist for 30+ years, I’ve had to learn a LOT of bass parts, in many different genres. Sure, sometimes I only have a few tunes to learn, with ample time to do it, but that’s the exception, not the rule. Most often I’m given too many tunes to safely memorize in the amount of time I have. This is where transcribing comes in extremely handy!

An example, by way of a little background: I was the original bassist for the hit show JERSEY BOYS, which I played on Broadway for ten years. I freelanced around with various artists during that time, but did very little in the way of wedding/corporate gigs.

After leaving the show and moving back to my native Southern California, I started getting some of those wedding/corporate gigs again. And my notion of what “standard” tunes might get called on such a gig was a decade out of date!

This meant, of course, that I needed to learn a large number of tunes, some of which I had never even heard before, in a very short time. If you’re lucky enough to have an eidetic memory, this kind of thing wouldn’t be a problem for you, but for most of us, it would require many hours of listening to memorize everything. So, what do you do if you don’t HAVE hours and hours to spare?

Write it all down, of course!

To that, you might say, “I don’t read music, so how will this help me?” Not to worry! You have a couple of options available:

Chord Charts

The word “chart” in “chord chart” is quite apt, as this type of notation basically gives you a map of the tune. You navigate it by playing something in the appropriate style that fits whatever chord is happening at any given moment. The naturally-occurring (aka “diatonic”) three-note chords (aka “triads”) based on a C major scale would look like this:


When a chord symbol appears without anything after it, that is a major chord. The “m” after some chords means “minor” (lowered 3rd), and the “dim” after the B means “diminished,” which consists of both a lowered 3rd and a lowered 5th. People often use a shorthand for these chord qualities, as follows:

C D- E- F G A- Bº C (where “-” means “minor” and “º” means “diminished”)

You can add further voicings (C^7, D-7, E-7, F^7, G7, etc., where “^,” written as a triangle, means “major”), but that’s another topic.

Let’s use a universal example, the 12-bar blues, to illustrate:


The Nashville Number System

Legend has it that Elvis Presley’s band first started using this system when they got tired of rewriting charts every time Elvis decided to change a song’s key. The numbers represent the notes of a major (or minor) scale, and the diatonic (all within the same key) chords based on that scale. For instance, in C major, the number one (1) represents a C major chord, two (2) a D minor chord, three (3) an E minor chord, four (4) an F major chord, and so on. In the older, Baroque version of this system, the chord qualities (major, minor, diminished) were assumed, and didn’t need to be notated. But in this version, the quality of the chord is always notated. Using the same C major scale from above, here’s how it would look using this system:

1 2- 3- 4 5 6- 7º 1

Just like chord charts, you can add upper voicings the same way (1^7, 2-7, 3-7, 4^7, 57, etc.) if you like. As you can see, this method works in any key. Someone just has to call the key before you start playing!

Here are a couple of examples of number charts I’ve used on gigs with Ginger Cowgirl:

transcription          transcription

Both of these options work great when you’re comfortable improvising bass lines in whatever style of music you’re playing, or if you just need a “cheat sheet” for remembering the chord changes to a tune. With a little more effort, though, you can offload even more information onto the page by transcribing your part into musical notation. Even if you’re just learning to read, this method will improve your reading as well as give you a deeper understanding of how and why a bass line works at a granular level.

For free, open-source notation software, it’s hard to go wrong with MuseScore. There are also lots of free online tutorials on how to get started reading and writing musical notation.

Most often, I find a hybrid approach works best for me. I use notation when specific phrases are called for, and a chord chart where they aren’t. Here’s an example of a chart I made for myself for Shawn Rohlf’s song called “Tiny X’s” from the album of the same name:


Take care,


Ken is the original bassist of the worldwide hit musical JERSEY BOYS (winner of the 2006 Grammy Award for Platinum-selling Best Original Cast Album, as well as four Tony Awards, including Best Musical), working with multiple Tony Award-winner Des McAnuff since its inception at La Jolla Playhouse, and performing the show nightly on Broadway for ten years. Ken has traveled all over Europe and the United States for over twenty years playing jazz, classical, funk, folk, hip-hop, soul, blues, bluegrass, rock, and music that defies conventional classification, working and performing with a wide array of distinguished artists including Pete Townshend (The Who), Brian May & Roger Taylor (Queen), Ray Manzarek & Robby Krieger (The Doors), Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Grace Jones, Peter Sprague (Chick Corea, Al Jarreau), Rodney Holmes (Santana, Joe Zawinul, Randy Brecker), Sara & Sean Watkins (Nickel Creek), and Chris Thompson (Manfred Mann’s Earth Band). Learn more about Ken by visiting his website.

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