Mar 22
Jim Riley: Nashville Number System

One of our clients, Rascal Flatts recently played a few shows with R&B quartet legends Boyz II Men. When stars like that get together, on-stage surprise cameos are almost inevitable.

To make sure he’s ready for anything, Flatts drummer Jim Riley wrote this chart below for the B2M hit “Water Runs Dry”…you know, just in case 😉

To many drummers, this chart seems like Greek. Once you know the code (and some basic music theory), it can be a quick way to learn a song, write a chart, and whip it out to sight-read while playing.

Here’s some insight from Jim Riley himself on the chart:

The chords [in this song] for the most part are changing twice in a measure. A single number standing alone represents a major chord that will be played for one measure. When there is more than one chord change per measure you underline them. You could put four in a measure then each would get one beat.

The fractions are chord inversions with the bass note on the bottom. 5/7 is a 5 chord over the 7th scale degree, which in C is a G chord with a B in the bass. In C a 1/3 is a C with an E in the bass.

The diamond shapes around some numbers are like a whole note “stop”.

The ones with the arrow thing? That’s called a “push”. It places the chord change on the and of four instead of the usual beat 1. There were so many pushes that they will dictate the drum pattern for me…I’m also not planning on playing it exactly like the recording so that’s the other reason for no drum pattern notation here.

I wrote the above chart last night, and we played it today with them with no run through…

OK…But TONS of drummers use a “cheat sheet”, which is a simplified version of the Number System, except with numbers representing measures instead of chord changes. Since drummers don’t play chords, why should we bother learning music theory and writing Number charts?

It’s powerful info, and knowledge is power. You must be able to communicate with the rest of the band in their language!

2 reasons why I stopped writing simpler “drummer cheat sheets”:
1) I wrote the chart and used it but the keyboard player and guitarist also used the same chart.
2) What else are my options? If I write a chart that says “play 8 bars” then what am I doing? Counting bars…BUT, if I read a number chart then instead of counting bars I’m listening to changes…listening for me is a better option.

In Nashville we don’t have the luxury of getting comfortable with the tune, then recording it. We play it through, and go “red” by the time you could play it by memory, then we go on to the next chart.

It’s not hard if you break it down. The form of the song couldn’t be clearer than in this format….assuming you know the major scale and some basic music theory.

It’s the only kind of chart that one member of the band could write, pass that same chart out to the rest of the band a play the song. I mean, that’s a whole song charted on a half a piece of paper that the whole band can read, and is transposable to all 12 keys! No “drummer cheat sheet” could do that… :-)

Jim Riley wrote the book on the Nashville Number System…quite literally, in fact. All the info you need to know is right there in his book Song Charting Made Easy: A Play-Along Guide to the Nashville Number System.

At you can preview the book and even buy a personalized, autographed copy. Check it out!

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1 Response

  1. Nashville Number System « Steve Goold says on :

    […] “Nashville Number System” for writing song charts. He explains an example of this in a short article over at Woodshed Percussion. I’ve used my own version of song charts for many years, but Riley’s explanation is […]

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