Chas Williams Interview
THE authority on the Nashville Number System
Chas Williams is a noted Nashville songwriter and sideman who just so happens to have wrote the definitive book on the Nashville Number System. It is used by Berklee College of Music as a textbook, so you know it is good. Even if you already know the number system, I guarantee you will learn new skills after going through it that will help you for life. Be sure to pick it up here.
Read through this interview carefully, and learn from this noted music industry veteran.
Nate: What is one thing about the Nashville Number System you think most people that are new to it don’t understand?
Chas: A lot of people assuming that the 2, 3 and 6 chords are minor; like in a diatonic chord progression. However, in the NNS, no chord is minor unless you designate minor with a minus sign after the number.
Another common mistake is when writers think the first chord of the song is the “1 Chord”. The problem is, if you have a song in the key of C that starts with an F Chord, you’re calling that F the 1 Chord. It’s really the 4 Chord. So, for the rest of the chart, when the musician reads a 1 Chord, he’ll be hearing a 5 Chord; likewise, the 1 Chord will sound like the 4 Chord; very confusing.
Nate: Why is it so important to learn music with a ‘numbers based’ approach?
Chas: Numbers represent the chord function in a song. Most jazz and classical pieces are analyzed using numbers; Roman Numerals. We just take it a little farther. For example, when someone is soloing over chord changes in a song, he thinks of what to play depending on the chord structure and not the chord name.
Nate: Do you find it easier to improvise while you have your eyes on the chart? – or do you prefer to just use your ears when you solo?
Chas: I personally need to see what chord changes are coming, especially when taking a solo in a song I have never played before. A good soloist can get it done without the chord progression in front of him, but he can be more lyrical if he’s working with the changes.
Nate: You write songs with very interesting chord progressions. Do you find that it helps you find more interesting melodies while playing? Can you give us some of the things you think about as you are navigating more complex chord progressions?
Chas: I really like playing melodies over interesting chord progressions. A note held through several bars can take on a whole new feel and emotion with each chord change. Chord progressions inspire me to play more musically.
I usually think in terms of numbers when soloing. Numbers represent the chord function, which tells you how notes of the scale are going sound in the progression. For example, when a song section is A G & D, in the key of A, I think of notes that work with a 1 b7 4 feel. It’s more direct information than thinking A G & D, then figuring out that those chords are 1 b7 & 4.
Nate: You are a successful session musician, side man, and writer. Any tips you can give to our readers looking to have success in this crazy business of music?
Chas: I’d have to say from my experience in Nashville, sitting in and making friends around town is the best way to get work. Word of mouth is strong here. Word of mouth can often get you an audition. I lost many auditions before I realized how prepared I needed to be. When getting ready for an audition, I’d suggest memorizing the material and being able to play the songs without the cd. Sometimes the artist won’t even be at the first round of auditions, so you need to be able to play your parts without vocal cues. I always learn the material from the cd, then play it with nothing but a metronome. You’ll be confident knowing the music so well.