Sam Broussard
Sam Broussard
Image courtesy of
Daniel Affolter

The Number System For Guitar Students


This is an introduction to the number system for beginning musicians.

In some cases, the smaller number of guitar students at the folk camps hasn't allowed a partitioning into beginner, intermediate and advanced levels. Thus we all gather in a one-room schoolhouse ambiance, and I can't possibly devote enough time to any level.

To help things along I always explain the number system, which is a fast way to learn a lot of songs, but it's confusing to beginners. It’s here on this site for them, and understanding it is recommended strongly to all students so we can all share a common language.

This information is directed at guitarists, but will serve for any instrument.

Let’s begin:


We will substitute numbers for the chord names you know. I’ll explain why this is practical before we’re done.

A "key," like the "key of C," is a bunch of chords that all belong to one family. C is a single parent, and this parent has a pile of kids.

Every key has seven basic numbers: a parent and six kids.

The numbers are alternate names for the chords, or kids, in that key. Songs may use chords that belong to another family, but they're all cousins.

In the key of C, the C chord is the 1 chord.

Question: What is the 4 chord in the key of C?

Answer: Count on your fingers using the alphabet:

If C is 1, then

D is 2

E is 3

F is 4

G is 5

A is 6

B is 7

(Notice that after G we started over with A. There is no H chord, obviously; music only uses the alphabet from A to G.)

So the answer is: F is the 4 chord. I didn't ask what the 2 chord is, but I'll bet you know by now.


It's that easy. You don't have to go any further. But just in case you're curious if the rest of the story is that easy, let's continue.


Have you heard people describe some songs – particularly blues or country songs – as being “1,4,5” songs? Now you know what that means. “1,4,5” in any key is a highly common chord progression in the American repertoire, especially blues and country and bluegrass and Cajun.

Let’s get right to it. Here’s “Home on the Range” in numbers. We will use only the verse for now. The song is a waltz and therefore each number represents 3 beats or 3 strums. (Ignore the periods; I'm new to this website stuff.)

  Give me a home where the buffalo roam
        1               1   ....................4.........4
   And the deer and the antelope play
                      1            1            5            5
  Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
                  1          1              4              4           
  And the skies are not cloudy all day
                   1               5            1      1           

As you can see, I placed the chord symbols/numbers where the words fall in the song.

You can play this waltz in any key you like, and the chart will work for that key. Let’s say you choose to play it in the key of G. Using the alphabet logic above,

G is 1; count on your fingers and find that

A is 2

B is 3

C is 4

D is 5

E is 6

F is 7

You can replace the numbers in the chart with the letter names if you want.





But with numbers you can play the song in any key. Using your fingers and the first 7 letters of the alphabet, you will find that you can play this song in any key you’re comfortable with. If you find that a starting E chord suites your voice better, or you just like it, count on your fingers from E to find the 4 and 5 chords. Do that for whatever key you choose.

If that confused you, you need to be very honest with yourself: you are a beginner. (If you have any trouble at all making an F chord, you are probably a beginner. See my note on F chords below.)

There is a lot more to number charts just as there is a lot more to the more formal chord charts. Symbols indicating minor and other chord variations like sharps and flats are used. Here is an alternate version of the song.

1 1 4 4

1 6- 2- 5

1 17 4 4-

1 5 1 1

The minus signs mean that those chords are minor. The 17 is a 1 chord with a dominant seventh added; in the key of C it is a C7 chord, and you can find a fretboard diagram of how to finger it in the basic chord book which I hope you have. (I’m hoping that as this text is placed in my site that the 7 in the chart above is in a much smaller font.) If it had been a major seventh chord it would have been written like this: 1M7. Don’t worry about why.

The reason we use numbers is that singers like their own keys for songs. C may be too high or low for him or her. But when a song has its key changed, the chart won’t change if you're using a number chart. The chords will, but the chart won’t. Also, in the Cajun music world, you don’t know what accordion will appear: someone might show up with a D accordion after you’ve gotten used to playing songs in C and G etc. With the D accordion you can either use a capo, or, using the number system, figure out what the chords will be in the D accordion’s keys, which will be D or A. (Accordions have two primary keys: the push-in key and and pull-out key.)

So that's the basics of the number system. I know that most people learn songs from being shown by someone else, but someone – like me, a teacher – putting lots of charts in front of you is a good way to learn lots and lots of songs. If you were confused, – and many aspects of music confuse me, so do't feel bad – go back over it again. I tried to make it as succint as possible for every type of learning personality, but I know that learning occurs successfully in vastly different ways. Myself, I can't understand garden tool manuals. I have to rewrite them. I had to rewrite the manuals for my recording gear. I feel your pain. But try again.



As a student, I will tell you that viewing chords as numbers will aid you in understanding relationships. It will help you the very first day in class. In Europe they use the “do - re - mi” nonsense syllables, which is not helpful in my opinion because eventually you must learn numbers – numbers are used to describe the relationships between notes (such relationships and the notes themselves are called intervals). They are used exclusively when your knowledge is stretched to include more sophisticated chord alterations, i.e, someone tells you to add a suspended fourth on your chord. If it’s a C chord, you count to the 4th, F, and add that note somewhere in the chord. If someone asks you to make a C9th chord, you count from C as 1, start over after G, and you will find that a D note is the ninth of a C chord. And on and on. There is much more to know, but this is how the number system works on a basic level, and it works very, very well. Many musicians don’t use the number system, but in folk music, which has – in general – very basic and formulaic chord progressions, this system is the fastest way to keep a book of the songs you know. If you’re memorizing songs, fine, but you can still write them down now, forget them later, then when you want them again you just glance at a piece of paper in your guitar case. And it’s highly useful when hanging with people who play better than you, which is definitely what you want to do.



The F chord is difficult on the guitar for beginners, but you must learn it. I can help you make it clean, but you should think twice about taking my class if you can’t make an F chord using all 6 strings – especially if you want to play Cajun music. AND you should be able to move from any chord to any other chord that you know quickly, at least all the open chords – which you should alsoknow. It’s hard to make any progress learning songs without those two skills. You can avoid making the F chord by using a capo, because it’s possible to learn most Cajun songs that way without ever having to finger an F chord, but you won’t be able to make that “chunky” rhythm style sound right with open chords and without barr or thumb chords – and you’ll never be officially out of the “beginner” level. (I do know a woman who avoids many barr chords and gets away with it – although the bass notes are missed – but she’s exceptional and you may not be.) I don’t care if you make a barr F or if you catch the low bass note with your thumb. I don’t care if I don’t hear the high E string; t’s the low note of an F chord that needs to be heard. That little 4-string cheating F chord won’t cut it.

Get a private teacher, take a few lessons, get the basics down and practice every day until your muscles memorize the shapes. And know the basics of the number system. Then our class will be a hell of a lot more fun, and your money will have been spent well. I don’t mean this to be intimidating. But if you come to my class as at least a high beginner – as I’m recommending – rather than low beginner, the other students will be grateful that my own time wasn’t taken away from them by my helping you get a grip on things they’ve already learned. Learn these things – numbers, barr or thumb F and all open chords – for their sake; they will all know at least two of these things. And for my sake also, because I don’t like students getting mad at me.

All-level classes are hard, and I will always try to get an assistant to help me with low beginners, but but I may not have the luck. In place of that, if camp scheduling and administration allows it I will give individual lessons to all students in my spare time. It's what I would want.

Copyright © 2007, Sam Broussard. All Rights Reserved. Site by rowgully, rennovations by chrisfruge.