The Nashville Numbering System was developed by Nashville studio musicians to create a shorthand for chords changes, regardless of the instrument tuning or the placement of capos etc.
"It's a 1-4-1-5 in Bb with a 2 in the chorus, and the mystery chord is a 3 minor."
The numbers represent the relationship between the Key (1) & the chord. Count up from the root. For example, in the key of C the scale is C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C. Counting up from the root, the 4 chord is F and the 5 chord is G.
The chord numbers do not change when you change capo position, or the singer decides to move up a half-step, or someone has a 12-string guitar tuned down a step. By using numbers instead of letters, everyone can easily communicate chord changes.
Bluegrass music most often uses the 1, 4 & 5 Major chords, with sometimes an added 2 or bluesy 7.
Perhaps the most common chord sequence is 1-4-5 or 1-4-1-5.
Songs with minor chords typically use the 6m or 2m, e.g. 1-6m-4-5 or 1-2m-5-1.
If the tune is in a major key, then chord references are (usually) to major chords, unless the person specifically says "minor". Use your ear.
You'll often hear someone say "circle of fifths", which is a reference to a cycle of 1-6-2-5, or possibly 1-3-6-2-5.
Before joining an existing jam, listen to a tune or two in the background. Join in if you think you can keep up. If not, play quietly in the background.
Ensure that your instrument is in tune. If you're new to digital tuners, be aware that they should be calibrated to A 440.
The purpose of jamming is to make bluegrass music and have fun. It is not to play as loud as you can, as fast as you can, or to show off how good a player you are. Listen to others in the jam, and make sure you blend into the music and/or singing.
Don't practise your break (solo) in the jam circle. If you're playing the melody when it's someone else's turn to take a break or when someone's singing, you're stepping on toes. (Note that this is a major difference between bluegrass and Celtic or Old-timey jams.)
Don't hog the jam. Give everyone a chance to play. Be supportive.
When it's your turn to pick a tune, let everyone know the name of the tune, the key, the form (if it's an instrumental) and if there are any odd or unusual chord progressions, timing or rhythm issues. It's best and most rewarding to do tunes in generally accepted keys. Songs, however, are usually done in the key selected by the singer. But, this being said, it's best to pick a key and tempo that suits the tune and the abilities of the other jam participants.
If capos are being put on or taken off between tunes, wait a few seconds for people to recheck their tuning.
If you don't want to take a break on a particular tune, make it obvious, such as by stepping back out of the circle, and letting the person on your left know. No one wants to start their break half way through.
If you can't hear a break or the words of a song, you are playing too loudly. Tone is every bit as important as volume. If the volume is getting "up there" on a particular tune, don't play. Work on your harmony singing or listening skills.
Listen for the rhythm of the tune or song, get in the groove AND STICK WITH IT. If you find you're not in good time, stop playing for a beat or two until you feel the rhythm again. It is next to impossible to pick up the rhythm again, without stopping first.
Don't have your eyes glued to your instrument. Look around, communicate with your eyes and body. A lot of communication in a jam is very subtle and you need to be alert to catch the signals.
Listen, listen, listen. Listen to the bass and the room as a whole. Don't just listen to your neighbours because they may be leading you astray.
Familiarize yourself with the Nashville Numbering System to communicate chord changes to other players.
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Each year the Victoria Bluegrass Association awards one week of tuition to a young aspiring musician to attend the Nimblefingers Bluegrass Workshop at Sorrento Centre in late August. To qualify for the Young Musician's Bursary, you need to meet all the following criteria:
You are a member of the Victoria Bluegrass Association
Your age was 25 years or younger as of Dec 31st last year
You have not attended the workshop previously
You wish to take instruction in a traditional bluegrass instrument
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