“Giant Steps.” These are two of the most respected words in jazz, for they are the title of the tune that introduced an inspiring new take on the 16-bar form while humbling many an accomplished musician in the process. From the day John Coltrane first recorded it in 1959, the song’s tricky progression has been the musical hurdle that has sent even veteran players falling flat on their faces. The most famous victim may be piano great Tommy Flanagan, who has a couple of rough choruses over the unusual changes on the original recording. But jazz cognoscenti forgive Flanagan any harmonic missteps he may have made on that legendary session, because the atypical progression (not to mention the positively burning tempo) would have taken down just about anyone facing it for the first time—anyone, that is, except Coltrane, who had been practicing ideas and patterns based on the song for months before the album date.
But fear not: Though “Giant Steps” leaves behind it a wide trail of musical scorched earth stretching back for decades now, its progression is more accessible than its sinister reputation might imply. In this seminar we’ll deconstruct and reverse-engineer the fearsome standard until you see how simple its melody and changes actually are. Then, with Flanagan (who achieved full redemption in the ’80s by re-recording “Giant Steps” and dancing through the changes with perfect grace and aplomb) and ’Trane as your pillars of inspiration, you’ll realize that the real key to unlocking “Giant Steps” isn’t a secret code or some set of alien scales. Coltrane’s revolutionary harmonic approach can only be mastered through one thing: good ol’ fashioned practice.
Getting a grip on “Giant Steps” has become a rite of passage for up-and-coming jazz musicians across the globe, a universal test of one’s melodic and improvisational fortitude. But rather than discussing what’s hard about this tune, let’s start with what’s easy. First of all, the song’s famous melody [Ex. 1] is quite easy to play. (As with most every other example in this lesson, the fingering shown in the tablature is merely a suggestion. Feel free to seek out other fingerings that you may prefer.) Rhythmically speaking, the head—being composed entirely of half- and whole-notes—is a cinch. Also, the melody becomes even simpler when you realize how intervallic structures are repeated in multiple sections as the tonal centers change. For instance, the phrase in bars 1-4 is transposed down a major third and repeated in bars 4-8. Similarly, the second half of the tune has three-note repeated structures that reoccur on different starting notes (bars 8-9, 10-11, 12-13, and 14-15).
Harmonizing the Head
All the melodic repetition in “Giant Steps” makes the head fairly easy to harmonize. Ex. 2 demonstrates one possible harmonization. Notice that I’ve bumped the melody up an octave in spots to keep things ringing nicely. Aside from a few 9, 6/9, and 13 chords, I’ve kept the harmonies fairly straight-ahead for this introductory version. And notice that because, as mentioned, certain melodic patterns repeat themselves in several places in the head, so too do their corresponding background harmonies. This is why certain chunks of this chord melody conveniently repeat with the same fingerings later on in the progression (though not necessarily in the same key).
The Tonal Trinity
Believe it or not, the “Giant Steps” progression—because it’s based on three distinct key centers—is in some ways no more complex than a 12-bar blues. A typical blues has three keys because the three basic chords are all dominant 7s (i.e. an E blues is based on E7, A7, and B7). In “Giant Steps” the three basic keys are Eb, G, and B—chords whose roots spell an augmented triad—the one triad that splits the octave in three perfect intervals of a major third. What makes things tricky is that not only are these keys not as closely related as are those of a 12-bar blues, they’re each preceded by a V7 (dominant 7) chord or sometimes even a standard II-V lead-in progression (as in bar 4’s Am9-D9 prelude to bar 5’s G6/9 in Ex. 2). Look back on the lead sheet in Ex. 1, find each appearance of the Eb, G, and B chords, and you’ll see where each tonal center lies within the form. The first eight bars are the trickier half of the tune—not because the harmonic material is more difficult, but because the changes move so quickly. Most chords only get two beats.
But don’t let all this harmonic analysis overwhelm you. The concepts will seep in eventually. The most important thing right now is to memorize the progression. (Again, it always comes back to practice.)
The first step toward becoming able to improvise with conviction over the opening eight bars of “Giant Steps” may be to practice arpeggiating the chords [Ex. 3], which will also help you memorize the changes. There’s not enough room in this entire magazine to write out every possible permutation and fingering for these arpeggios, so be sure to come up with several of your own. Practice all arpeggios ascending and descending. Then mix-and-match them and find new fingerings and patterns for them. Look for connecting tones that are close to each other in neighboring arpeggios. Strive to become able to play the notes of each chord in the entire progression in any direction and in any order.
Once the linear chord construction in the “Giant Steps” progression is understood, you can begin playing some lines over the changes. The best place to start might be with digital—or fingering/scale-based—pattern ideas. These are basically what Coltrane used on the original recording. Digital patterns (sometimes referred to as “cells”) can be repeated, transposed, and permutated in a multitude of ways. The basic unit is at least four notes, but digital patterns can be much longer.
First, starting on the root, number each note in the scale from one to eight. For major chords (this includes all chords containing a major 3, such as dominant 7th and major 7th chords) the basic cell is 1-2-3-5. For minor chords the basic cell is 1-3-4-5. Notice that these two cells are, quite conveniently, the first four notes of the major pentatonic and minor pentatonic scales, respectively. Ex. 4 applies these cells to the first four bars of the tune. This concept, of course, should be repeated (and transposed accordingly) over the next four bars, as well as applied to the second half of the progression. Because these are four-note cells, there are 24 possible permutations for each, including those shown in Examples 5 and 6.
Once you’re comfortable applying digital patterns to “Coltrane harmony,” branch out. For instance, try incorporating chromaticism into your melodic attack, as suggested by Examples 7 and 8. And be sure to bring out the major-7th and dominant-7th chords. Ex. 9 presents a nice line that ascends the major-7th harmonies and descends the dominant-7th chords.
Handling the II-V-Is
Really, when it comes to navigating the progression, the only territories we have yet to cover are the II-V-I sections of the progression—which, thankfully, are relatively easy compared to the major/dominant workout in the first eight bars. The first place where a traditional II-V-I progression appears is bar 4, where Am7 (acting as the II chord in the key of G) is followed by D7 (the V of G), resolving, of course, to the I chord, Gmaj7, in bar 5. This same II-V-I progression reappears later in the tune, starting in bar 10.
One thing that will help you get through these sections is preparing a few II-V-I licks that can be moved around to the three key centers. Let’s start with a line very similar to one Coltrane played a number of times in his solo on the very first recording [Ex. 10]. Play it starting in bar 4. The other two official II-V-I turnarounds in the progression are Fm7-Bb7-Eb (bars 8-9 and 14-15) and C#m7-F#7-B (bars 12-13 and 16-17). For your convenience, Ex. 10’s line has been transposed to those keys in Examples 11 and 12.
Takin’ It Out
The final tactic I’d suggest for anyone wanting to master “Giant Steps” involves simply plugging these motifs (and any others you’ve learned) into the tune where appropriate. Sure, this approach may sound forced and mechanical at first, but it’s one of the only surefire ways to burn Coltrane changes into your brain, hands, and, ultimately, your heart. After you’ve applied a few dozen ideas to the progression, you will be able to mix and match enough melodic fragments that a pleasing lyricism will start to emerge in your solos. To hear a sample of what might develop, check out the 16-bar study in Ex. 13. An excerpt from my book Coltrane Changes [Mel Bay Publications], this solo uses pretty much everything we covered in this article. Have fun playing it, and if you have any questions, please visit my website, coreychristiansen.com, and I’ll happily field as many queries as my schedule allows.g
Recording artist and clinician Corey Christiansen is Senior Editor of Mel Bay Publications.