Coltrane-Style II-V-Is

It’s hard to prove, but, studying the music of John Coltrane, it sure seems likely that the saxophone legend was exploring his trademark, augmented, “descending in major thirds” tonal cycle well before he made the practice famous with “Giant Steps.” Specifically, if you analyze the harmonic motion in “Countdown”—another Coltrane tune that, along with “Giant Steps” could have taken inspiration from the bridge changes to the Rodgers and Hart classic “Have You Met Miss Jones”—you may notice that Coltrane travels between the keys of D, Bb, and Gb in the first four measures by descending in major thirds. Like “Giant Steps,” that’s three keys a major third apart, the roots of which spell an augmented triad—a D, Bb, or Gb augmented triad in this case.

Example 1 travels through the keys of B, G, and Eb (again, notice that the roots spell an augmented triad) and demonstrates the basic “Countdown”/“Giant Steps” augmented tonal cycle, this time in the key of B (à la “Giant Steps”). It’s not the melody to either of these benchmark Coltrane tunes that is particularly challenging; it’s the changes that will test your chops. But really, these progressions aren’t a whole lot more difficult than typical II-V-Is—if you approach them correctly. The trick is viewing Ex. 1’s progression as an extended II-V-I.
For instance, if we sub out Ex. 1’s first chord, B, with the II chord in the same key (C#m7), the cycle can be considered to be a protracted C#m7-F#7-B progression—a II-V-I in B—with a few extra chordal colors thrown in [Ex. 2]. Notice the resolution to the I chord takes place in the fourth measure rather than the third bar (as it would in a more traditional II-V-I.) Next for purposes of practice, let’s shift everything up a half-step to the friendlier, more familiar key of C [Ex. 3], where there’ll be less sharps and flats.
Okay, so now we know the theory be-hind these “Coltrane” II-V-I progressions.
Examples 4, 5, and 6 present a few lines you can apply over such II-V-Is. (These lines also work great in the key of Bb, which is handy because there are so many jazz tunes in that key.) Ex. 4 presents a fairly straight-ahead approach to these changes. Ex. 5 demonstrates triadic melodic ideas, and Ex. 6 illustrates typical bebop-type lines. Notice that there are five measures in each example. A typical “long” II-V-I is only four bars. The extra bar here was added just for resolution purposes. You can tailor these ideas anyway you choose and apply them to real life situations.

If you’re test-driving these approaches in an ensemble setting, try arranging tunes so the whole group is playing the substitutions at first. Then, as you get more facile at this technique, you can superimpose lines that follow these changes even when the rest of the band is playing more standard II-V-Is. It generates a great inside/outside sound. Also, don’t discount the importance of composition. If you are having a hard time applying these concepts, write some original tunes that use them. That may be the best way to learn “Coltrane” changes.

For more on Coltrane changes and how they apply to guitar, be sure to check out Corey Christiansen’s Master Class “Conquering ‘Giant Steps’” in the September ’05 GP. Peruse Christiansen’s latest recordings, books, and instructional videos at