Giant Steps—A Guide to Coltrane Changes
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John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” has a reputation for being one of the most revered and feared compositions in jazz history. With its blistering fast tempo and rapidly changing key centers, improvising over “Giant Steps” is often considered a rite of passage for serious jazz students.¹ In addition, Giant Steps’ chords, commonly called Coltrane changes, popularized a unique harmonic progression that has become a popular tool for reharmonization. In today’s Quick Tip, John Proulx helps you tackle the fear factor to this iconic tune. You’ll learn:
- Intro to Giant Steps
- Basic Giant Steps Chords for Piano
- Piano Voicings for Giant Steps Chord Progression
- 2-5-1 Progression with Coltrane Changes
- Reharmonizing Jazz Standards with Coltrane Changes
- Improv Exercise Over Giant Steps Chords
Today’s lesson provides jazz piano students the perfect point of entry for understanding, accompanying and improvising over “Giant Steps.”
Intro to Giant Steps by John Coltrane
In early 1959, tenor saxophonist John Coltrane and bassist Paul Chambers played on two of the most icon jazz albums of all time. The first was Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, which began recording on March 2nd. Just two months later, Trane and Mr. P.C. were back in the studio on May 5th recording the master takes for Coltrane’s Giant Steps.² Taken together, these albums represent two vastly different approaches to jazz composition. The following video commentaries on these iconic albums provide a concise summary about the creative spirit behind each legendary record.
Kind of Blue (1959)
Giant Steps (1959)
Davis’ Kind of Blue is modal and minimalistic, representing the finest standard in jazz sensitivity. In fact, the album’s opening tune, “So What,” features just two chord changes—D Dorian and E♭ Dorian. By Contrast, Coltrane’s Giant Steps, which opens with his original tune by the same name, represents the summit of harmonic complexity and technical virtuosity. For example, “Giant Steps” packs 26 chord changes in 16 bars! What makes “Giant Steps” even more challenging is that its rapidly changing chords are drawn from three distantly-related keys—B major (5 ♯’s), G major (1 ♯) and E♭ major (3 ♭’s).
“‘Giant Steps’ is kind of like you’re shifting from Spanish to Arabic to Japanese very quickly.”
—Adam Neely, Jazz bassist & composer
These three tonal centers are not random, however. They are arranged in descending major 3rd intervals. Another way of stating this is that the three tonal centers of “Giant Steps”—B major, G major, and E♭ major—outline a descending augmented triad. Prior to “Giant Steps,” this type of harmonic movement was rather uncommon in jazz repertoire. Therefore, they quickly become known as Coltrane changes.
What are ‘Coltrane Changes’?
Coltrane changes refers to a specific jazz chord progression popularized by John Coltrane on his original tunes “Giant Steps” and “Countdown” from his 1960 album Giant Steps. This progression, also called the Coltrane cycle or chromatic 3rd relations, involves three major 7th chords arranged in descending major 3rds, each preceded by its respective dominant chord. For, example the chord sequence B▵7→G▵7→E♭▵7 represents the first criteria. Then, with each preceding dominant 7th chord, the progression becomes F♯7→B▵7→D7→G▵7→B♭7→E♭▵7. In the case of “Giant Steps,” the tune begins on B▵7, so the first dominant 7th chord is omitted until the form repeats.
Other Tunes Featuring Coltrane Changes
Coltrane was not the first composer to employ chromatic 3rd relations, however he developed the device most extensively. Other Coltrane tunes containing Coltrane changes include “26-2” (a contrafact on Charlie Parker’s “Confirmation”) and “Satellite” (a contrafact on “How High the Moon”). In addition, his arrangements of the jazz standards “But Not for Me” and “Body and Soul” include reharmonization with chromatic 3rd relations. (Note: the term contrafact refers to a musical composition based on the chord progression from a pre-existing work, but with a new melody.)
The earliest known usage of “Coltrane changes” appears in French impressionist composer Maurice Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, in the 1st movement, entitled “Ondine.”
In addition, the bridge to Richard Rogers’ 1937 jazz standard “Have You Met Miss Jones?” features an example of Coltrane changes that predates “Giant Steps” by 23 years.
Gaspard de la nuit, “Ondine” (1908)
In the next section, you’ll learn how to play basic Coltrane changes on piano.
Basic Giant Steps Chords for Piano
Now that you’ve learned a bit about the background of Giant Steps and Coltrane changes, it’s time for you to play a simple version of Coltrane’s Giant Steps chords yourself!
The first example from today’s lesson sheet features a basic outline of “Giant Steps'” using root position 7th chords. In fact, the complete six-page PDF lesson sheet and accompanying backing tracks are downloadable for PWJ members. These resources appear at the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. You can also easily transpose the lesson material to any key using our Smart Sheet Music.
Harmonic Analysis of Giant Steps Chords
While it is certainly possible to analyze “Giant Steps” using traditional Roman numerals, the tune’s frequent modulations make such an approach somewhat difficult to understand for some students. A harmonic analysis, after all, should provide clarity, not confusion. Therefore, today’s “Giant Steps” excerpts use the following colors and symbols to represent tonal centers and harmonic function.
In addition to these symbols, the movement of chromatic 3rd relations are indicated with grey brackets. Notice, in the first 8 bars, the keys descend by major 3rds. However, during the last 8 bars, the keys ascend by major 3rds.
Try playing through the follow example and see if your ear can track the changes from one tonic to another.
Giant Steps Progression with Root Position 7th Chords
Great job! In the next section, we’ll explore how to voice these Giant Steps chords with a more professional jazz piano sound.
Piano Voicings for Giant Steps Chord Progression
Root position 7th chords are a good place to start when learning a new tune, but soon afterward, we want to be able to hear the chords transition more smoothly. Therefore, this section explores two jazz piano voicings techniques that you can use to play “Giant Steps” with a more professional sound. First, we’ll play stock rootless voicings in the right hand over the root of each chord. Afterward, we’ll play the same chord tones and extensions in a more open position by spreading the notes across both hands.
#1: Right-Hand Voicings with Extensions
The example below arranges Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” chords with 4-note rootless voicings in the right hand. These stock voicings include the 3rd and 7th, plus two additional notes. The additional two notes are drawn from the 5th, 9th or 13th, depending on the type of chord. The 9th and 13th are examples of what we call chord extensions—added color notes that give jazz chords their unique sound. The accompanying demonstration is performed over the slower backing track, which is set to 85 BPM.
Right-Hand Rootless Voicings
Well done, now you’re ready to try the next example from today’s lesson sheet.
#2: Two-Hand Quartal Rootless Voicings
Our next example omits the roots from the left hand. As a result, we are free to play a more spread version of the notes from each voicing in the previous example. If these voicings are new to you, then you may find them mentally challenging at first. However, it is helpful to say the complete name of the chord aloud while playing the corresponding voicing…“B major seven, D thirteen, G major seven,” etc. In time, you’ll find these voicings effortless and fun to play.
Two-Hand Quartal Rootless Voicings
Great job. For a deep dive on the voicing technique featured in the example above, check out 4 Note Comp Voicings Over Cycle of 5ths.
2-5-1 Progression with Coltrane Changes
Earlier, we mentioned that Coltrane changes are frequently used for reharmonization. In this section, you’ll learn how to apply Coltrane’s chromatic 3rd relations over a standard 2-5-1 progression. To begin, play the following 2-5-1 in C major.
Standard 2-5-1 Progression
We can apply Coltrane changes to this progression by using the C▵9 as the target chord to end the cycle. Therefore, working backward, our three keys are A♭ major, E major and C major. That would make the first draft of our reharmonized progression Dm7→A♭▵9→E▵9→C▵9. Next, we simply precede each major chord with its respective dominant chord. That gives us Dm7→E♭13→A♭▵9→B13→E▵9→G13→C▵9.
Coltrane Changes on 2-5-1 Progression
Now that is pretty cool!
Reharmonizing Jazz Standards with Coltrane Changes
Next, we’ll examine how Coltrane used Coltrane changes to reharmonize the bridge section of the jazz standard “Body and Soul.” The first example below shows the original chords to the bridge section by composer by Jonny Green.
You’ll notice that Green’s original composition just so happens to contain 3 different key centers already. However, these keys relationships are arranged using descending stepwise movement, which is much more common. After a brief walk-up from D▵9→Em9→D/F♯ we get our first tonal shift—an incomplete 2-5-1 progression in F major (Gm9→C13). Then, the tonal center descends by a ½ step to E major, which is also an incomplete 2-5-1 progression (F♯m7→B7♭9). Finally, Green descends again, this time by a whole step to D major, where we get a complete 2-5-1 progression, Em7→A7♭9→D▵9.
“Body and Soul” – Original Bridge Progression
The next example demonstrates how to approach the bridge of “Body and Soul” with Coltrane changes. In this case, we’ll target D▵9 and work backwards. In other words, since our goal is to descend by major 3rds and land on D▵9, then we must go up by major 3rds as we work backwards. Therefore, our descending major chords are B♭▵9→G♭▵9→D▵9. However, we can back up one more time by starting on D▵9. Therefore, we get D▵9→B♭▵9→G♭▵9→D▵9…all descending major 3rds, beginning and ending on D▵9. This actually flows quite nicely from Gm9→C13 because Gm9→C13 can resolve to D▵9 as a backdoor progression. Try playing the complete reharmonization below.
“Body and Soul” – Bridge Progression with Coltrane Changes
How sweet is that?!!! Now, let’s continue to our final section in which we’ll discuss improv techniques for “Giant Steps.”
Improv Exercise Over Giant Steps Chords
Improvising on “Giant Steps” is very challenging…and also very fun! In fact, NYU professor of music Ethan Hein compares improvising on “Giant Steps” to a sort of “musical video game” in which players complete to beat each others’ high scores.³ Of course, it’s not just a game, because it involves artistic expression as well. However, Hein’s metaphor accurately describes the place of “Giant Steps” in the jazz improvisor’s rite of passage.
One of the most common techniques used to improvise on “Giant Steps” is pentatonic scales. However, you only need four of the five notes since each chord generally lasts just two beats, or four 8th notes (♫♫). For example, on the major and dominant chords, you can play the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 5th tones of a major pentatonic scale built on the root of each chord. We call this a 1-2-3-5 pattern. For example, on B▵7 you would play B-C#-D#-F#. Similarly, on D7 you would play D-E-F#-A. On the minor chords, you’ll apply the same pattern to the minor pentatonic scale built on the root of the chord. We call this a 1-2-♭3-5 pattern. So for Am7, we would play A-B-C-E.
The following example applies the 1-2-3-5 improv pattern throughout the entire “Giant Steps” form. However, there are six measures in which a major chord lasts for 4 beats. In these instances, John Proulx has employed a different pattern. The pattern for these measures is 7-5-3-4-5, in which the first four notes are 8th notes and the last note is a half note.
Well, what are you waiting for? Let’s give it a shot! The video demonstration below is performed with the slower backing track at 85 BPM. Afterward, you can also play along with the faster backing track, which moves along at 150 BPM.
1-2-3-5 Pattern Exercise for Giant Steps
Great job! So, what’s next? You can also play the retrograde pattern. That’s just a fancy way of saying to play the same pattern backwards (5-3-2-1). In additional, many players also shed the pattern 5-6-7-9 and it’s retrograde, 9-7-6-5. However, be sure to use the corresponding mode for each chord. For example, 5-6-♭7-9 for dominant chords).
Congratulations, you’ve completed today’s lesson on Giant Steps: A Guide to Coltrane Changes. Hopefully, with the all the examples, explanations and demonstrations in today’s lesson, you’re feeling ready to face the music and take some “giant steps” of your own! 👣
If you enjoyed today’s lesson, be sure to check out the following PWJ resources:
🌟 Course Series: 2-5-1 Soloing with…
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
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¹ Caswell, Estelle. “The Most Feared Song in Jazz, Explained.” YouTube, 12 Nov. 2018.
² Nicholson, Stuart. “How John Coltrane Made Giant Steps.” Jazzwise, 11 Oct. 2021.
³ Hein, Ethan. “Giant Steps.” The Ethan Hein Blog, 11 May 2022.
Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...
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