Jazz Tricks: How to Play Over “Giant Steps”

Coltrane’s technical masterpiece offers many challenges—and enormous inspiration.

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Intermediate
Lesson Overview:
• Learn to move fluently through Coltrane’s “three tonic” system.
• Develop a more bebop-influenced vocabulary.
• Understand how to use chromatic approach chords in your comping.

Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

Saxophonist John Coltrane released his seminal album, Giant Steps, in January of 1960. Since then, the title track has served as something of a measuring stick for improvisers. At first, most are scared of the brisk tempo and lightning-quick chord changes, but if you’re able to crack the code and gain a glimpse of Coltrane’s process, it’s not as hard as you think.

Most jazz standards are based off a certain harmonic language that focuses on root movements of either a fourth or fifth. Coltrane used a series of key centers moving in thirds for “Giant Steps.” In this lesson, we’ll explore a single-note solo and comping etude that demonstrate a few essential ideas you can use while decoding the Code of Coltrane.

Click here for Ex. 1

Bird Food
In the fourth measure, there’s a line inspired by the great saxophonist, Charlie “Bird” Parker. Over the D7, start on the 3 (F#) before hitting the b9 (Eb) for some extra tension. Resolve with a b7 (C) to 3 (B) move on the Gmaj7 in the next measure. Classic bebop.

Minor Implications
Remember that trick of playing an idea over the IIm chord and then moving it up a minor third for the V chord? Me too. In measure 12, I took the phrase played over the C#m7 chord and repurposed it over the F#7. This creates some tension, thanks to a b9.

The Devil’s Interval
Tritone substitutions: I love them when they’re used correctly. In measure 20, notice how we’re playing an Ab major triad (Ab–C–Eb) over the D7. Remember, a tritone sub (aka “a flat-five substitution”) can work both ways. Playing an Ab major triad over D7 works just as well as a D major triad over Ab7. From there, target the 5 (D) of the Gmaj7 chord in the next measure.

Three of a Perfect Pair
Triad pairs offer a great way to play wider intervals and imply interesting harmonies. In measure 27, we play a G major triad (G–B–D) and an A major triad (A–C#–E) to imply the sound of G Lydian (G–A–B–C#–D–E–F#). Notice how all the notes except for the 7 are present and accounted for, and how the A major triad gives you the 9, #11, and 13. Very tasty tensions.

Click here for Ex. 2

Two Names, One Chord
When playing standards, you’ll likely spend more time comping than soloing. “Giant Steps” is a great vehicle to work on voice-leading, substitutions, and II-V-Is. In the fourth measure, once again we call on the trusty tritone sub to create a compelling sound over the IIm-V7-I in the key of G major. Instead of playing a vanilla D7 (V7), keep the 3 and 7 (F# and C, respectively), and play an Ab13, which adds a 13 (F) and 9 (Bb) on top. You can think of this as a D7b5#9, but thinking of it as an Ab13 makes it easier to visualize single-note lines.

Quartal Craziness
Measure 14 contains a IIm-V-I in Eb. Here we use a quartal voicing (where each note is a fourth apart) for the Fm11. Over the V (Bb7), move the lower three notes of the Fm11 up a fret to create a dead-simple grip for an altered dominant chord. If you look closely, you'll see the root is entirely absent, which lets us focus on the colorful tensions of #5, b9, and b5. Move back to a quartal voicing for the Eb6/9—a slick trick for sounding harmonically sophisticated.

Slip-Slidin’ Away
Don’t forget that you can use chromaticism in comping just as easily as in improvised lines. A brief example happens in measure 30. Again, we’re thinking of a IIm-V-I in Eb. Here we approach the Fm11 by a half-step below and then lead into the Eb6/9 chord from a half-step above. But a little of this goes a long way: Apply this half-step approach technique in moderation because it can become a bit predictable—or even annoying—when overused.

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