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Coltrane’s Giant Steps Part One

John Coltrane was one of the most gifted musicians of all time.  Coltrane developed a sound and a method of playing that is emulated by almost every jazz musician today.  When I was in Grad School, one of the concepts we covered in improv class was Coltrane’s Three Tonic System.  The most famous example of this is his composition “Giant Steps.”

For many jazz musicians, Giant Steps represents an ultimate goal.  If you can play over this tune at a fast tempo, then you are a “jazz musician.”

Not true.

This is merely an exercise in becoming more flexible on your instrument.  That is exactly why Coltrane composed this tune and once he got it under his fingers, he moved on.

Here I want to show you how to break down this tune and make it into easy, understandable pieces. The first part of the lesson will focus on how to reharmonize a ii-V-I progression using a three tonic system.

Here are the basic changes of the tune.


As you can see, there are only two tricky parts to this tune.  Measures 1 through 3 and measures 5 through 7.  The rest of the tune consists of basic ii-V-I progressions.  Nothing too crazy.

First let me show you the basics of how these changes work.  Let’s start with an easy ii-V-I progression in the key of C.

The progression Coltrane used in Giant Steps is based on a three tonic system. Since we are in the key of C for this example, the key enters for this progression will be C, E and A flat.

The next step is to place our key centers.

Once we have established our key centers, we will approach each major 7th chord with it’s diatonic dominant 7th chord.  Like this.

So now that you understand how to reharmonize a basic ii-V-I using Coltrane’s Giant Steps progression, start to work on voicings that will allow you to move through this progression at a reasonable tempo.

In the next lesson we will start to learn how to solo using some digital patterns.

One Comment

  • Fred Globules |

    Pianist here. I did a Google image search for the chords from Giant Steps and liked the way your transcription image was laid out.

    About the only things I might add is how the three key centers you placed were first identified. I know from other reading that each one is an interval of a major third. So for the key of C you jump to E (C’s major third) and then from E to Ab (E’s major third).The key centers make up an augmented major triad. C, E, Ab, and he’s descending through them. I think you needed to make that clearer.

    Also, a reader might ask where the subsequent ii-V7-1 changes after the 7th measure come from. Why did he jump to Fm7 – Bb7 – Ebmaj7. I mean, I know that’s the ii-V7-I for Ebmaj7 but why Ebmaj7? The reader might like a clear explanation that he’s backtracking through the tonal centers in the first measure, only where originally he descended, now he’s ascending from Ebmaj7 through its augmented major triad: Ebmaj7 –> Gmaj7 –> Bmaj7, as you’ve indicated using simple ii-V7-I changes for each of those three chords.

    Finally he repeats the Fm7 – Bb7 – Ebmaj7 then does a quick turnaround — the ii-V7 of the original first chord of the song which was Bmaj7.

    Your transcription was really easy to read which I appreciated. I like your modern conventional notation instead of chord names with dashes or triangles etc.

    Thanks for considering my suggestions.

So, what do you think ?