I have been teaching this tune a lot recently and it has made me consider in more depth different approaches to this iconic piece.
First and foremost a bit about the song..
Giant steps was recorded in 1959, and released on the album by the same name in 1960. The recording features Coltrane (tenor saxophone), Paul Chambers (double bass), Tommy Flanagan (piano), and Art Taylor (drums).
The premise behind Giant Steps is that it rotates through three different key centres, separated by a 3rd.
B – G –Eb.
I find it helpful to think of Giant steps in two halves, the A section (the first 8 bars) and the B section (the second 8 bars)
The ‘A’ section cycles through these key centres, each key centre preceded by the dominant (V) and sometimes the supertonic (ii) then the dominant (V).
B D7 | G Bb7 | Eb | Am D7
G Bb7 | Eb F#7 | B | (Fm Bb7)
(Notice that the second line is the same as the first but a major 3rd lower)
The ‘B’ Section consists of ii – V –I Chord progressions in our three keys ( Eb G and B)
Eb |Am D7 | G | C#m F#7
B | Fm Bb7 | Eb | C#m F#7
What’s So Hard About That?
But that’s just a load of ii-v-I’s?! Ive been plying a while so what is so hard about Giant Steps as supposed to ‘Autumn Leaves’? you may well be thinking..
The first thing one notices when listening to giant Steps is the speed! It’s a quick tune, roughly 260BPM which is pretty face melting. (Listen to Pat Metheny playing it as a slow bossa – legitimizing playing a slow version of giant steps for everyone else!)
Even at a slow tempo its hard to find a line that flows nicely through the chords, this is for two reasons:-
The first is it changes key every bar in the ‘A’ section and every two bars in the B section. Each key change is a relatively large jump from the last.
The second reason it is hard to ‘flow’ over these changes is that the ‘A’ section changes key halfway through the bar
B D7 | G Bb7 | Eb etc..
The ‘B’ section is a little easier as it changes key on the barline:-
Eb |Am D7 | G | C#m F#7
B | Fm Bb7 | Eb | C#m F#7
How To Start Playing Over Giant Steps
First LISTEN to the original recording. If you don’t have it use this Spotify link
Notice anything? LISTEN again ….
As an aside you may have noticed the piano solo sounds a bit hesitant. Tommy Flannagan was shown the chart for Giant Steps at the recording and assumed it was a mid tempo tune, imagine the fear he felt as Coltrane counted the song in! He later recorded an absolutely burning version of the tune on the album ‘The Trio’ with Ron Carter and Tony Williams. Check it on Spotify:-
You may also have noticed Coltrane uses a lot of melodic patterns and arpeggios. His phrasing is quite straight and he uses mainly quaver based rhythms as the tempo is so fast!
Play the tune!
Here is the leadsheet
LEARN THE CHORDS AND LEARN THE MELODY! Can you comp through the melody with the metronome on 2 &4 ? can you play the melody with the metronome on 2 & 4? Try playing along with the record.
If you don’t want to transcribe the solo yourself (go on try at least the first few bars!) There are a couple of good transcriptions of his solo online, this is an excellent transcription
This version is written in ‘score form’ which is an unusual bet useful way of writing out a transcription, but more on that later!
Id recommend trying to learn at least the first chorus, try to play it against the changes (around 160-190 bpm would be great) use ‘ireal book’ or ‘band in a box’ to generate the chords for you. Or use a looping device, record the chords and loop tem whilst you play over the top.
As I mentioned earlier there are lots of patterns and melodic ‘cells’ and fragments that Coltrane uses repeatedly in this solo. The score form of the transcription allows you to analyse each of the 11 choruses of the solo and see what patterns he repeated. I have written out some of the most repeated fragments and presented them as ‘licks’
Try playing through them, pick ones you like, try in different keys/positions on the neck.
Coltranes solo sounds so free and fluid as he knew (invented!) these melodic patterns inside out! He had played them over and over until it became second nature. He is well known for being a ferocious practise monster.
Some Ideas Of Note
There are lots of great ideas in the solo, but a few kept coming up again and again.
- The most common by far (it has almost become a jazz cliché) is the pattern
R 2 3 5 (in G – G A B D in Eb -Eb F G Bb in B – B C# D# F#)
Can you use this pattern over each major (i) chord and dominant(V) chord?
If you are playing guitar, try it in positions (around the 3rd fret or 5th fret etc. if in doubt see earlier lesson on playing in position)
- Use of the ‘Be-Bop Scale’ over ii-v-I chord progressions. It seems as if Coltrane is often ‘ignoring’ chord two and playing the ‘be-bop’ scale over the V chord. Often descending and resolving to chord i.
[key of Eb]
Bb A Ab G F Eb D C Bb Ab G F Eb
*the dominant be bop scale is the mixolydian scale with an added natural 7th. Check out David Bakers Be-bop book for almost too much information on them!
- Using the R 2 3 5 pattern based on chord v of the major I chord.
Bb C D F
This also works over minor chords, but you have to adjust the pattern to fit the minor chord [R 2 b3 5]
C D Eb G
This is a nice way of adding the 6th and 9th over the chords.
There are loads more patterns, again please download and check out my analysis for a more complete set of melodic ideas.
Good luck playing Giant Steps! Feel free to comment or email me with questions. Coltrane was an amzing musician and there is a lot to be learnt from him. Here are some interviews and documentaries about and with him.
(an essay by Evan Parker who if you don’t know his playing check him out!!)
(an interview with the man himself)
Download this lesson as a PDF