In this post I am going to be talking about John Contrane’s Giant Steps. Specifically I am going to look at the methods and tactics that can be used for improvising a solo over the piece. Giant Steps is widely regarded as a technically difficult piece for musicians to solo over; I will explain why later on. To begin with lets look at the chords;
This is the chart for Giant Steps, but before delving into the technique of soloing over it I must touch on why Coltrane wrote it; COLTRANE MATRIX.
The Coltrane matrix is method devised by John Coltrane to hint at all 12 keys simultaneously;
“In jazz harmony, the Coltrane changes (Coltrane Matrix or cycle, also known as chromatic third relations and multi-tonic changes) are a harmonic progression variation using substitute chords over common jazz chord progressions, the Giant Steps cycle is the culmination of Coltrane’s theories applied to a completely new chord progression: Coltrane uses the Coltrane cycle in descending Major 3rd tonal transpositions in the opening bars and then ascending ii V I progressions separated by a major 3rd in the second section of Giant Steps.” – http://danadler.com/misc/Cycles.pdf
Improvising with the major scale
Giant Steps can be reduced to three major keys. These are B major, G major and Eb major. Firstly we can use the major scale to improvise through the chord changes.
If we take the first four bars we start in B major with Bmaj7; we then modulate to G major with the D7 which is the 5 of G major. This is called a Dominant Substitution instead of staying in B, Coltrane has gone to the -3rd (Dmin7) and sharped the minor 3rd to a major 3rd. making it Dominant which naturally pulls to what its the fifth of. The D7 pulls to Gmaj7 as a 5-1 chord progression which then modulates to Eb Major using the same method. From the Gmaj7 it goes to the 5 of Eb which is Bb7 which the pulls to Ebmaj7 for a whole bar. It worth noting that the key changes three times in only three bars, one of the reasons Giant Steps is so hard to improvise through as the sheer speed its played at and the complex key changes. The fourth bar modulates back to G major with a Minor 2-5-1 in G major. This is a very common chord progression in jazz it consists of going from the 5th chord/degree which in G major is A-7 to the 5th D7 to the 1/tonic Gmaj7. This chord progression is seen in countless jazz standards and can be another very effective method of modulating keys. Taking the next four bars of Giant steps it starts of in G major with Gmaj7 then dom subs again with a 2-5 to Ebmaj7 (Bb7-Ebmaj7). The same method of modulation is then used in the next bar to modulate to B major (F#7-Bmaj7) we then have a bar of Bmaj7. The eighth bar shows a minor 2-5-1 in Ebmaj (F-7 Bb7 Ebmaj7) we are now in Eb major. Taking the next four bars we start of in Eb with a bar of Ebmaj7. In the next bar there is a minor 2-5-1 taking it back to G major for a bar of Gmaj7 (A-7 D7 Gmaj7). The twelfth bar shows a minor 2-5-1 in B major we then have a bar of Bmaj7.
Finally the last four bars we start in B major before a minor 2-5-1 takes us into Eb major (F-7 Bb7 Ebmaj7) the last bar shows a 2-5 in B major (C#-7 F#7) which takes us back to the top.
To recap, here is a chord chart I have devised to show where the keys change;
To improvise using the major scale you simply play the major scale of the key you are in; so B major, G major for the next bar, G major for the following, Eb major next bar etc. Scales that guitar and bass players are usually more accustomed with and more comfortable using are pentatonic scales.
It is possible to use the minor pentatonic scale to improvise through Giant Steps.
From each Major key there are three pentatonic’s you can use. These are minor pentatonic’s from the 2nd 3rd and 6th degrees of the major scale. Taking B major for example you can use C# minor pentatonic C# minor being the 2nd of B major, D# minor pentatonic D#min being the 3rd of B major and G# minor pentatonic as G#min is the 6th of B major.
The minor pentatonic from the 2nd degree of the major scale will particularly work over chords of dominance e.g. in B major F#7 as well as C#min7b5 and C#min. The minor pentatonic from the 3rd and 6th degrees work particularly well over chords of resolution e.g. maj7 as well as, in B major, D#min and G#maj.
Soloing through 2 5 1s can be difficult especially when playing at fast tempos. A great method of improvising through 2 5 1s is to use the pentatonic scale. Taking what i’ve already said about using pentatonic. We can use the minor pentatonic from the 2nd 3rd and 6th degree of the major scale. With this in mind looking at the 3rd and 4th bars we have a 2 5 1 in G major (A-7 D7 Gmaj7). This progression is in G major. We can use the minor pentatonic from the second degree of G major which is A minor pentatonic to play through the 2 and the 5 as it will work with the minor and the dominant chord. Then we can use the minor pentatonic from the 6th degree of G major which is E minor pentatonic to play through the 1 as this pentatonic works over maj7 chords. You could also use the minor pentatonic from the 3rd degree of G major which is B minor pentatonic to play through the 1.
This is a great method for improvising through 2 5 1s at this kind of speed especially for guitar players as they are usually more comfortable using the minor pentatonic.
A method of improvising through Giant Steps which will take a lot of knowledge both of theory and of your instrument is using arpeggios to play through the chord changes. This method is perhaps easier on the piano as if you are playing the chords you’ve already got your fingers on the notes in the arpeggios just phrase them how ever you like to improvise a solo.
To use arpeggios we need to know how these chords are build if we just take the first three bars we have:
Bmaj7 – D7 – Gmaj7 – Bb7 – Ebmaj7
Firstly lets look at how these chords are built. Maj7 chord is made of a 1-3-5-7. 1 being the root, 3 being the major 3rd, 5 being the 5th and 7 being the 7th.
In the case of Bmaj7 this is: B = 1 Eb = 3 F# = 5 A# = 7. We know that these notes will definitely work over Bmaj7 as they are all in the chord.
The D7 is a dominant chord. Dominant chords are made up of a 1-3-5-b7. The arpeggio of D7 is;
D = 1 F# = 3 A = 5 C = b7
Here are the arpeggios for all the chords in this progression: