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"Giant Steps" - From Beginner to Master!
"Giant Steps" is a jazz tune composed by John Coltrane back in 1959. It became one of those iconic jazz standards that have been covered numerous times by many great artists. And there's so much to learn from that tune!
We'll not only teach you how to play this tune on the guitar but also how to incorporate concepts from this piece into your own compositions and arrangements.
First of all, if you are not familiar with that tune, please listen to it on YouTube first! Let's be upfront and very honest! Giant Steps scares a lot of musicians, and that's for two good reasons!
Although these quotes are funny to read, we don't want to argue about the outstanding piano chops of jazz pianist Tommy Flanagan, but these quotes make a valid point.
From the outside, Giant Steps seems to be complicated and overwhelming. And for that reason, let's have a closer look at it, and you'll be surprised by how easy it is, once you start seeing the patterns.
The Simple Pattern behind Giant Steps
Let's approach this tune by looking at the real book. For those who are not familiar with the term 'real book', it's a collection of transcribed jazz standards that usually contain the chord changes and the melody on top. Performing musicians use these real books to look up particular chord progressions, it's a handy shortcut.
Let's watch TC explain the basics of the chord progression in Giant Steps before we dive deeper.
The Root Cycle 4 Ascending
When we look at the rest points of the piece, then it becomes clear that the root tones follow a straightforward pattern, and that is what we call a "Root Cycle 4 ascending" or the RC4 ascending. Actually, it's quite simple. From your starting note, you go up by four chromatic steps, then another four up, and so on. Eventually, we end up on your starting note in an octave position.
Once you realize that the RC4 ascending builds the skeleton of the tune, it already solves the problem of the high tempo as you can skip some of the chords in between those rest points (if you need to). You can even "ghost" some of the parts, but we'll explain later what that is.
You'll have no trouble following the piece in its original pace anymore. So, that's a great way to simplify the overall structure. Now, let's use this RC4-pattern as our starting point, and let's go into the chord changes in between the rest points.
So, how can we go up by four chromatic steps exquisitely and musically? Now, this is what later should be called the "Coltrane changes". At its core, it's a game with numbers. So, that's one of the magical applications where Interval Theory becomes a way more natural approach to the analysis as it frees you from any musical key. Let's start with a technique that we call "Black-Box-Thinking"!
The original progression is four chromatic steps up from B. So, the chords that we are going to insert in between those rest points are supposed to result in total movement of four steps up as well, right?
So, let's see what happens when we apply our "Black-Box-Thinking"-technique to the first three bars. Step 1 shows the original movement from the RC4 and Step 2 shows the pattern inside the black box.
Essentially, Coltrane has inserted a simple pattern in between the rest points of the RC4. That's what you are seeing inside the black box. But we can add up all the numbers. As they are chromatic steps, we somehow should arrive at 4, right? Well, the end result of all steps is 16. But how does this relate to 4?(3+5+3+5 = 16)
We are dealing with redundant notes after we've crossed over the octave, which happens after 12 steps. Let's get rid of this redundancy, and the number 4 appears again (16-12 = 4)!
Now, let's have a look at how Coltrane modulates from bar three to five. That defines a second pattern that works perfectly in Jazz. Follow the numbers first, and then, we'll explain why it works musically. Again, we are following the 2-step-process so that you can see what is happening in between the rest points.
Using the 6-interval is actually a smart move as it sets up the basic ii-V-I cadence. Many jazz guys refer to this as the "tritone substitution," but let's come back to the root progression. What is essential, though, is that you see that those numbers add up to 16 again, which brings us back to the RC4 ascending, remember? (16-12 = 4)
The Root Cycle 4 Descending
There's one little alteration of the pattern at the end of the chart. We are talking about the turn-around, which brings us from Eb to the B again. By the way, that's the RC4 again, but this time, in a descending manner.
Now, you start seeing how Coltrane uses the inner patterns to create 'artificial' movement between the rest points of the RC 4 ascending. He could have inserted even more chords in between and if you want to apply this concept to your writing, keep this one thing in mind:
It sounds excellent when you move into your rest points by five chromatic steps up! Look at Coltrane's chart again; he does it every single time! We mean, EVERY SINGLE TIME! And that's the reason why it sounds so familiar. It brings us back to the sound of the Diatonic system.
Whenever you play a five up, it gives you an authentic cadence, as you can see on the Circle of Fifths below!
Giant Steps is an outstanding demonstration of how to continually modulate while keeping a basic pattern and a Diatonic feeling. That's because of the ascending 5s!
Now that we know the construction of this piece let's have a look at the chart again. And this time, let's mark all the black boxes that live in between the rest points of the RC4.
Again, now you start seeing that this is a simple tune! If you are lost, the RC4 will remain your guide!
The Melody and possible Chord Structures
Let's build things up from bottom to top. Next, we want to look at the melody. Do you still remember that in the beginning, we said that this tune is simple? Well, this is not only true for the overall chord progression but also the choice of melody tones. But please don't confuse simple with simple-minded. Actually, the melody is fantastic and works amazingly well as a lead line as we are about to find out.
Coltrane not only creates excellent opportunities for chord structures by writing simple chord tones in the line, he even goes back to using a simple pattern for the melody. Against the root tones, he follows a straightforward concept. And by the way, using repetition is crucial for turning meaningless melody fragments into strong musical statements!
The fact that Coltrane uses basic chord tones for the most part (scale tones 1, 3, 5, and 9) opens up a variety of choices for the actual chord structures. Furthermore, the melody is very singable (or easy to whistle at least), and this simplicity in the lead line compensates for more vertical complexity that we are about to bring in.
When we go into the chords, you always want to pick your other tones so that your top note makes sense for the whole vertical structure. As long as you can use chord tones below your lead line, it will sound good!
There are many methods available on how to harmonize a melody over any chord progression, but we will go into these concepts in other places, not in this article. So, let's consider each tone on top as a part of the chord structure. You are seeing our suggestions for those chords in the graphic below. Of course, you can use other scales so that the chord tones might change a bit (for example, scale tone 7 for -7, or 3 for -3 and so on).
Now you start seeing how complex these vertical structures are, especially by given the fact that the original playback tempo of Giant Steps is very fast! The idea of this article is to show you how to deal with complexity step-by-step, so you know where things are coming from and how you can apply those techniques in your own tunes. And don't worry, we'll provide you with the harmonization of the whole tune, not just these four bars.
See the lowest part of the chord, which is colored in grey? That's a simple "drop-2" open harmony-voicing. You take the second part from the top and drop it down an octave. This action creates a bit more space between the lead line on top and the next line below it (that's the third part).
Hence, you'll hear the melody more clearly, and the whole vertical structure becomes more transparent and actually more comfortable to play on the guitar.
Let's go into the performance of these chord changes and watch TC demonstrate the progression on the guitar in the video below. We encourage you to follow along with what TC is doing.
Really take your time and make sure that you learn those shapes properly at a slow tempo. They will serve you well in your musical life.
The guitar voicings for Giant Steps are generally open. You will notice that many of these voicings also live in the Pentatonic system! We'll go into this in dedicated materials, and even much deeper inside the Academy.
But there's still more to take away from these chords. And that brings us to the next section ...
Using the "Outside Intervals" (OIs)
If you follow our terminology, then you already know what "OIs" are. In brief, it's the top note, and the bottom note of any given vertical structure. Open harmony will give you lots of space between those two notes, and this is going to become our advantage, but first, let's have a look at the OIs from Giant Steps.
There are two main things to take away from using the OIs:
Here's the demonstration of the OIs from Giant Steps. Make sure you learn how to apply those to the guitar as they sound great!
Becoming aware of the OIs is a very precious key that can get your playing skills on the guitar to the next level, so don't miss those and practice them! It's not only excellent ear training, but it also teaches you how those individual notes work together vertically and how they connect to other intervals horizontally!
Bonus: Make your life as a performing musician easier and "ghost" some parts of the tune!
This concept can be life-saving when it gets to these chord changes that fly by so quickly. Instead of trying to catch up with all the chords, try alternating between the full 4p-structures and the 2p-OIs! This will give you some time to breathe and regroup for the upcoming chords. You will realize that it's easier for you to play, and the audience probably won't even recognize that you ghost some of the parts.
We want to come back to this great pattern that modulates through the RC4 ascending. Below you are seeing a little bonus exercise for you that you can (and should) practice. See how the pattern repeats over the RC4? Put this modulation into your bag of tricks so you can use it in your work from now on!
The original RC4 is color-coded in blue, so you can see easily what's going on. This sequence lets you move to a new tonal center that is four chromatic steps up from where you start.
Download Your "Giant Steps" Play-Along Template
Ok, so here comes the most valuable part for you!
If you want to practice this tune to different tempi, then give us your full attention for a second! We've created a full package for you that provides you with everything you need to practice Giant Steps and everything that we've explained in this article!
To make your practice work even more fun, the backing track is played by a small jazz ensemble (piano, double bass, and drums). The tempi are 100bpm, 140bpm, 180bpm, and 220bpm!
This will give you a more precise feeling of your playing. You can practice the lead line, the OIs or your full 4p-chords (or any variation of all that) against the Giant Steps backing track.
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Giant Steps almost lives in between the Diatonic system and Interval Theory. It bridges perfectly from straight ii-V-I cadences on a temporary tonal center to (almost) free modulation. To give you a short recap of what we've covered in this article here's a quick summary:
The most challenging part of this tune is the tempo. Start at a slow pace and make sure you get the chords down right.
Then, once your fingers recognize the shapes on the guitar, turn up the tempo slowly until you reach 220 bpm.
Our backing tracks will help you practice all the parts. Take advantage of that!
Thomas Chase Jones
TC is one of the most successful composers in the area of animation and has a great passion for the guitar. He co-founded the Music Interval Theory Academy in 2016. Since then, he dedicates all of his time to helping other musicians and composers grow!