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Giant Steps: Simplifying the Coltrane Matrix

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When guitarists first begin to explore John Coltrane's Giant Steps changes, this series of chords can seem like an impossible mountain to climb, but that doesn’t have to be the case...

Rather than focussing on big, two-octave scales and arpeggios right from the get go (which can make soloing over this tune difficult), you can instead start your study of Giant Steps by using triads, one-octave arpeggios, and the 1235 outline to get your ears and fingers around these changes quickly and enjoyably.

This lesson will break down those three approaches, providing four practice variations for each along the way, as well as give you examples of how to turn these technical approaches into licks over the first 8 bars of Giant Steps, which is also called the Coltrane Matrix.


Triad Outlines

The first motive that we'll use to outline the Coltrane matrix is the root based triad: 1-3-5

For the purposes of this example, each triad is written with the same rhythm (two eighth notes and a quarter note). Once we have the triads under your fingers feel free to alter the rhythms for any or all of the chords and actually make some music.

Triads are often overlooked in a traditional jazz context, but they can be a great tool when navigating tough chord changes , such as those found within Giant Steps.

Here are the 1-3-5 triads for the first four bars in ascending fashion.


Listen & Play

Giant Steps Licks 1



In the next example, the triads from example 1 are now presented in reverse order: 5-3-1.

Though it may be tricky to get used to beginning a triad from the top down, this is a great way to bring triads into your lines without sounding like you are simply running up the chords.


Listen & Play

Giant Steps Licks 2



Now that you have the ascending and descending triads under your fingers, you can start to alternate between the two.

In this example, you will ascend the first triad then descend the second triad. Notice how the first note of the second triad (A), completes a B7 chord when added to the first chord. The same thing occurs with the first note of the fourth chord (F on the Bb7), which produces a G7 chord.

Though these connections are not necessarily important to the harmony of the tune, they may help when you are working on finding fingerings for these exercises.


Listen & Play

Giant Steps Licks 3



The next exercise is the reverse of example 3, where the first triad is descending and the second triad is ascending. Now the first note of the third chord (D), is the root of the previous chord and completes a one octave 1-3-5-8 triad.

The same thing occurs between the fourth and fifth chords where the Bb on the downbeat of bar three completes a Bb triad, 1-3-5-8, from the Bb7 chord in the previous bar.


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Giant Steps Licks 4



Four Note Arpeggio Outlines

Now that you have worked out the triads for each of the chords in the Coltrane matrix, you can move on to the four note arpeggios for each chord.

For the purposes of this article, each arpeggio is presented in only one position on the neck. After this position becomes comfortable, feel free to play these arpeggios on different string sets and positions on the fretboard.

As with the first motive, feel free to alter the rhythms of each arpeggio once you have basic eighth notes under your fingers. One way to do this would be to play a triplet on beat one and a quarter note on beat two or vice versa.

The first example presents the four note arpeggios for each chord in ascending order.


Listen & Play

Giant Steps Licks 5



This example presents the 1-3-5-7 arpeggios in descending order.


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Giant Steps Licks 6



Now you can begin to alternate between ascending and descending arpeggios. This example is only one possible fingering, feel free to explore other fingerings to open up these ideas to different positions on the neck.


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Giant Steps Licks 7



The following example is a reverse of the previous outline, where the arpeggios are now alternating between descending and ascending fingerings.


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Giant Steps Licks 8



1235 Outline

In the next four examples, you will look at one of Coltrane’s favorite motives: 1-2-3-5

This motive has become an essential part of the improvisational repertoire for many famous jazz musicians, including Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Jerry Bergonzi and Miles Davis to name a few.

In order to make this as simple as possible, it is important to think of each root as 1.  Then you just play 1-2-3-5 over each of the chords, instead of thinking of this motive within the different keys, which would mean thinking about the D7 motive as 5-6-7-9 in the key of G for example.

The first example presents the 1235 motive in ascending order over each chord in the progression.


Listen & Play

Giant Steps Licks 9



This example presents the previous exercise in reverse order: 5-3-2-1. Getting used to playing this motive backwards can be a bit tricky, as the fingerings start to get a bit awkward depending on what string set we use.

Though it may be a difficult to get down this exercise can improve your technique as well as your ability to improvise over Giant Steps.


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Giant Steps Licks 10



As with the previous exercises, you can now play the 1-2-3-5 motive alternating between the ascending and descending versions.

There is now a bit of a jump between the second and third chord and the fourth and fifth chord, as the last note of one and the first note of the next is a perfect fourth. The fourth interval one the guitar can be played by using one finger on the same fret over two different strings. Instead of playing each note with the tips of your fingers, as we have been taught to do, try barring these two notes, which will allow for a smoother transition between each chord.


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Giant Steps Licks 11



In the next exercise, you will alternate the 1-2-3-5 motive between the descending and ascending versions.

In this example, the perfect fourth interval is now ascending between the second and third and fourth and fifth chords. Between the second and third chords we can use the bar technique from the previous example, though because of the tuning of the second string the fourth interval is now over two frets so you can use two different fingers for these notes.


Listen & Play

Giant Steps Licks 12



Giant Step Licks

Now that you have worked through the three motives, you can mix them all together to create lines over the Giant Steps chord changes. For the purposes of the exercise you are only using eighth notes. Once these licks are comfortable, you can alter the rhythms to create more interest in our melodic ideas.


Listen & Play

Giant Steps Licks 13



Here is another example of how you can mix the three motives. These examples are only a few ways to manoeuvre through Giant Steps, once you have checked them out start making up your own lines.

Start by writing out the lines away from the guitar, and then playing them to see how they sound. Once this becomes comfortable practice doing it on the spot at a slow tempo, then slowly raise the tempo until it gets closer to the original recording. The best way to do this is to use a program like Band in the Box as it allows you to change the tempo and hear your ideas against the harmony at the same time.


Listen & Play

Giant Steps Licks 14



Now you can take these ideas and apply them to the first eight bars, the Coltrane matrix in Eb and B. Again, the exercise is written in straight eighth notes so feel free to alter the rhythms or to write your own lines with more variety in the rhythms.


Listen & Play

Giant Steps Licks 15



The last example is another line written over the first eight bars of the tune using the three motives. Once these examples are under your fingers, try writing and improvising your own lines over the first eight bars using the three motives we have learned in this lesson.


Listen & Play

Giant Steps Licks 16



Now that you have these three motives under your fingers and in your ears, you can add to your repertoire by developing your own Giant Steps melodic ideas.

You can do this by taking motives from Coltrane’s solo, or any other famous recording of the tune, or by simply making up your own melodic ideas.  Using these simple three and four note motives can be an easy way to negotiate through any series of tough chord changes, not only Giant Steps, but also standards like Lazybird, Moments Notice and Stablemates.

Not only does using short motives help us to navigate these tough tunes, but it can also give our solos a sense of continuity that may not be found when we rely on scales, arpeggios and patterns.




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