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Giant Steps: Comping and Chord Melody

There are few tunes in the jazz repertoire that strike fear in the heart of players such as the John Coltrane tune “Giant Steps,” which can be a challenge from both a soloing and comping perspective.





In this lesson, you will focus on learning two main ways to comp through Giant Steps, often referred to as the “Coltrane Matrix,” using 3rds and 7ths as well as 3 to 7 triads, as well as explore two sample chord melody arrangements to this classic Coltrane tune.

While Giant Steps may seem like a huge task to tackle in the woodshed, the chords and chord melody arrangements in this lesson will get you on your way to sounding hip over this tough chord progression in both jam and gigging situations.

3rds and 7ths

The first harmonic idea that we will use over the matrix are the 3rd and 7th of each chord. By using only the third and seventh of each chord, you allow yourself to move quickly through the changes while outlining the harmony at the same time.

Even though you do not have a root in these voicings, these two note chords outline the harmonic function of each chord.

  • The 3rd will tell us whether the chord is major or minor
  • The 7th will tell us whether the chord is major, dominant or minor seventh 

If you have never used these voicings before try playing them without any accompaniment and hear how the changes are outlined without the root being present.

These voicings are similar to what a piano player would put in their left hand when comping through a tune. As you get used to these new voicings, you will start to add notes on top of the 3rds and 7ths that will be similar to what a pianist would put in their right hands when comping.

In this example, the 3rds and 7ths are used beginning with the 3rd as the lowest note of the first chord, Bmaj7. Notice how the voice leading allows you to stay in one position, even though you are navigating through three different keys.

Staying in one position will allow you to quickly move between each chord even at fast tempos.

As you’ve probably already noticed, there is no 7th in the first chord voicing, Bmaj7. In order to avoid a perfect fifth interval, which tends to sound out of place in certain situations, you are using the 6th instead.

The 6th is a common substitute for the 7th in a major seventh chord, and it allows you to use a perfect fourth interval instead of a perfect fifth.


Listen & Play

Giant Steps Chords 1


In this example, the first chord, Bmaj7, has the seventh as the lowest note. Notice how you are using the 6th, E, instead of the 7th over the Gmaj7 chord to avoid the perfect fifth interval.

For the purposes of this article, you will only look at these two positions. But, if you find that these chords come easy to you, and you want to explore them further, try starting with the seventh of Bmaj7 on the fifth string, or the third of Bmaj7 on the fourth string.

This will give you two more areas of the neck where you can outline these changes, which in turn allows you to cover the entire neck at any given time.


Listen & Play

Giant Steps Chords 2


Now that you have a handle on the 3rds and 7ths by themselves, you can add a third note to our chord above each grip. In this example, you will begin by adding the 9th to the Bmaj7 chord and the D7 chord. Notice how the 9th of D7, E, is also the 6th of Gmaj7, and the 9th of Bb7, C, is the 6th of Ebmaj7.

Even though you are using the same note over two different chords, the quality of that note changes when the thirds and sevenths change underneath it. So, you are now getting twice the mileage out of one note by keeping it as a common tone between the two chords.

Players like Lenny Breau, Ted Greene and Ed Bickert were masters at this technique of using common tones on top of 3rd and 7th voicings.


Listen & Play

Giant Steps Chords 3


Now you will start by adding the 6th to the Bmaj7 chord, and the 13th to the D7 chord.

Instead of keeping this note for two chords as in the previous example, you will now voice-lead the line down by whole steps through the progression. The 13th of D7, B, leads down to the 9th of Gmaj7, A, which then leads down to the 13th of Bb7, G, before finally settling on the 9th, F, of Ebmaj7.

Using a moving line on top of 3rd and 7th voicings gives your comping a sense of melody that is sometimes missing when you use other chords such as drop 2 and drop 3’s. This approach really helps when interacting with a soloist, as the moving line can feed ideas to the lead player and vice versa.


Listen & Play

Giant Steps Chords 4


In this example, you will add a fourth note to the first group of chords that will help give your voicings some added thickness.

Notice how the upper line uses a mixture of leaps and steps to create a melodic idea throughout the phrase. The use of the C# on the Gmaj7 chord adds a Lydian flavor to the chord that can be used to inspire our soloist to explore more tonal colors in their blowing.


Listen & Play

Giant Steps Chords 5


In the final example using 3rd and 7th voicings, you will add a fourth note to the second group of chords. This melodic line makes use of three #11 tones, over Bmaj7, D7 and Bb7.  Again, this gives your comping a Lydian and Lydian Dominant flavor that can be used to color our chords and inspire your soloists to use different modes in their lines.


Listen & Play

Giant Steps Chords 6

3 to 7 Triads

The next chord type that you will apply to the Coltrane Matrix is called the 3 to 7 triad. These are triads that are built off of the 3rd, 5th, and 7th of each chord. By playing triads off of the third of each chord, you can use a simple structure that you already know, in a new situation to create fresh and interesting comping patterns.

Notice the types of triads for each chord:


  • Maj7chords: the 3 to 7 triad is a minor chord.
  • 7th chords: a diminished triad.
  • m7 chords the 3 to 7 triad is major.

Here the progression is voice lead beginning with a root position triad on the first chord.


Listen & Play

Giant Steps Chords 7


Now you will begin our comping pattern with a first inversion D# minor triad over the Bmaj7 chord.


Listen & Play

Giant Steps Chords 8


Lastly, you will begin our progression with the second inversion D# minor triad over the Bmaj7 chord. 


Listen & Play

Giant Steps Chords 9


After you get these particular voicings under your fingers, try playing them on different string sets. And, if you want to sound really modern, try spreading them out over four strings with a skip between the first and second, or second and third note of each triad.

Giant Steps Chord Melody

Now that you have looked at different ways to comp through the changes of the first eight bars of Giant Steps, you can apply these voicings to a chord melody over the whole tune.

In this first chord melody example you are using 3rd and 7th voicings with the melody note added on top.


Listen & Play

Giant Steps Chords 10


Now you will use four-note chords based on the 3rds and 7ths in order to expand upon the three-note chords you learned in the first chord melody sample.


Listen & Play

Giant Steps Chords 11


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