Giant Steps by John Coltrane is probably the most feared jazz song.
But in this lesson we’re going to look at Giant Steps made easy!
Just the first few bars of that tune, strike fear into the heart of just about every saxophone player. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s because of what is coming up next – Coltrane’s blistering solo.
I’ve got something really special for you today though. Because inside Sax School PRO, we’ve just released a brand new course all about Giant Steps. And I’m going to share the first lesson from that whole course with you today.
Now, even if you’ve got zero interest in playing a solo like John Coltrane, this is a really important song for you to know. That’s because there’s so much stuff that you’ll learn in the melody and the harmony of Giant Steps that’ll help you to play saxophone better.
Joel Purnell from our Sax School tutor team filmed this course. And actually, a lot what he talks about in this course is the stuff that he teaches his students at the Leeds Conservatorium here in the UK. So it’s packed with a load of great information.
In this very first lesson, Joel is teaching you how to play the melody. And he’s using a cool technique to break it down and make it memorable.
Introducing Giant Steps
John Coltrane’s Giant Steps is a familiar tune in jazz. And it has a reputation as being one of the most difficult.
But don’t worry. We’re going break it down. It is nowhere near as difficult as it’s made out to be.
So Coltrane recorded this tune originally in 1959 – a pivotal year in jazz with releases for Miles, and the real beginning of the modal period of jazz.
It was released in 1960 on the album entitled Giant Steps, which is a great album and one worth checking out.
So we are going to have a look at the melody in this lesson, and we’re going to break it down. And it’s a really simple melody to get our fingers around. So let’s have a look at the melody.
Play it your way
Before we get into it, don’t be worried about Giant Steps. It’s one of those tunes that everyone talks about, like it’s almost impossible – a godlike tune if you’re able to play it. But it’s just not the case. It’s really simple. The melodies are really easy to learn. It’s not got any complicated rhythms in it or complicated notes.
And in fact, it’s made up of just three shapes, two of which are played in two keys. So that’s all we need to learn for the tune.
And also when it comes to improvisation, which we’ll look at in further lessons, all you need to play is three major scales. And also if you’re familiar from a harmony point of view with III, II, V, I, that’s all that’s in Giant Steps.
So actually there’s less material and fewer scales than in many other standards that are considered to be easier.
Slow it down
Now, the reason I think that Giant Steps is considered to be a difficult tune is simply that it’s generally played so fast. Now, one thing I would say with that is any tune that you play at 290 beats per minute is going to be difficult!
However, we don’t have to play Giant Steps at 290 beats per minute like John Coltrane did. We can play it slower and there’s nothing wrong with that. At the end of the day, this is jazz. It’s a very personal endeavour and if we want to play a tune slower or faster than the original recording, we can change the style.
I might want to play it as a Latin and in fact, I do sometimes play Giant Steps as a medium-tempo Latin. It sounds great.
I think if you do try and replicate the original with a tune like this that is so well known, you’re always fighting a losing battle. Because that Coltrane solo will always be in the listener’s mind. And whether you do a better solo than Coltrane (and good luck to us all with that!) or if you do a different one, it’s just in their mind.
So actually, by changing the arrangement, then you can escape that trap, and the listener will hear it in a new way. And that’s always a really good thing to do with repertoire. It’s totally up to us.
So even though you may see tempo markings on certain pieces of music, you don’t have to play them at that tempo. It’s purely a suggestion. In the same way we often interpret melody and harmony in our own way because we’re jazz improvisers. It’s a very personal pursuit, and that’s fine to do.
So let’s get into the melody. There are only three shapes we need to learn for this entire 16-bar melody.
Two of the shapes we’re going to learn in two keys. And one shape we only need to learn in one key.
Put them all together in a very specific way and we’ve got the entire 16-bar tune that is Giant Steps.
First Shape: Group 1 (version 1)
The first shape is a major 7 shape and it’s descending. It comes down to major seven 5, 3, 1, and then it goes up to the flat 3 – the minor third.
So in the key of C for example, that would be B, G, E, C, E flat. It’s as simple as that.
Now, the first shape we need to learn in the tenor key will be an A major 7 shape, going to the minor third, and on alto, it’s an E major 7 shape going to the minor third.
- So on tenor sax that’s G sharp, E, C sharp, A, and up to the C – the minor third.
- And on alto sax, that’s D sharp, B, G sharp, E, and up to G natural – the minor third.
First Shape: Group 1 (version 2)
So that’s a pretty simple shape. So let’s do it in the other key we need.
- For tenor players, this is going to be an F major 7 shape – going up to the minor third
- For alto players, this is going to be a C major 7 shape – going up to the minor third
Once again, they both go up to that minor third.
So on tenor that’s E C A F and up to the Ab
On alto that’s going to be B G E C and up to the Eb.
Second Shape: Group 2 (version 1)
So we’ve done quite a big lump of the tune there. So next, let’s have a look at our second shape.
And there are a few ways of looking at this shape. We could look at it as a pentatonic.
So a minor pentatonic is 1, flat (b) 3, 4, 5, and flat (b) 7.
It’s the same as a major pentatonic. It just starts on a different note. So for example, C sharp minor pentatonic is the same as the relative major which is E major pentatonic. It’s the same series of notes but it just has a different starting point. It’s a different mode of the pentatonic – a different starting note.
So the first way of looking at this shape is 1, flat 7, up to flat 3.
In the key of C sharp minor pentatonic, that would be C sharp (the root), B (the flat 7), and E, (the flat 3).
A second way will be to look at it from the major pentatonic – E major pentatonic if we’re looking at the same one. And that would be 6, 5, 1. So C sharp is the 6, B is the 5, and E is the 1.
And the third way I’m going to give you to look at it is using intervals. So we’re going down a tone – C sharp to B – and up a fourth – B to E.
So there are three different ways of looking at it.
And when you’re learning things like this, there isn’t a “right” way. We’re all different. Some of us are quite mathematical. Some of us prefer to think about structures we already know or a tune we’ve already learned. It doesn’t matter which way you think about it. .All that matters is that you get it right.
So it’s worth trying out several methods when you’re trying to memorise something, and you’ll find that one of them just jumps to mind quicker than the others, and that’s the one for you. And you can reuse that method when you come to learning something new. It’s a really useful way of working.
Okay, so let’s have a look at this second shape. So, I’m going to talk about this shape as a minor pentatonic today. So the first one is based on C sharp minor pentatonic for tenor players, which is G sharp minor pentatonic for alto players.
On Tenor, this is C sharp, B, E.
On alto, this is G sharp, F sharp, B.
Second Shape: Group 2 (version 2)
we’re going to do this shape again – once again in a different key.
So this time for tenor players, it’s going to be based on the A minor pentatonic – the notes are A G C.
For alto players, it’s going to be the E minor pentatonic The notes are E, D, G.
Third Shape: Group 3
We’ve got one more shape to learn.
So this is based on the basic three notes of an F triad for tenor and a C triad for alto. But we’re going to play it in a slightly weird way. We’re almost going to merge both a major and a minor triad.
So the first two notes are going to be from the minor triad.
- On tenor, that’s F and Ab.
- On alto, that’s C and Eb.
And then the second part of it is based on the second two notes of the major triad.
- For the tenor – F major triad, it’s A and C.
- For alto, it’s E and G.
And then we’re going to come back down to the minor third of the minor triad.
- For alto, that would be Eb,
- For Tenor that would be Ab.
So the whole thing on tenor would be:
- F – the root
- A flat – that flat third from the minor triad
- A – the major third from that triad
- C – the fifth from both triads
- A flat – the minor third.
And for alto players, the same thing, except you’re doing it in C. So the notes are C, Eb, E, G, back down to that minor third Eb.
Putting it together
So we’ve learned all the parts of this melody. Now we just need to work out how to fit them all together.
So it starts with the first descending major 7 shapes we looked at.
- A major 7 shape for tenor
- E major 7 shape for alto
then going up to that minor third.
Up a semitone
Now nearly always, the link in this tune is to go up a semitone from the final note of the phrase and then play the next group we’ve looked at, starting on that note.
So here on Tenor, we’ve played G sharp, E, C sharp, A, C, and we’re going to go up a semitone to the C sharp. And then we’re going to play the second little group we’re looked at – so that’s C sharp, B, E on Tenor; and G sharp, F sharp, and B on alto.
You’ll notice when you get to the end of that little second grouping, you’re on the first note of the next descending major 7 shape.
For tenor players that’s an F major 7 shape going up to the minor third at the end
for alto players that’s a C major 7 shape going up to the minor third at the end – E flat.
At this point, once again, we go up a semitone.
So I’ve landed on the Ab on tenor )or Eb on alto). We’re going to go up a semitone to note E, which is the beginning of one of our second groupings again. And we’re going to play that grouping.
For tenor, this is A, G, C
For alto, this is E, D, G.
So let’s put that together.
Then we go up another semitone from that final note, and we are back to the first of the second two groupings – the C sharp pentatonic (or the G Sharp pentatonic).
And then we go another semitone. And you’ll find that you’ve landed on the root of the third group. This is played with a slightly different rhythm, so the first notes are played twice each time.
Hopefully, you can hear how I’ve linked those together.
We’re not playing it with the rhythms yet, though there are not many rhythms in this tune. We’re just playing it as a series of notes.
Music and Lego
Think of it like Lego. I like to think of all music like Lego – a load of different Lego bricks.
So let’s say you’ve bought a Lego boat. You built the boat and then you got bored of it. You’ve taken into bits and now you’ve got lots of different Lego building blocks. There are still those same building blocks, except now we can put them together in a different order. And actually, that’s the difficult thing.
You can think about this from the point of view of technique. For example, if you’ve played every interval in your scales, you’ve played every fundamental Lego brick of music. And music is just putting those Lego bricks back together differently, to build something new. I could build a house out of the Lego that was originally a boat, for example.
And so you can break things down to this almost atomic level. So you’ll find these Lego bricks of music cropping up again and again, but they’re put together in a different order. And actually, that’s the difficult bit to remember.
That’s why little bullet points – like remembering to go up a semitone – can be really useful. I do that.
Here’s a weird analogy for you.
Think about one of those old game shows where they had a conveyor belt with all the different prizes on there. All those prizes were familiar Lego blocks. It was a washing machine, a cabbage, or a dishwasher. You recognise the individual blocks.
But the challenge of the game was to remember the order of them. And that’s a little bit more difficult.
We need bullet points. We need some kind of story to connect them.
And in the case of Giant Steps, it’s nearly always “go up a semitone and play the next Lego brick.“
Let’s put all that together.
- Major 7 shape going up to the minor third then up a semitone
- we play the first of the second group which lands us on the first note of
- second major 7 downwards group. We go down that and up to the minor third – then up a semitone
- we play the second of the second group, then up a semitone,
- We play the first of the second group – up a semitone
- third group, up to the minor third, and then up to the major third, up to the fifth, and then back down to the minor third for the third phrase.
And that’s the whole tune.
Learning the Rhythm
Now, we need to be familiar with the rhythm, and there’s no better way of doing that than just listening to the melody on the recording a few times. That’s the best way of getting rhythms in your head, particularly if you’re not a keen reader. They’ll go in. You’ve got these series of little shapes and you just apply that rhythm, from memory.
And that’s a great way of learning tunes as well. We talk about this all the time in the Spotlight Sessions with the tutor team in Sax School PRO. It’s important to listen to the tune to help you to memorise it.
Final thoughts from Joel
Giant Steps is a really simple tune. There are barely any rhythms in there. And as always, there’s room for interpretation in the way you play those rhythms.
If you check out different players’ versions of Giant Steps, you’ll notice some play it different tempos. Some of them add extra bits to the arrangement, maybe extra chords or extra bars or vamps. Some of them change the rhythm of the tune.
This is improvisation – including the melody to some degree, and we can do whatever we like with it. That’s the whole point of jazz. It’s our interpretation of repertoire.
The written music, including tempo markings, and dynamic markings, in lead sheets are just there as an editor’s guide. It’s their interpretation of the tune. It doesn’t necessarily have to be ours. Our job is to interpret it and make it our own.
How awesome was that? Did you enjoy that lesson? Do you like the way that Joel breaks down the melody like that? I find it really helpful for memorising a melody and internalising it quickly.
If you want to learn more, you would love the rest of the course from Joel, which is inside Sax School PRO. In the rest of the course, Joel digs into a bunch of different examples of how this tune is performed, and then he breaks down the harmony into really simple steps.
This is the thing I love the most. He shows how you can improvise over Giant Steps using just three scales, which is brilliant. It gives you a load of really clear tactics and simple strategies in there that you can easily improvise over this tune which most people think is almost impossible. I think you’re going to love it. The feedback from our members inside Sax School PRO has been amazing.
So right now you can go check that out with an inside Sax School. There’s so much other stuff as well as this course from Joel, including lessons on other styles like classical, straight-ahead jazz, funk, smooth jazz, pop, blues, ska – pretty much anything you want to learn. Get started here.
Most importantly, keep having fun on your saxophone!