String Theory with Jimmy Brown: Intro to the Ultimate Jazz-Improv/Theory “Workout,” John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”

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Even if you’ve never listened to the title track to John Coltrane’s 1960 album, Giant Steps, or any of the many covers of this uptempo modern jazz standard that have been recorded over the years, you’ve probably at least heard of the tune’s legendary notoriety from other musicians, and for good reason.

The brilliantly innovative and highly influential tenor saxophonist composed the tune back in 1959 to serve as the ultimate “improvisation workout” for himself, so as to take his bebop chops to the next level, as he had seemingly sought a more harmonically challenging soloing vehicle than what the more conventionally structured progressions in his repertoire offered.

Over the course of the tune’s repeating 16-bar form, its shifting chords modulate repeatedly to three musically distant and unrelated major keys via rapid “two-five-one” changes that demand a focused, disciplined arpeggio-based soloing strategy and technique, lest you fall behind by attempting to run a scale over each chord.

The root notes of the three keys, by the way—B, G and Eb—together form an augmented triad, which consists of widely spaced major-third inervals, thus the apt title of the tune, “Giant Steps.”

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Jimmy Brown

Over the past 30 years, Jimmy Brown has built a reputation as one of the world's finest music educators, through his work as a transcriber and Senior Music Editor for Guitar World magazine and Lessons Editor for its sister publication, Guitar Player. In addition to these roles, Jimmy is also a busy working musician, performing regularly in the greater New York City area. Jimmy earned a Bachelor of Music degree in Jazz Studies and Performance and Music Management from William Paterson University in 1989. He is also an experienced private guitar teacher and an accomplished writer.