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Tom Quayle: Coltrane Changes Part 1

Lesson Notes

** As featured in issue 43 **

Hey guys and welcome back to my column for this issue. We’re going to be changing tack a little bit for this lesson, looking at something new, in the form of a set of chord changes that re-defined what was possible in the context of Jazz improvisation and composition. John Coltrane was a revolutionary sax player whose album, Giant Steps, gave us a brand new chord sequence that has become so much a part of the Jazz canon that they have been named after the great man himself - Coltrane Changes. This particular set of chord changes was famed at the time as being incredibly tricky to play over due, in part, to its inherent complexity and the insane speed at which Giant Steps was recorded. Coltrane was said to have practised obsessively to develop his vocabulary over these chords and they have become a standard badge of honour for Jazz musicians who can successfully tackle them.

Coltrane developed the Giant Steps changes by using something known as a three tonic system. Normally within most popular music, including Jazz, there is a home key with a tonic chord that the tune will resolve to, usually beginning and ending on this chord. This single tonic forms the basis of most of the music we listen to. Coltrane developed a system whereby three tonics or keys were used forming a tri, or three-tonic system. In order to find the three tonics/keys in question he divided the octave in three equal parts. If we take a starting note, such as G for example, and move up a major third, we get the note B. Moving up another major third gives us the note Eb, whilst moving up a final major third takes us back to G again up an octave. By dividing the octave into these major third intervals, we derive three notes, dividing the octave into three equal parts and giving us our three tonics or keys - in this case G major, B major and Eb major.

In order to create a chord sequence based around each of these keys or tonics, Coltrane preceded each of them with their own V chord, giving us the following V-I relationships: -

D7 – Gmaj7

F#7 – Bmaj7

Bb7 – Ebmaj7

Coltrane arranged these V-I progressions in the following way to create his famous chord progression.

Gmaj7 – Bb7 – Ebmaj7 – F#7 – Bmaj7 – D7 – Gmaj7

The genius behind his approach is that he has started and finished on Gmaj7, making this the overall ‘home’ tonic, whilst still utilising the three tonic system. Coltrane did this by starting on the first tonic chord – Gmaj7 – and then moving up a minor third to the V chord of the Ebmaj7, in this case Bb7. He then resolved this to Ebmaj7 and then moved up another minor third to the V chord of the Bmaj7 – in this case F#7. From here, he resolved to Bmaj7 and then moves up another minor third to the V chord or Gmaj7 – in this case D7. This clever arrangement gives a chord progression that can begin and end on the first tonic chord.

Let’s do this in another key to really make it comfortable. We’ll take the key of F major next. If we start on F and go up a major third we get A, move up another major third we get C#, before moving up another major third back to F again. This gives us the three tonics – F major, A major and C# major. Finding the V chord or each, we get the following V-I relationships:

C7 – Fmaj7

E7 – Amaj7

G#7 – C#maj7

If we now take Coltrane’s approach to arranging these chords into a sequence, we get the following:

Fmaj7 – G#7 – C#maj7 – E7 – Amaj7 – C7 – Fmaj7    

This chord progression can actually be used in place of a regular II-V-I sequence in order to create more movement within the chord progression and more harmonic complexity. You must be very careful to make sure that doing this doesn’t affect the soloist or the melody of the tune you are playing, so an element of forward planning and etiquette are involved. As an example of this, we could change a II-V-I in F major:

Gm7 / / / | C7 / / / | Fmaj7 / / / | / / / /

To the following: -

Gm7 – G#7 – C#maj7 – E7 – Amaj7 – C7 – Fmaj7

Notice that we have swapped out the Fmaj7 from the beginning of our Coltrane progression for the II chord of the key. Nothing else has changed, giving us an extended II-V-I progression with far more harmonic movement and complexity.

I recommend that you try creating Coltrane Changes progressions in lots of different keys in order that you get used to both the sound it creates and its layout on the fretboard. Once you’ve done a few you will be able to find them from any given starting point very quickly indeed.

In the next issue we’ll be looking at how Coltrane extended this basic progression for his tune Giant Steps and beginning our journey in developing some vocabulary over this complex harmonic chord sequence whilst soloing. As usual you will find all of these progressions tabbed out in standard tuning in the magazine. Enjoy, good luck and I’ll see you all next time.

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