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Understanding Coltrane Changes Part 3

In Understanding Coltrane Changes Part 1 I talked about the Three Tonic System and Four Tonic System and how Coltrane used these to create different formulaic cycles.  We took a look at two of his iconic original compositions: Giant Steps and Central Park West and examined them a little bit further.

Moving forward from there, in Understanding Coltrane Changes Part 2 I showed you how Coltrane applied his changes to popular jazz standards.  We looked at how he applied a Three Tonic System to standards and essentially re-harmonized them within the framework of the original piece. Enlightening stuff for sure!

Now here we are at Part 3. Hopefully you’ve already learned a lot and have come to a better understanding of Coltrane’s changes.  If not go back and review Part 1 and 2!

I think it’s entirely appropriate to go over some tips that will help you approach improvising on Coltrane Changes tunes.  Let’s be honest, blowing over these changes can be intimidating! However, you’ve already come to an understanding of how they work, so you have a serious advantage.

Lets go over a few tips:


We’ve actually already talked about this in the previous sections, but it’s important to go over it again.

Identify the Three or Four Tonic System at hand.  Pinpoint the different key centers you are cycling through so that you know what you are dealing with.

Let’s use Giant Steps as an example again:

Coltrane Changes 1

This looks familiar right? The first three bars of Giant Steps tells you almost everything you need to know.  The key centers being cycled through are: B major, G major and Eb major.  The relationship from one to the next is a major 3rd down.

Start off practicing this tune very slow and just worry about playing the notes in each major key.  Ignore all of the chords in between and don’t worry about voice-leading or sounding hip. Just digest the key centers as each bar passes by.

Simplify the tune first, then move forward!

Do as Coltrane did.

Obviously the go-to-guy for understanding how to play over these changes is…you guessed it…John Coltrane.  So first of all make sure you are listening to his records and observing how he plays over these tunes.

Let’s keep talking about Giant Steps: If you listen, Coltrane loves to play different patterns to outline the changes.  Coltrane uses them in a very musical way, but of course patterns by themselves are very robotic.  However, working on some of the patterns he utilized and applying them throughout the tune is a great practicing tool, so let’s go over some patterns to practice:

Pattern: 1 2 3 5

Example: Bmaj7= B C# D# F#

Coltrane Changes 1235

This one you hear Coltrane use all of the time.  Take the given scale or mode for each chord (Major for maj7 chords and Mixolydian for dom7 chords) and play the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 5th tones of the scale for each chord.  In these examples we are looking just at the first 8 bars of Giant Steps.

Pattern: 5 3 2 1

Example: Bmaj7= F# D# C# B

Coltrane Changes 5321

This one is obviously just the inverse of the last pattern, but it has a different feel and sound.

Pattern: 5 6 7 9

Example: Bmaj7= F# G# A# C#

Coltrane Changes 5679

This is another great one to practice. This time it hits on some extensions which of course ads a different texture. Notice how you can clearly hear each chord change being outlined.

Pattern: 9 7 6 5

Example: Bmaj7- C# A# G# F#

Coltrane Changes 9765

Again, this is one is the inverse of the previous pattern.

These are just a few tips and tricks to help you practice these changes and get you started down the right path!

This concludes our series on Understanding Coltrane Changes,

But here’s the challenge (if you so dare): Record a video of yourself improvising over Giant Steps and share it on our facebook page.  We love it when our Learn Jazz Standards community shares with each other what they are working on! If publicly sharing your playing intimidates you, send it to us at [email protected] and we’d be glad to give you some feedback! If you need the help of a play-along, you can find it here.

-Brent Vaartstra

To learn more about this author visit:

Brent Vaartstra
Brent Vaartstra is a professional jazz guitarist and educator living in New York City. He is the head blogger and podcast host for which he owns and operates. He actively performs around the New York metropolitan area and is the author of the Hal Leonard publication "Visual Improvisation for Jazz Guitar." He's also the host of the music entrepreneurship podcast "Passive Income Musician."


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