Historically, jazz players have engaged in jam session cutting contests, to show who possessed the greatest prowess over their instrument and as a means of weeding out the beginners. Oftentimes, very tough tunes would be chosen in these sessions, specifically to challenge all present. In preparing ourselves for those jam sessions, and in the interest of expanding our repertoire, many of John Coltrane’s compositions serve as great vehicles of study for expanding our technique and our ability to easily move through many tonal centers quickly. We credit Mr. Coltrane for developing what we now call “Coltrane changes”, where root movements take place quickly in major thirds. Giant Steps is the most famous composition, which illustrates that rapid succession of tonal centers. A similar Coltrane composition which we are looking at today is Countdown, a 16 bar tune.


Below you will see John’s first improvised chorus over the chord changes (adapted in concert key for guitar). The technique he relied on to navigate these quickly changing tonal centers is ‘digital patterns’. Essentially, these are short pre-memorized numerical cluster patterns that allow one to blow quickly over the sometimes-unrelated changes. As an example, over a Bmaj7 chord, the most common of eighth-note digital patterns is R235…playing the root (B), the 2nd scale degree (C#), the major 3rd scale degree (D#), and the 5th scale degree (F#).


You might begin by recording the chord progression of Countdown, and then playing the solo over this, to hear how John created interesting lines using digital patterns.


Here are my top ten 4-note digital patterns that, if learned in all keys, will allow you to navigate any Coltrane composition; (remember to flat the third or seventh degree when the chord calls for that, such as in a mi7 or dom7 chord). As an exercise, take each pattern one at a time and play through the entire COUNTDOWN chord progression using only that pattern. The goal is ultimately to be able to weave these together in a way that presents an improvised melodic composition, rather than simply sounding like a technical exercise.


R235.    532R.    3R23.    5679.    352R.   3R75.   9765.    975R.   79R7.     35R2.




COUNTDOWN:  A Study of John Coltrane's Digital Patterns   Sept. 2008                            
Visit the published online version:
Click HERE to return to the magazine column index