Beginning to Sweep: a Guide to Sweep Picking

Today we’re talking about a technique that is almost the defining feature of any ‘shred’ player. This one wont just impress your audience, it’ll also amaze other guitarists!

I am talking, of course, about sweep picking.

If you find this a bit basic, you may also be interested in a more advanced sweeping lesson.

Sweep picking is the technique of playing single notes across different strings with a single sweeping motion from the strumming hand.

At the same time, the fretting hand stops the strings at the correct notes. Both of your hands are moved in unison, so that as you pick each string, you’re also fretting the same string.

When performed correctly, this technique can be used to perform fast arpeggio sequences (chord tones played in order). It’s also a great way to sound like you’re playing really fast.

History of the Sweep

Although it is mostly used for heavy metal, the technique was originally pioneered by Jazz guitarists Chuck Wayne and Tal Farlow in the 1940’s, and then developed further by Frank Gambale in the 1980’s.

In fact, Frank has used the technique to take things originally for piano or saxophone, and transfer them to the guitar. He also has several books out on the subject, including the famous “Speed Picking“- which features a real 80’s style front cover.

Use on Guitar

Sweep picking on the guitar is mainly used to play arpeggios, so it’s a good idea to be familiar with your CAGED chord shapes before attempting this one.

It is often combined with other ‘legato’ techniques, such as hammer-ons, and two-handed tapping. Although this technique can also be used to play faster melodic phrases [example] or even full scales.

Of course, if you want to use the technique for heavy metal and rock, you’ll want to use distortion- although not too much! Too much distortion will blur all the notes together and kill the sound (no matter how accurate your playing is underneath).

Be careful not to use too much gain. I wouldn’t go over 6 or 7, and 8 is pushing it a bit (depending on your amp).

Guitarists Who use this Technique

Guitarists who are famous for using this technique include: Yngwie Malmsteen, Michael Angelo Batio, John Petrucci, Chris Broderick, Ritchie Blackmore, Tosin Abasi, Frank Gambale, Steve Hacket, Shawn Lane…

It’s a pretty long list!

How to Sweep Pick

The idea of sweep picking is that you try to change the pickstroke direction as little as possible (as opposed to alternate picking, where each note is picked in a different direction), thus we end up “sweeping” the pick across many strings at once, all in the same direction. This creates a more fluid sound, that is much faster to play.

The most common use of sweep picking by guitarists is to play arpeggios, which is what we will start with here, but that’s not to say that this is the only way the technique can be used.

You’ll probably want to start with only two or three strings at a time. I know this maybe isn’t as impressive as the huge 6 string sweeps, but it’s somewhere to start practising the technique.

In this next video I demonstrate sweep picking (and further on, something called “sweep tapping”), on an acoustic guitar. Now, sweep picking as a technique doesn’t have to be performed on an acoustic- you may also want to try in on an electric guitar (as, often, heavy metal bands do).

Whichever kind of guitar you choose, you must remember that it’s proper co-ordination that’s the most important part of this technique; You should work on developing this first- at slow speeds.

tab of an easy sweep picking shape for beginners

This is the simplest shape to sweep. Notice how the picking (indicated by the symbol below the TAB) consists of entirely downstrokes.

This exercise should be played with two down strokes (one for every set of 3 notes), and should be repeated as many times as you need, starting off at a very slow speed and gradually speeding up as you get better at it.

Getting slightly more advanced…

Remember, each of these shapes is an arpeggio- meaning that its closely based on a chord (or, actually, only consisting of chord tones), therefore, with each of these shapes, I will be referencing the chord shape that they are taken from.

Those of you who know your chord theory will appreciate this, but, if you don’t, and there’s something you really just don’t get, I suggest trying a different lesson, as you don’t sound like you’re ready for this kind of thing yet.

Here is the first exercise:

sweep picking exercise 2

This shape is a variation on the last example exercise, which is taken from an A minor chord at the 12th fret. What we do here is add the minor 7th to the top (the G on the 15th fret) which then allows us to come back down more easily.

Make sure your legato is up to scratch for this one! There’s nothing worse than having the sweep part perfect and loud, but being unable to accomplish the hammer-on and pull-off combination on the high E string!

If this part is sounding quiet, you should try some legato exercises first, and get that up to a good standard before trying this exercise again.

Here is the second exercise:

sweep picking exercise 3

The second exercise is very similar to the first, but we have changed one note- the note on the G string- making the underlying chord a C major. This is also a good metal lick if you take the top two strings and just play those over and over, ignoring the note on the G string.

Guitarists that use this idea include: Randy Rhoads, Kirk Hammett, Zakk Wylde (although Zakk does tend to alternate pick his way through the lick), and  its been used by countless others!

Start Slowly

As I say with the first sweep picking exercise, it’s best to start with smaller shapes and play them very slowly to a metronome. When you can play the two and three string shapes perfectly at, say 40 to 50 bpm then you can increase the tempo (by maybe 5bpm).

I’m not joking when I say that increasing by 10bpm at a time is too much- no matter how good you think you are! The whole point of taking it slowly is to get it perfect.

If you increase the speed by 5bpm at a time, you probably won’t even notice the speed increase, but step by step you’ll be taking that perfect (but slow) sweep up to almost unbelievable speeds. All the time you’ll be stepping up the speed and hardly even noticing it.

Patience makes Perfect

I’m often surprised by how many people forget this aspect of guitar practice. There is no “secret” to becoming a master of guitar, just practice, determination, and patience (of course, subscribing to a blog with such good advice is also recommended 😉 ).

It’s only when you can play something perfectly at a slow speed that you’ll be able to play it perfectly at a fast speed.

…and only then should you even start thinking about progressing to 5 or 6 string sweep picking.

Accuracy, patience, determination, and practice- the four key factors of a successful guitar player.

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