Sweep picking is one of the most impressive and musically rich skills you can have as a shred guitar player. There is so much you can do with it! In my Sweeping shred etudes I demonstrate different sweeping patterns, from basic 2 strings sweeping etude and up to full blown 6 strings sweeping etudes, and how to incorporate these sweep picking patterns in different musical contexts, incorporating different arpeggio types.
The sweep picking technique is tricky and challenging. In this article I will explain about the different aspects of the sweep picking technique, and how to make sure you get the sweep picking technique right and practice efficiently.
I will go over the following topics –
- What’s sweep picking (and why is sweep picking so hard?)
- How to learn sweep picking
- When to learn sweep picking
- How to start sweep picking
- How to master sweep picking
- The sweep picking technique
- How to practice sweep picking
What’s sweep picking
Sweep picking (or sweeping) technique is a technique in which your right hand performs one consecutive picking movement (can be either a downstroke or an upstroke) across 2 or more strings. It is a bit similar to the way you would strum a chord (or just a few strings), but slower and with more precision, to allow the left hand to mute each string as you pick the next string – thus creating a staccato sound (only one string vibrates at a time) as opposed to chords (where all of the strings are vibrating simultaneously)
Why is sweep picking so hard?
Sweep picking is a challenging technique. Why? Mainly because it require a high level of coordination between the right and left hands. In order to get a clean sweeping sound, you must mute each string exactly at the same time while you pick (and fret) the next string.
In order to master sweep picking your right hand movement must be precise and in perfect coordination with your left hand fretting and muting.
In addition to it, since sweep picking is used mostly to perform arpeggios, you must be highly familiar with the neck and the different arpeggio shapes (minor, major, dim. etc.) and location of the roots of the shapes.
How to learn sweep picking
There are many online videos and tutorials on the subject of sweep picking. I will also go over the essential aspects of the techniques in this article. You can watch, read and try for sweep picking for yourself. However, I would recommend that if you are trying for a few weeks on your own and still not sure whether you got the movement or muting techniques right – take lessons from a teacher who has mastered the art of sweep picking. It’s a complicated technique and there are many common mistakes that people make. It’s easy to miss your own mistakes (especially in the beginning) and reinforce wrong habits and movements which will just lead to frustration and more time being spent on letting go of the wrong habits and re-learning the new ones.
How do you know if a certain teacher/guitar player has mastered sweep picking technique?
The best way to know is simply to listen carefully. If sweep picking is performed fluently, it sounds clean (the notes are not ringing into each other). If the sweep picking sounds “distorted” (like playing 2 or more strings at the same time with distortion) than it is not being done fluently – it means the strings are not muted in perfect timing.
When to learn sweep picking
This is a very important question that is often overlooked. Sweep picking is an advanced technique. It is not for beginners. If you will attempt to master sweep picking too early you are leading yourself to disappointment. If you are not sure whether you are ready to start practicing sweep picking, I would recommend to consult with a proper teacher (one who can perform sweep picking fluently him/herself).
Before you start learning and practicing sweep picking you should:
- Play for at least 2-3 years
- Have the basics of lead guitar playing “in your fingers” (master vibrato, pull offs/hammer ons, slides, pentatonic scales, major and minor scales)
- Have a good alternate picking technique (be able to execute 3 notes per string scalar passages at at least 120-130 bpm 16th notes)
- Be familiar with the different minor and major arpeggio shapes (at least 3-4 string arpeggios) and the location of the roots of the shapes all across the fretboard
- Have experience working with a metronome
If you are not sure whether you are ready, or what exactly you are missing and how to complete the missing “prerequisites” as fast as possible in order to start sweeping, I highly recommend consulting with a proper teacher (I offer 1 on 1 guitar lessons as well)
How to start sweep picking
The best way to start sweep picking is to start with 2 strings sweep picking shapes, and then gradually move up to 3 strings sweep picking shapes. You would probably need to spend a few months (or even a year or two, depending on your initial level, and how much you practice) working on 2 and 3 strings sweep picking patterns until you really master them (able to execute the different 3 strings sweeping patterns at 120-130 BPM, 16th notes, clean and precise). I recommend not to attempt the 4, 5 or 6 strings sweeping shapes before you master the 2 and 3 strings shapes.
My sweep picking etudes, which are available for free, are arranged by ascending difficulty level. If you are new to sweep picking, I would recommend that you will start with “Galloping” (2 strings sweeping etude) , work on it for a few weeks and only when you feel comfortable with it, move to the next sweep picking etudes (3 strings sweep picking etudes).
All of my etudes contain backing tracks in 3 different speeds (slow, medium, fast) so you can enjoy the experience of playing along with a symphonic metal band behind you even at low speeds.
How to master sweep picking
Well, of course the most important thing is be determined. Mastering sweep picking will take time. A lot of time. There are no secrets or instant ways to master sweep picking overnight and perform sweep picking fluently. All those who mastered sweep picking have spent many many hours in the woodshed. However, having the right movements and practicing habits can save you a lot of time and make your practice time way way more efficient. One of my specialties as a teacher is to build a proper, efficient practice routine that is designed individually to your level , goals, and amount of time you can spent each day practicing.
Here are the main things to be aware of, as far as the sweep picking technique goes:
Sweep picking technique
- The right hand sweeping movements
- “Rolling” technique
- Right hand palm muting
- Memorizing the different arpeggio shapes
The right hand sweeping movement
The right hand sweeping movement takes some time and practice to master. Be patient and play with it. The basic concept that you need to keep in mind is this: the movement should be a one, consecutive movement across all the strings, similar to the way you would strum a chord. The difference between sweep picking movement and strumming movement is that for the sweep picking movement you need much more precision and control. The palm of your right hand should touch the guitar bridge (or above, or near it) and serve as an anchor. The movement itself comes mostly from the wrist (not the whole arm, like you would sometimes use when strumming), although sometimes you will move the arm a little bit (usually in case of 5 or 6 strings sweeping)
Muting is the most tricky part in sweep picking. If you don’t mute properly and in perfect timing (mute each string exactly at the same time that you pick the next string), the strings will keep ringing and “bleed” into each other.
So for example, when you move from the 1st string to the 2nd string The way mute would be to slightly lift the left hand finger that’s fretting the 1st string (just enough to make the string stop vibrating, but still touch the string to prevent the open string from vibrating) when you pick the 2nd string, and vice versa.
The “rolling” technique is used when you have 2 consecutive strings which uses the same finger. For example, if you have the 14th fret on the 3rd string and then the 14th fret on the 2nd string, and you need to use the 2nd finger for both, you would have to use the upper part of your fingertip on the 3rd string, then “roll” this part (slightly lift it up to mute the string) and use the slightly lower part of the finger to fret the 2nd string.
Right hand palm muting
This kind of muting would usually be necessary in 5 or 6 strings sweeping, where the lower strings might be triggered to vibrate as open strings when you get to the higher strings. In that case you would use the palm of your right hand to mute the lower strings as you go up to the higher strings. This is not to be confused with regular palm muting (where you mute the string with your palm and than pick it, while it’s muted, to get the “palm mute” sound) because in this case you are using the palm to mute the low strings strings not while they are picked, but after they have been picked and muted, to prevent them from starting to vibrate while you are picking the higher strings.
Memorizing the different arpeggios shapes
Sweeping is used mostly to play arpeggios, and in order to play arpeggios sequences fluently, and to know which arpeggio shape would work on each chord, you need to know the shapes of the different chord types (minor, major, 7th, etc.) and where the root of the arpeggio is located in the shape.
You will notice that there are a few different shapes for each chord type. Each chord type (minor/major/etc.) has different shapes, depending on which string the root of the chord is located at.
In order to be able to come up with arpeggio sequences for each chord progression you encounter, you have to memorize both the different shapes and to remember for each shape where the root is. This way you can always move between different arpeggios, while staying relatively “close” on the neck.
How to practice sweep picking
The way to build a proper sweep picking technique is to work very slowly at first, reinforcing the right habits- proper movement and coordination between the picking, fretting and muting at very low speeds, and then gradually pushing the speed up. You must use a metronome in order to improve your speed. Check out “how to use a metronome”.