Introduction to Sweep Picking and Its Musical Uses

In this lesson, I will explain the technique of sweep picking and its use in the context of a song.

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Hello fellow UGers! I have noticed that there are many excellent lessons on sweep picking on this website, but I couldn't help but notice that there is not much info on how to actually apply the technique in real life soloing and songwriting situations. So let's get started!

DISCLAIMER: I am not a guitar teacher and therefore not knowledgable about every aspect of this technique, nor is this an all-inclusive guide. I will recommend to check out other people's lessons in the end of this article.

Basic Premises

As you probably already know, we use the technique of sweep picking to play arpeggios (not all arpeggios are played with sweeps - they can be laid out in a lot of different ways across the fretboard). An arpeggio is simply the notes of a chord being played in succession, rather than simultaneously. A lot of people say that it is a very difficult technique to perform. I think that it's not all that hard, provided that you get a solid grasp on its mechanics from the start. Don't get me wrong - it demands work, good practice habits, precision and accuracy, like anything else on the guitar. However, you can get results quite fast, if you know what you're doing right from the get go.

Tips For Practice

  • Use a pick that doesn't bend, or bends very little when you play. My personal favorite is the Dunlop Delrin 500 1.5mm.
  • Practice on a mildly overdriven tone - think '60s blues rock, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, that kinda thing, so that you can hear every little sloppy noise you may make. You won't notice that kinda stuff on a clean tone, at least not easily.
  • Maintain a solid grip on the pick, just enough so that you can't pull it out of your fingers with the thumb and index of the other hand. Also have it hit the strings at about a 45 degree angle towards the headstock. This is true for the bulk of picking techniques, as well. Also, do not separate the pick strokes from each other.
  • You can use either your wrist or your elbow to sweep. Both are equally efficient for this technique. I like to use my wrist, to have a smooth transition from alternate picking.
  • As with any other picking technique, the secret to perform it accurately is synchronization between the hands. You make the job much easier for the brain by accenting the first and the last note of the arpeggio.
  • Keep the notes separate from each other and mute from the bottom string to the higher strings as you ascend the arpeggio, and unmute them as you descend. Think of a pianist playing a very long arpeggio throughout the range of their instrument. This, in my humble opinion, is what will make or break your sweeps.

Getting Started

This is the A minor arpeggio we are going to use as a template for this lesson:


The numbers below the tab indicate fingering. Now, follow the tips I wrote out above and you should be fine. In this arpeggio pattern, though, I want you to be careful about the 2 notes on the 14th fret. The trick to make this arpeggio pattern sound clean (and any pattern with 2 or more notes on a fret), which incorporate 2 or more notes on fret, is to roll your 3rd finger across the D and G strings. Fret the E note on the D string with the pad of the 3rd finger, and the A note on the G string with the part closer to the knuckle, where you can feel the bone of your finger.

Do NOT make the notes sound simultaneously! This is very important.

As far as speed goes, I recommend getting comfortable with the arpeggio pattern and playing it with sweep picking slowly, then grab your metronome and start playing it in sextuplets (6 notes per beat) at 60 BPM. I think a good target speed for major, minor and diminished arpeggio patterns is about 120 BPM, in sextuplets.

In a Musical Context

Well, so much for the technique itself. Now how do you actually use it?

Arpeggio patterns like this one are more suited to lead playing, but because you are essentially outlining a harmony, you can base entire sections of songs around arpeggios. You'll hear this a lot in classical music, especially on instruments such as the violin, that can't really play chords with equal ease as melodies, and as such they resort to arpeggios to keep some sort of harmonic movement going. Paganini's "24 Caprices" are a great example of that.

And speaking of Paganini, Yngwie Malmsteen, who's been inspired by him, uses arpeggios not only for lead playing, but for interludes of songs as well. Check out "As Above, So Below" and "Demon Driver" to see what I mean.

Malmsteen's use of arpeggios in lead playing is a major part of his style. He uses 2 and 3 string diminished arpeggios over the V chord in a harmonic minor chord progression, and over diminished chords as well. Because every note in a diminished triad or a dim7 chord can be considered the root, they are very useful for introducing modulations into a song.

For example: A Bdim7 chord (B, D, F, G#) can resolve to these chords: C, Cm, D#, D#m, F#, F#m, A, Am. The possibilities are vast.

But Yngwie also uses big, 5 string arpeggios like the one we saw before to connect the lower registers to the higher registers of the instrument. You can hear this in the solo section of "Black Star" - he really goes nuts with this!

In "Demon Driver" he arpeggiates on Bm, F#, Bm, A, D, B, Em, G#dim7, F#sus4, F# using 3 string arpeggios. This is a great example of the modulations I was discussing before.

As you can see, we can talk about the use of arpeggios all day, and these are examples based on just sweeps! Things get really crazy when you consider playing arpeggios with other picking techniques, such as in the Dream Theater song, "Under a Glass Moon." John Petrucci plays an Emaj7 arpeggio, from the high E to the low E, with 2 notes per string and alternate picking. The 1st movement of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata (Adagio Sostenuto)" is constructed almost entirely around arpeggios.

I just used Yngwie as an example because I am familiar with his music. Surely you can think of a ton of other players that make equally tasty use of arpeggios.

Where to Go From Here

Ben Eller has 2 great (and funny as hell!) videos on sweep picking. Check them out here:



Claus Levin (a Danish guitarist - insane chops, I can tell you that much) has a series of articles on sweep picking. Check them out here.

Hell, even Yngwie himself has written an article about sweep picking! Check it out here.

All of these are resources that helped me a lot with this technique.

Conclusion

So there you have it, my take on this technique and its use in a musical context and arpeggios in general. Hope you get it under your belt smoothly and efficiently! Remember to incorporate it into your playing as soon as possible! If I got anything wrong, or if there is a question you wanna ask, let me know in the comments. Thank you for reading and play on!

9 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Iommianity
    I have to say, as far as playing diatonic arpeggios, it's hard for me to get behind the typical one note per string patterns. Arpeggios should sound smooth, and I think string skipping and legato make them sound more musically interesting, more textural as opposed to the typical sound.
    Iommianity
    You can also take that as me never being able to get my sweeping clean enough
    adetheheat
    "For example: A Bdim7 chord (B, D, F, G#) can resolve to these chords: C, Cm, D#, D#m, F#, F#m, A, Am" C chord has notes C, E, G Am chord has notes A, C, E So how can Bdim7 resolve to those chords when they arwn't similar ? someone explain !
    CostasNoir
    The G# of the A Harmonic Minor scale creates tension, which can be released by moving to a G or an A, of the Major and Natural Minor scale respectively.
    CostasNoir
    Alternatively, you could think of it as voice leading. It's general premise is that no voice moves up or down more than a whole tone.
    BladeMasterIP
    Did you SERIOUSLY write about arpeggios and Yngwie in the same paragraph and NOT MENTION ARPEGGIOS FROM HELL?!??!?!?!! lol thanks for the informative and fun info, though!!
    CostasNoir
    Haha, you're welcome mate! I knew about Arpeggios from Hell, but never quite understood what he was doing. Glad you found my lesson helpful!
    Khetag Lagkuti
    Thank you for the article! I started digging into sweeping with this lesson. I also subscribed to Ben Eller's channel (such a funny man), so thanks for that, too.