Sweep Picking Fundamentals

Goes over basic sweep picking patterns and practising methods to ensure maximum progress!

Sweep Picking Fundamentals
26

Introduction

Sweep Picking is a technique whereby the left hand frets various notes (usually one note per string) and the right hand performs a "brushing" motion, enabling arpeggio-oriented licks and ideas to be more easily played. Notable sweep pickers include Jason Becker, George Bellas and Yngwie Malmsteen, among others.

Basic Practice Tips

1) Practice with lots of gain! Although many people practise sweep picking with a clean tone, it is actually much more beneficial to practice with distortion (you should still practice clean SOME of the time - not much though!) This is because the distortion will accentuate any slight uncleanliness in your technique, and will aid you in fixing it.

2) Practice with the bridge pickup! The bridge pickup generally accentuates and mistakes you make, and therefore will help to to clean up your technique.

3) NEVER practice sloppily! This sounds awful and will NOT help you get any faster - in fact, it will limit you as it will decrease your levels of control!

4) Stay relaxed! This is more important than you think. If you stay relaxed, playing fast will feel effortless - and vice versa.

5) Only let one note sound at a time! If more than one note is sounding, your sweeping will just sound like you are strumming a chord!

6) Experiment with using your wrist, arm or a combination of both to move the pick. How this is done varies from person to person, so you'll have to figure this one out yourself.

7) Only move your fret hand fingers the minimal amount needed - remember that distance=time!

8) Play the notes evenly! This will greatly help your ability to synchronise the hands together.

Brushing

To start off, you need to get used to the brushing motion. Make sure that your picking hand just makes one long movement, and NOT lots of separate picking motions - this is vital if you ever want to make serious progress. Whilst picking, your thumb (on the picking hand) should rest on the lower strings to prevent them from sounding out. If you find that you keep sounding pinch harmonics, then you are using too much of your thumb to hold the pick. If you are still having trouble, check out some YouTube videos of good sweep pickers and try to analyse and apply the aspects of their hand position.

For the following exercises, you should constantly keep your fretting hand fingers in place, but aim to use your picking hand to mute the strings that you are not playing. Start off EXTREMELY slowly (such as 60 bpm quarter notes) and increase the speed by 1 bpm for every full minute of perfect playing. If you cannot play cleanly at your current speed, slow right down and analyse what you are doing wrong, before fixing it and then building back up (after you reach around 80 bpm triplets, do not go any faster! This is the fastest effective practice speed - any quicker than this, and your progress will be too slow). After every 30 - 40 mins, measure your new top speed with a metronome and write it down. Mastering this might take a while, but it is the first step to ultimate sweep picking mastery!

Am Am C C
e--------12----------12----------12----------12----|
b-----13----------13----------13----------13-------|
g--14----------14----------12----------12----------|

A
e------------5----|
b----------5------|
g--------6--------|
d------7----------|
a----7------------|
e--5--------------|

Full Sweeps

After you have a good hold on the previous step (200+ bpm triplets), it is time to start practicing full sweeps! Practice these in the same way as before (60 bpm quarter notes, increase every minute etc.). This time, you need to make sure that only one note is being fretted at a time - this will take some time, but it is a fundamental aspect to doing this properly. Also, make sure to follow the fingerings provided - this is vital to your success.

3 2 1 4 2 1
e--------12-15----------|
b-----13-------13-------|
g--14-------------12----|

3 2 1 4
e------3-6----|
b----5--------|
g--6----------|
(move up in 3 fret increments)

Advanced Shapes

Now, we move on to the more advanced shapes. These are harder due to two aspects - adding a pull-off, and playing only one note on the lowest string before changing direction. When doing the pull-off, make sure that your picking hand does not stop - it should slow down and then speed back up again after the pull-off. Pay careful attention to the picking sequence shown, as it is important to do it right if you want to correctly execute the direction change.

u u u d d
e--12p8---------8----|
b-------10---10------|
g----------9---------|

e--17p13----------------13----|
b--------15----------15-------|
g-----------14----14----------|
d--------------15-------------|
If anyone has any comments, suggestions or questions don't hesitate to ask! I hope you enjoyed my first lesson, and if this one becomes popular I may do another. Here's a link to the tab you can play along to in order to practice sweep picking. Good luck with your playing!

42 comments sorted by best / new / date

comments policy
    iaceu
    I give you a 10 for discussing sweep picking in a good way, giving good examples, without mentioning Tom Hess. I'd give you an 11 if I could.
    dm445
    Great article! I have always wanted to learn sweeping techniques. I have been playing for about 20 years and that is one technique I have yet to master.
    vayne92
    Sweeping is one of my best techniques so I thought I'd check it out. Those "advanced shapes" really aren't very advanced and on the contrary i think they're the very basic and easy shapes all beginners should start learning. Sure you're adding pull-offs, but pulloffs and hammerons are a fundamental technique for sweep picking. You can't do any sweeps effectively without them (yes i know there's exceptions). A more advanced shape would typically involve rolls and unconventional stretching generally over 4-6 strings. That's just my thoughts anyways. Good for beginners regardless. EDIT: Practicing with the bridge pickup and high gain I definitely agree is an excellent idea. So many people think practicing clean is better and it certainly isn't.
    nosegrabmaster
    Thanks for the comment! By 'advanced shapes' I simply meant that we are going into more advanced territory (I guess I should have made that a little clearer!). The reason for them being described as advanced is the fact that many beginners underestimate the challenges of pull-off's and direction changes, and so put very little thought in to doing them. This results in lots of frustration and slower progress.
    Reighnart
    I would say practice clean. I mean, if you're sweeping in like a jazz solo, you're not gonna have tons gain(if any at all). Make it sound good clean, and it will sound awesome with gain, that's my opinion anyway. Then again. I suppose a lot of people who wanna learn sweeping, are doing it for rock/metal ect.
    Firewind Raging
    But if you practice clean you don't hear all of the excess noise that you're making, you hear it clear as day with the gain turned up. It's good to check how it's sounding without gain from time to time (to see how strong your legato is etc.) but it's way more effective to practice with gain.
    Satrianifan281
    I practice with my Boss Metal Zone MT-2 with full gain run through my Petrucci signature Crunch Lab(which gives a boost to my distortion), it has really helped me clean up my playing, not just with sweeps either
    mikias.tesfaye.
    I Have one question. Does it make any difference if i mute the strings with the side of my palm instead of the thumb?
    iaceu
    I find that the only difference is that the side of your palm doesn't immediately mute because it has a lot more padding, so with sweep picking (or for playing any individual notes) using the thumb sounds more clean. Using the side of the thumb is much more difficult to do, mostly because it's hard to get your head around a good hand position to do it, but when you get it, the sound difference is incredible.
    aCiDJaZzy666
    I don't understand how you can play guitar for 20 years and WANT to learn sweep picking but do not. It seems to me you need to make better use of your time spent "practicing". There are no shortcuts on guitar. Practice.
    mbself73
    I fit somewhat into this category. The problems with my advancing on sweep picking were as follows: 1. At about the same time I realized that those fast runs Yngwie was making were sweeps I had already achieved a certain level of fluency on the instrument and none of the bands I was in played anything that required sweeps so there was no financial motivation to learn them. 2.I had no instructional materials on sweeps so I was literally attempting to piece together the concepts and techniques by ear, it wasn't effective. 3. When I did try to work on the sweeps I would get bogged down on some useless minutia or worse, trying to make a sweep fit into my existing picking technique (i.e. not really sweeping, but just treating it like successive down-strokes....bad, but I had no other resources to correct me, I was too proud at the time to buy lessons or to ask someone else because I was young and stupid and thought I was HOT STUFF! LMFAO). This was in an era before the internet became what it is to day. I am evolving as a player and musician right now. By the time I hit 30 any pretence or prideful thinking had been wiped out of my mind. I became more willing to ask for help or to buy help in the form of lessons or instructional materials (of which there was/is exponentially more available than when I first started thinking about sweeps). At 40, the list of things I am doing to increase my competency on the instrument include things I would have laughed at in my teens and twenties. Including working through method books (even the ones with corny songs and dated materials) and learning to sight sing with solfege syllables just to name a couple. So I agree with your whole statement. By going all caps on the word WANTING you place the emphasis on the motivation of the individual. I WANT to bench press 300 lbs. But because I have made other priorities in life I am stuck at 265. I have no particular need to Bench 300. For years I had no particular need to get my sweeps together. Now, lots of kids are wanting to learn and if I was going to remain legitimate in my location as a teacher I NEEDED to learn them. I actually had one of my students help me with them. He couldn't play melodically to save his life but he could sweep like crazy. He taught me the mechanics of sweeping and I taught him how to work sweeps into solos more melodically. Win win.
    somies
    the difference is just how much more or less confortable it feels when you play, if it works for you then it's alright, if it doesn't work practice will make it work anyway ;D
    slash&angus
    Question: "This is the fastest effective practice speed - any quicker than this, and your progress will be too slow" Is this with everything we practice? I'm doing some alternate picking practice and I increase 1BPM one day until I get to 180BPM. But would I too learn faster if I kept practicing slower from a certain point?
    nosegrabmaster
    For other techniques (such as alternate picking) practising at high speeds is beneficial as it can give you a 'sense' of how the higher speeds feel (building up by 1bpm per day is a great idea!). However, considering that the sweep picking motion is one long motion rather than lots of little fast ones, it is much more beneficial to practice at slower speeds, in order to build accuracy. After all, I bet you can do one motion across all six strings much faster that you can do six little alternating motions on a single string - even with no practice. With stuff like alternate picking, you need to train your picking hand to move faster - however, I bet that your picking hand can already move more than fast enough for sweeping.
    greenwart.shira
    i hope that many more youngstar who are aspiring to learn guitar may have a basic idia from this .
    maulipoo
    I can't seem to mute the strings with my thumb because, well, my thumb is on the pick and so when I'm picking on the next string, the former one doesn't get any contact with my thumb because it's already gone on to the next one.. don't know if I'm making myself clear. In the end I try to mute with the side of my palm, but it doesn't sound great. I don't understand how I'm supposed to mute with my thumb if it's already too far from the string that needs to be muted.. Thanks in advance for the help
    Reages
    i also have no idea how to mute with a thumb, i always did it with palm
    tgiggs
    I have the same problem, i find it really tricky to mute the strings, my flat mate says i should go even slower an it will come naturally, i agree with practicising with distortion helps pick up on unwanted sounds better than clean
    D'sa
    Good read! I think those tips are super for learning sweep picking. I guess it does work also in a different way: I basically started with 5 string major/minor chords. After nailing that the 3 string sweep weren't hard to learn. Also I think its a good idea to insert a tap (if you already learned the technique) at the beginning, because its easier to add a tap from the beginning, if you have to add it after learning sweeps it should be harder. Looks like this: H-H - T-P- P ----12-15-20-15-12 ---13-----13 --12-----12 -14-----14 15-----15 A good excercise too imo.
    D'sa
    damn, the notation looks ugly. Well I hope you know what i mean haha
    psychopunk666
    Well... I guess everybody learns differently! I definitely disagree with distortion and also practicing on an electric guitar. Mastering these steps are a start, though on an acoustic, you'll find it much harder to achieve and therefore, much easier on electric afterwards. Also, the original fret board radius is a lot flatter on a electric than on an acoustic, so much easier to learn how to use less distance between strokes/ triplets, whatever the bpm is... etc. But... For starters, you get a better grasp of the concept with reasonable gain level on an electric, though don't max out your gain, ever and never!
    nosegrabmaster
    I agree that everyone learns differently, however if you learn on an acoustic, you can get away with doing basically NO muting with your picking hand. When you come to play live in a hard rock/metal setting however, picking hand muting is essential for making sweeps sound good. I learnt this the hard way, and had to go back and re-learn! But in the end, I guess you should do whatever works best for you
    psychopunk666
    I play metal all the time. Muting goes naturally since it sounds bad otherwise. I think this is secondary if you've mastered the technique on acoustic.
    CurlOfTheBurl
    Is it wrong if I can't descend sweep nearly as fast as the ascending? I notice most bands employ this same motion (fast ascending, slow descending), which might be a technique choice, but I actually physically can't do it if I try .
    pjuelsgaard
    I take it that I'm kinda weird on this, but, I find it the opposite. I always mess up on ascending sweeps, but the descending action comes quite naturally to me...
    shreddguitarist
    Descending is harder and if you listen to bands who are younger (not all however) you'll hear a lot of sweeps which are slowing descending. same when you listen to older bands early stuff but then the newer stuff is just as fast descending as ascending which shows that you will just get better and better
    steffens64
    I know man! its the same way with me, descending is harder, but you just gotta keep practicing...
    Satrianifan281
    I read an interview that guitar world had with John Petrucci on sweep-picking and one tip he gave was that your wrist on your picking hand should stay relaxed and really let the rest of the arm do the work, I found it a lot easier than other techniques
    Arek18933
    I've got a question about "Advenced Shapes" example. You write there how i should pick it. So there are 3 up and 2 down. Can you tell me, why is it better way to pick, than 2 up and 3 down ? I mean the moment when i'm changing my picking from up to down. Sorry for my English.
    Metallifuch
    It's smoother to do 3 ups first because 2 ups would require you to skip over the lowest string before plucking it. It's minor, but the emphasis is to make sweeping as clean as possible