7 Common Problems With Learning Sweep Picking

Sweep picking is considered by many to be a technique that separates average players from highly advanced players.

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Sweep picking is considered by many to be a technique that separates average players from highly advanced players. Unfortunately, there are many challenges to be overcome with this technique before one can successfully adapt it as part of his or her style. First, for anyone who may not know, sweep picking is a technique used by guitarists to play arpeggios. It is typically done when using distortion, but this technique is also used in other styles when clean guitar sound is used. The use of distortion makes it very challenging to play arpeggios quickly and cleanly. In this article, I will present several of the most common problems that I have seen many people run into with sweep picking. Based on my own experience as a player and after replying to dozens of e-mails on this topic from students all over the world, I noticed that many students seem to be experiencing many of the same problems. Of course there are also likely to be issues that are specific to each student, but these questions are best addressed in person with a competent teacher. So there are 7 main problems that I believe prevent many students from either learning sweep picking at all, or (for those who are more advanced,) with using this technique in expressive ways. Not all students have every one of these same 7 problems of course, (most have various combinations of them), but I think that by listing them all here, it will help more people to become aware of ways to improve their playing even if a specific problem may not apply directly to them. These problems are: 01. Practicing too fast Yes, this is common sense advice that we've all heard a million times, right? However, even though this advice is commonly heard, it is shocking how many people either choose to ignore it, or simply are not aware that they are practicing way too fast because the general words such as fast or slow are often misleading and meaningless because they mean different things for different people. Just remember this (as a general guideline), if you are practicing and your playing sounds sloppy, inconsistent in quality and filled with mistakes, then chances are you are practicing much too fast. Just remember that you can play ANY combination of notes perfectly if you play slowly enough. If you keep trying to increase the speed but your playing is full of mistakes and sloppy string noise, then you are just learning to play sloppily. On the other hand, if you play slowly enough to play without mistakes and you only increase the speed once you are sure that you can do so without sacrificing the quality of your playing, you will be teaching your hands to play the technique perfectly. So this piece of advice is twofold: first play slowly enough to play without mistakes. And second: only increase the speed once you are sure that you will not be sacrificing accuracy. Is this piece of advice common sense and common knowledge to most people? Of course it is. But is this also one of the most common things to see guitarists doing wrong? You bet it is! For example, we all know that exercise and working out is good for our health (this is common knowledge) but how many people actually DO exercise on a regular basis? So this means that even though the need to practice slowly is obvious to most guitarists, many of those who struggle with their progress would benefit greatly by slowing down their playing and focusing more on accuracy. I hope you are starting to see where I'm going with this. 02. Paying attention to muting of the strings This is a very common problem that makes itself especially evident with sweep picking. What do I mean by this? Well, the main goal of sweep picking is to only have one note of the arpeggio sounding at any one time with the other notes being completely muted (this is the only way to get the arpeggios to sound clean and precise when playing with a lot of gain and distortion). There are two main ways of going about this: either to use the palm of your hand to mute the strings you are not playing (this method is the most common and is used by players such as Rusty Cooley, Michael Romeo and Yngwie Malmsteen) and to use the thumb of the picking hand to do the same thing (this method is used by virtuosos such as George Bellas and Tom Hess) The main point here is to pay attention to how effective your muting technique is (regardless of which of the two methods you choose to use) and evaluate its effectiveness by Listening to how clean your playing actually is when you play slow and when you play fast. The best way to do this is to either record yourself or to ask for honest and unbiased feedback from your teacher about your playing. If your playing is not as clean as you would like it to be, then I highly recommend paying careful attention to the way you mute the strings and perhaps change your technique a bit if necessary to fix that problem. 03. Trying to strum the arpeggios with the right hand instead of hitting each note individually When sweep picking, each note should have definition and rhythmic placement. If you simply strum or rake the pick across the strings, the notes will sound sloppy and out of time. You need to make sure that each note has definition and you should be able to play the arpeggio slowly to a metronome and have it be in time. The arm moves in a continuous motion across the strings but each note must have definition. 04. Not isolating the rolling motion of the left hand to practice it exclusively until it is no longer a challenge If you have spent any amount of time trying to learn sweep picking, then you have most likely encountered (or at least heard about) the technique of finger rolling that is used in some arpeggio shapes. The best way to tackle it, is to isolate it and practice just the rolling motion by itself until it no longer poses a challenge. Make sure to practice slowly of course and avoid having the notes ring together (this is a very common problem) Many players simply play the arpeggios that contain the rolling technique up and down hundreds of times in hopes that the problem will simply solve itself. But you will be MUCH more effective if you are able to get specific about the nature of the problem. In this case, the problem is the rolling itself, not necessarily the rest of the arpeggio, so by focusing your attention only on the problem you save yourself time and are able to be much more effective in your practice. 05. Not making the pull off at the top of each arpeggio articulate enough Many arpeggio shapes require you to perform a pull off at the top of the shape (usually on the high E string). Many players make the mistake of letting the pull off sound way too weak compared to the other notes of the arpeggio (which are picked). This creates an unevenness in volume and the arpeggio lacks precision and rhythmic control. What I recommend is spending a bit of time only on the pull off part of the arpeggio and practice making the pull off as LOUD as you can (of course I'm referring to how strong your pull off itself is, not to how loud you can turn up the amp). When you do this, you will notice a big difference in your arpeggio playing. 06. Not learning how to build chords and arpeggios and how to use them in a musical way Do you know what the word arpeggio means? Do you understand the principles of chord construction and how chords are grouped into keys? Can you name diatonic triads and diatonic seventh chords in any key? Do you understand the concepts of voice leading? The answers to these questions can Greatly help you expand your creativity with sweep picking. Many players learn several arpeggio shapes and may even be able to play them up and down pretty quickly and cleanly. However without knowing how arpeggios can be used in different musical contexts such as soloing or songwriting, that player will be stuck playing the same shapes in the same way for months and years. These problems can easily be prevented and fixed by studying music theory and chord construction. For some beginning resources, check out this free Music Theory Master Class as well as this article: Voice Leading Part 1. 07. Only using standard shapes and limiting the creative potential of this technique It is unfortunate that many players box themselves into using only simple major/minor/diminished arpeggios in ways that have already been done many times. There are so many other ways in which this technique can be used creatively. Some of the most obvious ways include the use of seventh chords in combination with triads, extending arpeggios using tapping, using different picking/articulation techniques to play the arpeggios, and connecting the shapes using the principles of voice leading. Many of the creative approaches can be discovered by studying chord theory and knowing the names of all the notes on the fretboard. This will help spark ideas for how sweep picking can be used in more expressive ways that will help you enhance your songwriting. Then you will not need to search the web for sweep picking licks, because you will be able to come up with your own creative ways of using the technique to express yourself. At this point, we have looked at several problems that guitarists typically have with learning this elusive technique. What should I do now, I hear you ask? Well, if you don't think you have any of the above problems, then great, you're on the right track! But if you think that some of these points can apply to you, then you now know what you need to work on to take your playing to the next level. Check out these additional resources: free Music Theory Master Class as well as my article on Voice Leading Part 1. As always, you can contact me at mike@mikephilippov.com with any questions or comments regarding this article. I reply to all e-mails. Mike Philippov is a professional guitarist, music composer and instructor based in Indianapolis, Indiana. He is one of the creators of the instructional site: www.thenextstepguitar.com, and co-author of The Ultimate Sweep Picker's Guide and Serious Improvement for the Developing Guitarist Currently Mike is busy writing and recording music for his solo album titled Reflections.

101 comments sorted by best / new / date

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    cataclysm34
    There's one part in here I have qualms with... All the best sweepers do it simply through economy of motion and lifting their fingers off the fretboard instead of relying on their palm which doesn't make sense in a descending arpeggio. So just food for thought. Other than that the article was alright.
    qrEE
    Rexbeans wrote: "Sweep picking is considered by many to be a technique that separates average players from highly advanced players. " I disagree completely with this statement.. Actually there are many truly awful sounding budding guitar virtuoso types with a whole mixed bag of half-arsed sloppy sounding techniques, that sound like they only learned them just because someone told them thats what you have to learn to be a good guitar player.. Or they've been playing for 2 weeks & just threw the basics out the window & decided to skip to the Yngwie riffs rather than put in the hard work learning to actually play musically first. Often the very best (advanced whatever) players are the people that have an absolute crystal clear vision of exactly what they want to do on the guitar & then work on honing that to the point where they have a sound all of their own some good examples of this would be somebody like Brian Setzer or on a more technical level Doug Aldrich who has a really baddass rock sound without having to resort to sweeping tapping widdly diddly divebomb antics.. Anyways just saying it's your overall command of the instrument that makes you advanced not any one technique.
    Yes. The greatest guitarists I've ever heard are these ones: Andy Larocque Jon Levasseur Gary Holt Chuck Schuldiner Buckethead Paul Gilbert Dimebag Darrel And while some of those guys can sweep, that's not what makes them great. Andy Larocque is great because of his amazing riff writing and solo writing ability. Jon Levasseur is great for his melodic solo twist to extreme Death Metal riffing. Gary Holt is just an amazing solo writer, especially since the 2000's era, when he added more melody into his solos. Chuck Schuldiner doesn't use any cheap techniques to sound like "the greats". He defined an entire genre of music with his riffing, and he mastered the ability to "shred". When I think "shredding", I think Chuck Schuldiner. And he doesn't sweep, ever. Buckethead is capable of absolutely anything on the guitar, and his two finger tapping robot solos are unparalleled in music. Paul Gilbert is so obvious I won't even say it. Dimebag was, like Andy Larocque, a master at EVERYTHING guitar related. Both guitarists were able to get every possible sound out of their guitar, and make it sound good. In the end, sweeping is an easy way to make it sound like you shred. I'm certain that most kids these days that can sweep don't know crap about how to play a Chuck Schuldiner solo, or a Buckethead solo. But I'm also certain Buckethead and Chuck Schuldiner would have a much easier time trying to sweep. Buckethead probably already can sweep, seeing as how he basically sweeps with two finger tapping.
    BlackDeath92
    gunwar_andypat wrote: I hate this. I cannot learn sweep picking. I mean, I know I CAN, but I'm just not learning it somehow. Aweful, considering I"m honestly a virtuoso on all other techniques. But, ehhhhh... Oww. It hurts to not know this.
    Welcome to my world. Along with millions of other guitarist!
    Rexbeans
    "Sweep picking is considered by many to be a technique that separates average players from highly advanced players. " I disagree completely with this statement.. Actually there are many truly awful sounding budding guitar virtuoso types with a whole mixed bag of half-arsed sloppy sounding techniques, that sound like they only learned them just because someone told them thats what you have to learn to be a good guitar player.. Or they've been playing for 2 weeks & just threw the basics out the window & decided to skip to the Yngwie riffs rather than put in the hard work learning to actually play musically first. Often the very best (advanced whatever) players are the people that have an absolute crystal clear vision of exactly what they want to do on the guitar & then work on honing that to the point where they have a sound all of their own some good examples of this would be somebody like Brian Setzer or on a more technical level Doug Aldrich who has a really baddass rock sound without having to resort to sweeping tapping widdly diddly divebomb antics.. Anyways just saying it's your overall command of the instrument that makes you advanced not any one technique.
    gunwar_andypat
    I hate this. I cannot learn sweep picking. I mean, I know I CAN, but I'm just not learning it somehow. Aweful, considering I"m honestly a virtuoso on all other techniques. But, ehhhhh... Oww. It hurts to not know this.
    liam177lewis
    very very nice article. ive had many problems with sweeps, and i think article covers them greatly, very much appreciated.
    eddiesclone
    Very good! This is all true and correct. I need to practice my rolls and read up my theory.
    axe_2_grind
    KillrBuckeye wrote: Second, for certain shapes one must play the same fret on three adjacent strings. Does the finger "roll" technique apply to this situation? I don't really see how it's possible to "roll" your finger over three strings in a fast, fluid, motion.
    Yes it can be done, but it is a very subtle technique to learn and takes a lot of practice. You just have to learn how to control each individual joint in your left hand (or right if you're left handed) I have to agree on the point of learning to roll the left hand. It's all about getting the pick and the fingers in sync. I recommend practicing with the metronome with triplets or sextuplets, or else experiment and find note combinations that fit into 4/4 tome and just up the tempo a little each day. It took me a couple of years to get it anywhere close to sounding good, and then I started noticing the little flaws in my playing and learned to correct them. Like any technique it just take time and patience.
    Punky_Joe
    I'm afraid i don't even know HOW to sweep pick. i've only been playing three years. if someone could tell me what it's all about (messaging?) i would appreciate it. i assume it's letting your pick do strokes on the strings down the guitar then back up? i don't know. i practise basic things. nice article... if someone explains sweep picking i'll DEFINATELY find myself coming back to this page =P
    Chiefwiddler
    A good technique it is...but I would say learning to write effective passages of music that fit the music, and move the listener, is a better skill to have. A blur of notes may make up for some creative shotcomings, but not for long!
    SkullOfSteel875
    a problem i had when i started learning it was doing the hammer-ons and pull-offs faster than the rest of the notes but i sorted it out quickly. great article anyway.
    6(ric)6
    great article man but usually wen im learnin somethin i jus try 2 play it fast over and over til i get it right wich doesnt work for alot of ppl but ill try to more often with sweeps
    anoreorcist12
    Fender_boi_101 wrote: ok well...how the hell are you ment to mute...you say how to but dnt explain it...i end up the palm muting the sttings n it sounds crap, and i can kidna go fast but the bloody G string keeps ringing...the guitar G string incase any1 got differnat ideas...anyway...i just cant mute thwe unwanted strings cos i end up muting the wanted strings too....GRRR
    KillrBuckeye
    I didn't see my two biggest challenges on this list. First, how does one cleanly execute 3-string sweeps starting with a pull-off on the high E, sweeping upward but only hitting the G string ONCE before coming back down, i.e. EpE-B-G-B-E. For the life of me, I cannot avoid hitting the G string a second time on the way back down, and it sounds like crap. Second, for certain shapes one must play the same fret on three adjacent strings. Does the finger "roll" technique apply to this situation? I don't really see how it's possible to "roll" your finger over three strings in a fast, fluid, motion.
    Dutchpicking
    nice article!a mute technique i learned was with bar chords like f and g and so on, like you just keep on playing and then slightly lift yyoure fingers wich mute the whole chord without using your palm. And if to play a song like "what's up - 4 non blondes" to keep in rythm with thos 16 strokes in one measure dont touch the stings with the pick. wich i find a sort of muting. hopfully usefull. make more lessons
    anoreorcist12
    Fender_boi_101 wrote: ok well...how the hell are you ment to mute...you say how to but dnt explain it...i end up the palm muting the sttings n it sounds crap, and i can kidna go fast but the bloody G string keeps ringing...the guitar G string incase any1 got differnat ideas...anyway...i just cant mute thwe unwanted strings cos i end up muting the wanted strings too....GRRR
    srry screwed up up there^... anyway, i just start with not muting anything, then move my palm down each string as i go downuntil it covers all but the low e string. do the reverse going up. hope that made sense im not the best at explaining things.
    Melting_Faces
    This article was very informative to me and all-round it helped me quite a bit. however i am still struggling with certain aspects of this technique as i have only just started to practice it. I want to bring the idea of muting the strings with ure palm or thum back up. I have found this most difficult and it is proveing to be the prodominant problem i am experiencing. The ascending part of the arpeggio (down strokes) are a real pain, especially when tackling something like a 5-string sweep (as in my case) as i cannot yet articulate the individual notes propperly. Maybe and most probably i have been playing too fast but it seems that most of my problems lie with muting the strings. Can anyone help me out here?
    gwitersnamps
    Sweep picking is considered by many to be a technique that separates average players from highly advanced players
    There's problem #1
    Warheart1188
    Fender_boi_101 wrote: ok well...how the hell are you ment to mute...you say how to but dnt explain it...i end up the palm muting the sttings n it sounds crap, and i can kidna go fast but the bloody G string keeps ringing...the guitar G string incase any1 got differnat ideas...anyway...i just cant mute thwe unwanted strings cos i end up muting the wanted strings too....GRRR
    When it comes to muting in sweeping, you kinda have to find little spots on your palm and feel the strings to mute the ones you don't wanna hear when you lift a finger off a string. I don't know how to explain itexactly because you have to feel it as you're playing.
    Warheart1188
    This is an amazing article. I had these exact problems years ago when I learned sweeping. I also see my students with these same symptoms as well. By golly you nailed it!
    Paul Lambeth
    Great article. I definately attack it too fast, I consciously try to slow it down but the patience required to increase your speed gradually is annoying. Very nice article, good pointers, but this isn't just useful for sweeping; any kind of fast soloing, scale climbing etc comes into this (palm muting technique etc.).
    Omnislash502
    to punky joe: just look up sweep picking on youtube tho i think you pretty much got the idea...
    chipmanman
    Thanks for telling me what I shouldn't sound like. I'm a 2 week beginner but that hasn't stopped me from trying anything on the guitar- including sweep picking. I fail at #6//#7 but how can you possibly know music theory if you've never studied music before. I have a good ear for my mistakes though- sometimes its not easy to know how I should be correcting them... There are so many different ways to control sound on the guitar it's incredible. I also fail at muting. I can play my simple shapes perfectly clean while playing slow, but as I speed up and add distortion I leave annoying open string noise from lifting my left hand fingers from the strings.. This is what I should be palm muting right? For someone who wants to ultimately create his own melodic metal riffs I found this piece helpful.
    Kailashanand
    one more thing : sweeping must NOT be substitute for guitar playing !! Its nice to hear it here and there as some spice..but imagine 2-3 min of ONLY sweeping you will want to kill that guitar player !! To be real musician is to be able to WRITE song like, Sweet Child, Hotel California, Starway to heaven, Comfortambly numb, Little wing etc... with all rhythm and solo tracks, over dubs and if possible also lyrics ! This will make you real musician--real songs& real instruments, real life and people. Sweep is wonderful technique and nice exotic spice to your guitar playing, but nothing beyond that ! Spice can never be substitute food (or you will starve to death) Be Happy
    Kailashanand
    This are good advices and its good to practice, but not over do it..If you lose your source of creativity, and give to perfection way too much importancy and worrie all time to play perfect then I would say stop and return to your innocence and inner child which is the source of all creativity and reason why you play guitar...Its interesting that guitarists which are most famous (Page, Clapton, Hendrix, Gilmour,Keith Richards, Beck, Stevie Ray V etc..-you got the point) Those guitar gods are joy to listen over and over again Yet somehow you become much more bored when you listen most of the present age shredders, who are very disciplined and almost perfect as robot or computer, but still you become bored much quicker than listening those old rockers which are often little sloppy playing live, but you can listen to them again and again without getting bored. They have of course also practice a lot, but they listened to radio or records and putt all effort to learn to play what they heard, even their practice was playful...to listen to song and then play along is best possible practice I think. So they had discipline and spontanous free expression in BALANCE. And today standards putt too much emphasize on discipline to make it by the "rules",thats why we dont have any new Hendrix, Gilmour, Page...but we have more and more dead and boring machine -like shredders, no shortage of them no sir !! And if you supress your free spirit , inner source of limitless potential, and try to copy them (modern shredders) you will also become perfect-robot in most cases even just bedroom robot. Do not sacrifice your spirit, soul your freedom, your source of power, to become "perfect", then you will be perfectly dead... Keep discipline balanced, free your discipline and discipline your freedom and you might be another Hendrix, we desperately need...
    shamalama33
    im not a super theory heavy player, but i could appreciate this article, and perhaps it will help my sweeping more
    Air_Stryker
    I'm not sure if I'm doing this right, it kind of feels like I have the opposite problem to number three. As opposed to strumming the arpeggio, I'm taking care to pick each individual note. I don't really know, I kind of thought sweep picking was sort of like a rake with each note clear and defined. That's caused by the action of only fretting each individual note your playing in sequence, as opposed to just holding the chord.
    zorbozate
    exellent!! yov,e pointed out a few items i,m guity of , i can change my ways before it gets to be a bad habbat!!rock on rock hard!!!
    mikevmpr3
    and other problems is the actual picking some people tell me to hold the pick flat, and other tell me to hold it and sweep it at an angle.
    mikevmpr3
    one problem i face is "over muting" the strings? what i mean by this , is when i go to hit the next note in the arpeggio shape. its a musted noted (this mostly occurs when going up to the DGC strings (i play in drop)what is up? alos some things to keep in mind is string gauges and pick thinknesses
    GuitarHero0715
    cataclysm34 wrote: There's one part in here I have qualms with... All the best sweepers do it simply through economy of motion and lifting their fingers off the fretboard instead of relying on their palm which doesn't make sense in a descending arpeggio. So just food for thought. Other than that the article was alright.
    You dont need to mute them in a descending sweep because your left hand is already muting the strings while reaching for the lower strings.
    deafening
    Chiefwiddler wrote: A good technique it is...but I would say learning to write effective passages of music that fit the music, and move the listener, is a better skill to have. A blur of notes may make up for some creative shotcomings, but not for long!
    why u hating?
    Kipyt
    I've been practicing sweep picking, and according to this article I've been doing all the wrong things! I'm not surprised, I don't sound good when I sweep pick, thansk a TON for this article!
    We Remain
    dane619 wrote: good article the best song to practice sweeping is the woman solo by wolfmother if u play the rite way !!
    Correct me if im wrong but itsnt it an organ solo?
    RICKYISDEAD15
    i see this alot whith beginer sweeps lets talk tone if you use the rythem/neck pickup it sound much more accurate the tone is important i think its best to use less mid and focus more on the bass and mid balance on your amp be shure to use heavy picks as well i suggest 1.0s
    Fender_boi_101
    ok well...how the hell are you ment to mute...you say how to but dnt explain it...i end up the palm muting the sttings n it sounds crap, and i can kidna go fast but the bloody G string keeps ringing...the guitar G string incase any1 got differnat ideas...anyway...i just cant mute thwe unwanted strings cos i end up muting the wanted strings too....GRRR