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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.