Seemingly the Holy Grail of guitar techniques. Sweep picking is worshiped by aspiring younglings and demi-gods alike on their quest for guitar stardom.
It seems as if there is no other guitar technique capable of creating such mystery and legends. If you dare, follow me to demystify the secret art
of high-speed arpeggios and learn how to sweep pick!
In fact, sweeping is a technique just like any other. There is no need to be able to play certain things before you take on sweep picking. If you
are intimidated by sweep picking, you have no clue what it is.
Let’s change that, and sweep like you never swept before with this complete sweep picking lesson!
Think of sweep picking as a slow and controlled strum. The big difference to strumming a chord is, that all the notes are played separately. The notes are supposed to sound out distinct and do
not coincide. In case to do so, every note is muted right after you picked it.
If you are keen, here is the nerdiest definition I could think of: Sweep picking means that you play two or more individual notes on consecutive strings using the same picking
direction and making sure, that every note sounds out distinct.
I know that sounds super weird. The bottom line is that you are not strumming a chord, you are sweep picking an arpeggio. Does that sound even weirder? The following licks and
examples will make sure you know what´s cracking.
Check out “Altitudes” by Jason Becker [1:58] to internalize the pure sweep magic!
Best Practice: Avoid Beginner Mistakes
How should I hold my pick? When holding your pick, make sure to achieve a slight angle by moving your thumb. That means, that your pick should not be parallel to the strings. The
classic “Paul Gilbert angle” is nothing new but! Unlike alternate picking, which favors a firm grip of the pick, your pick should have just a little bit play. Applying those two things will
minimize the resistance between pick and strings for the smoothest sweeping experience you will ever have.
How do I move the pick? You might wonder if to use your arm or your wrist. Generally, there will be a combination of both going on. There are players using more wrist and players
using more arm movement. Heck, Paul Gilbert even sweeps with his ass, for example. You see, there is no absolute answer. As a guideline: Find the combination that gives you the most control over
the pick and a relaxed/natural feeling when sweeping. At the end of this lesson, I included a recommendation by the awesome Ben Eller on that subject.
How do I clean up my dirty sweep? Alright, folks! This is the key to the Lamborghini! Palm muting matters! Since we are not strumming a chord but playing the notes separately, it
is important to just let the fretted note ring. This demands, on one hand (it is spelled p u n), that we palm mute the strings to avoid noise. You already got palm muting down playing heavy riffs
all day? Awesome! Now, it’s a bit tricky since we constantly moving our hand and changing strings. Especially the higher strings will feel weird at first. In addition to palm muting, make sure
your fretting hand does what it should: Fretting one note at a time. There should just be tension in the finger fretting the picked note.
What pick-up should I use? Your neck pick-up will provide that beloved sweep sound! For practice purposes, I recommend your bridge pick-up. If you nail it with the bridge, the
neck pick-up will sound unreal!
Sweep picking is actually a quite easy technique when you think about it. But if you have no clue what it is and you see someone playing a fury of notes going rapidly up and down the
neck…..man wtf?! That’s when all the legends start. Let’s learn how to sweep pick and you will see, there is a method to this madness.
1. Getting Started: How To Sweep Pick
Sweeping is kinda weird when you first do it. Your fretting hand will play one note on each string and your picking hand will sweep over the strings in order to play those notes. That’s in no Led
Zepplin or AC/DC solo?!
Let’s take a look at one simple exercise to get your hands going:
Play this one very slow. You can also leave the sweeping out at first and just get used to the movement of the fretting hand. Make sure
to only fret one note at a time.
One way to get used to the sweep motion is to rest your pick for a brief moment on the next string after you picked a note. Repeat this until you reached the last note on the high E-string.
Then go up and let your pick rest under the next string. Yes, you guessed it: This assumes that you play really slow.
Also, when your pick rests on the next string make sure that just the before picked note is clearly audible. Nothing else. No noise, no other notes. This requires muting as you already know.
Keeping your picking hand relaxed is very hard at first but strive for it. It will make things way easier when you start picking up speed.
Changing Directions When Sweep Picking
The first tab was fairly easy, wasn’t it? The only purpose was to show the basic concept of sweeping. Did you notice that we had two notes on the
same string when we were changing the picking directions? Piece of cake!
But what happens when we have one or even three notes on the same string when changing directions? That can be kinda tricky but no
sorcery after all. Check out the first sweep arpeggio in the solo from "Leper Messiah" by Metallica [3:57].
1. Variation: Full Legato
2. Variation: Pull-Off
3. Variation: Alternate Picking
This is an E minor arpeggio. 3-string arpeggios like this are played all the time because they are easy and sound rad. You can see that
we have 3 notes on the high E-string and just one note on the B-string and G-string.
Check out the different variations how to deal with the direction change on the E-string. It can be full legato, a simple pull-off or full
alternate picking. No variation is right or wrong. Just go with what feels right for you. I personally like the simple pull-off variation the most.
For the G-string, we come down all the way using a down sweep. You can see that all 3 variations have the same picking pattern for the
direction change on the G-string. Just make sure you play a down-stroke on the G-string.
Practice this very slowly and get used to the direction changes. Relax and really try to minimize the effort.
Pro Tip: I read a nice description from John Petrucci that I keep
in mind to relax my picking hand. It goes something like:Let your pick fall down from string to string when going down and imagine your hand is being
lifted up by a cord around your wrist when going up.
2. Full Shred Ahead! - How To Play High-Speed Arpeggios
We all know those cheesy movie transformations. When plane Jane turns into a bombshell or Melvin mutates into the Toxic Avenger. Well, kinda the same thing is now happening to our campfire
Arpeggios are broken down chords where you play the notes separately.
Looks like sweeping and arpeggios match pretty well!
3-String Sweeps: The Most Essential Arpeggio Shapes
Let's take a look at the most essential and common shapes for 3-string arpeggios: Minor and major. We are playing only an A minor and an A major arpeggio using different shapes.
If you know all your basic guitar chords, you automatically know a lot of arpeggios without maybe realizing it. Check out this A minor chord and check back with the A minor
arpeggio (A shape). Boom! Pretty cool, right?!
Now, let’s take that a little further. When you play the actual chord, there are more than just three strings... Well, you guessed it! Get ready for 5-string arpeggios!
5-String Sweeps: Expanding The Basic Arpeggio Shapes
You call that a sweep? This is a sweep! Now, we expand the 3-string sweeps and go for five strings.
The arpeggios are the same. We just add notes and expand them. All in all, we just have three notes (root - third - fifth) that make
up the basic minor and major chord. Crazy ain’t it?!
The shapes can and should be applied to all other keys. That’s all fine and good. When I started out, there was something that made no sense to me. I had no idea when to play which arpeggios in a solo?! Let’s fill that gap before it even arises!
Playing Arpeggios Up And Down The Major Scale
The song is in a specific key. You know what scale you can use. Therefore you also know what arpeggios or chords derive from that
scale! Those chords can be used to play mind-blowing sweep licks!
In our example, we have a D major scale. Well, I hope you all did your homework and know why there are specific chords in a scale. If not don’t worry for now. The next lick goes through all basic arpeggios of the scale starting with D major.
Alright, three major shapes, three minor shapes but what the hell happened at the end?! Well, that’s a diminished arpeggio. Yngwie likes to use them all the time! Typically in that shape for the extra evil touch.
Now you know the basic arpeggios that can be used when a song is in D major. That concept can be moved to any other key. Knowing your basics goes a long way and simple ideas like those can save
Pro Fact: The different arpeggio shapes are inversions. That means you have the same chord but you can play the chord differently (shapes) on the fretboard. In our case, it
is an A minor and A major arpeggio. For all the smarty pants: Yes, there are more inversions for those chords. The inversions or shapes shown here are just the most convenient for
Expanding Arpeggios: More Strings And More Notes
The arpeggios that I have shown you are the real basic minor and major shapes. They are fun to play and are found all over the place.
They just sound cool and are easy to memorize.
There are dozens of other arpeggios and things you can sweep. You know by now that arpeggios are broken down chords. Logically, you can
arpeggiate every chord and make them fit your sweeping needs!
For now, the above-explained arpeggios should be enough. They are great to focus on sweep picking and getting the technique down. Showing you
dozens of arpeggios would go beyond the scope and purpose of this lesson.
3. Nat Geo Shred: Examples Of Sweep Picking
I hope your head did not blow up by now! Ever seen Scanners? Anyhow, it’s that time again! Check out some of the impressive and most
impressive sweep licks. Pleasure to sweep!
1. Rusty Cooley - Under The Influence [1:48]
Badass shredder Rusty Cooley shows what's up with this blazing sweep lick! Check out how the tonality changes with those diminished variations at the end. Crazy good and fast!
2. Lost Society - I Am The Antidote [4:09]
Finish thrashers Lost Society display pure diminished artistry that would make Yngwie proud. Make sure to check this band out for
awesome songs and ass-kicking leads!
3. Yngwie Malmsteen - Liar [1:59]
Yngwie Who? Yngwie fkn Malmsteen! That's Who! Alright, check out this neoclassical sweep picking lick before the main solo. What a great way
to introduce the mind-blowing guitar solo yet to come.
In the key of A minor, Yngwie uses some sweet notes here and there to give this lick some extra flavor!
4. Gus G - The Quest [0:01]
Gus G is just one of those guys who never fails to amaze. He is known for his heavy riffs and heroic leads fresh from the Spartan battlefields.
Like Yngwie, this sweep lick serves as an introduction to the main song. Check out Firewind and Gus's solo records.
5. Jason Becker – Altitudes [1:58]
Last but not least the grandmaster - the one and only - Jason Becker! Those are the first 6 bars of that sweeping masterpiece. This shows how beautifully the basic arpeggio shapes can be used.
Check out the downloadable Guitar Pro tabs for the whole, seemingly endless arpeggio lick and make sure Jason’s “Perpetual Burn” record is on your playlist!
Sweep Picking is no rocket science. I think what frightens most people is the whole package that needs to be understood. Yes, the motion is different than linear scales. Yes, now there are
arpeggios. Yes, usually in metal and rock guitar all the sweeps are done at uber-speed!
During this lesson, we realized that we know most of the stuff that makes up sweeping already. Your know chords and therefore you know most of the arpeggios. You can strum and therefore you just
needed the finesse that makes up sweep picking.
I hope this lesson demystified all the legends and uncertainties. Geared up with a solid understanding, here are...
My recommendations for further studies:
“This is Why You Suck at Guitar: Your Sweep Picking Sucks” by Ben Eller
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