Anyone can learn how to sweep pick if they know how practice the right things, and practice them well!
Sweep picking is one of the advanced techniques for guitar. It is usually associated with rock and heavy metal as if a “shredder’s technique”. But, it can be used in any style from jazz to classical and ultimately makes you sound more interesting!
What is Sweep Picking for guitar? In short, sweep picking is the primary technique used for playing arpeggios on the guitar. It allows you to travel across the strings even when you only have one note per string. Making it easier and effortless to travel at higher speeds than if you was to alternate pick.
In this article we cover sweep picking in more detail below…
1. What is Sweep Picking?
As discussed, sweep picking is a technique used for playing arpeggios, by using a’sweeping’ motion of the pick to play single notes on consecutive strings. This technique is quite similar to strumming a chord in slow motion. But instead of letting the notes ring out you play each of them individually.
To achieve this there are techniques for both the picking and fretting hands:
- Fretting Hand – fretting hand since is responsible for separating the notes, so you can achieve your goal which is to hear only one note at a time. The fretting hand is an action where you mute the string directly after it has been played.
- Picking Hand – the picking hand follows the strumming motion but you have to make sure each string is picked individually. If two notes are picked together then by definition you have just played a chord and not an arpeggio.
Together, the picking hand and fretting hand will create a sweeping motion. This is the most difficult guitar technique to learn but with the correct practice the flow of the notes will appear natural.
2. Why is Sweep Picking Important?
Sweep Picking is not an essential technique on guitar. However, it does make your playing sound more interesting (when used correctly), that will make you standout from the crowd.
In addition, arpeggios are a significant component of almost all musical forms, and sweep picking is the technique used to be able to play them, and so should be incorporated into any serious guitar players practice regimen.
3. Styles Where It Is Used?
Sweep picking is maily known to be played in metal, and shred guitar. But, did you know it is also popular in jazz. Django Reinhart used it in his compositions all the time. He would only used it in short bursts.
Excessive long sweeping works for metal. But, you can adapt it to any style you wish. Even if you play style like indie rock, there is nothing wrong with throwing a short three or four string sweep just to help you navigate around the fretboard.
the main thing to remember is that this technique helps you navigate the fret board. so if the flow of notes that fit the mood happen to be arpeggios then it would make more sense to use it. But, remember there are no rules to music.
4. Get the Tone
The first thing you want to do is finding the right tone. This can be broken down by guitar set up and how you phrase.
This technique works well with Strat-style guitars in rock, where the neck pickup position produces a warm, round tone. Use a modern tube amp with a modest gain setting – just enough to give all of the notes the same volume and sustain, but not so much that string muting becomes impossible.
A string dampener is a piece of equipment that rests on the fretboard and dampens the strings. There are a few different designs, but they all attempt to do the same thing: keep your guitar quiet so you don’t have to deal with those annoying ringing strings. Overall, you will gain clairty.
Add a compressor to you pedal board
a compressor controls the dynamic range on your guitar tone. by adding a compressor you can boost those essential freqencies that are less present. if done correctly it will both add calirty to your tone and make it easier to sweep.
Pick & Phrasing
The tone of your sweep picking will be heavily influenced by the thickness and sharpness of your pick. Something with a thickness of one to two millimetres and a rounded tip will deliver enough attack while still gliding easily over the strings.
5. How to Sweep Pick?
Most guitarists believe that in order to sweep pick quickly, their hands must move quickly. In other words, they strive to move their hands as quickly as they can… But, this is an illusion.
In fact, your ears are tricking you to think that this person is playing faster than they actually are.
It is important to break down what that person is doing rather than just trying to hit all the notes as fast as possible. Break down
You do not practice the actual parts of the sweep picking method. That is why they struggle with rapid and clean sweep picking.
Step 1 (strumming hand motion)
Sweep picking can easily be depicted by strumming chords in slow motion. So pick a chord you’re familiar with (i would advise the D major shape) and attempt to strum slowly back and forth being consistent of leaving the same space between each note.
It is important here to get your strumming hand familiar with gliding or sweeping over the strings
Step 2 (fretting position)
Next you want to move this chord from its open position, towards the 12th fret. But, instead of holding the chord we want to play it as a arpeggio (basically avoid the notes overlapping).
Always remember to press only one finger onto the board at a time to keep the notes separated and at the same time moving your guitar pick up and down in a smooth motion.
Step 3 (strumming hand palm mute)
Here we want to mute all the other strings.
Keep in mind the strings will continue to resonate once you strike a note.
If you hit two notes of the arpeggio and they ring out you are actually playing a chord, as you will get two notes ringing along side each other.
There is two ways of doing this. The first way to archive this is by palm muting as you sweep with the strumming hand to dampen the frets.
Step 4 (fretting hand mute)
Sweep picking won’t be sweep picking anymore if there’re too many notes that resonate at the same time. You want to hear only one distinct note sounding at once.
So in this step we want to mute all the other strings except the one being played.
We are talking about Fretting one string at a time while the remaining fingers have to mute all the other strings that have just been played previously (not easy but do-able).
After playing the 1st note in the arpeggio, release your finger off the string to mute it. Then you move your finger to the 2nd note. During playing the 2nd note of the arpeggio, the 1st note should be completely muted. Learning to roll your fretting fingers over the note after you sound the note will kill the resonance. Rolling your fingers will help to mute a string immediately after playing it.
Step 5 (aim for accuracy)
Once you have the mechanics down with the above steps you now want to focus on distinctly hitting every note with precision. So the only way to do this is repetition at a very slow speed. It is important to turn any dead notes/dull notes into clear precise notes.
Important: make sure you do not skip this step, you need to get this right as it will build the foundation of your technique. You would want your sound to be perfectly clean, and this can only happen if the notes on adjacent strings don’t ring together at the same time.
Step 6 (find your rhythm)
Once you can get through the arpeggio cleanly (ensuring your muting correctly), its time to focus focusing on rhythm.
When you first start doing this you want to set a metronome very slow (we’re talking 20BPM) and play along ensuring every notes hits on directly on the beat, making sure you get a constant flow on notes with the same time difference between each note.
To Note: if you google metronome then you can get a free one, and set the tempo.
Step 7 (building speed)
When playing fast you use a different set of muscles than when you are playing slow. This means you can practice slow for years and still not learn to play fast.
So to increase speed you can practice to a metronome and slowing up the tempo. You can also try and practice by playing fast but in short bursts.
For example, start with three notes. learn them fast, then add another note. etc… This is where you start to be good at playing super fast. Before you know it. you’ll be able to play a whole sweeping section at ease.
Step 7 (floating picking hand)
I learned a lot about sweep picking by watching Tom Hess videos. One thing that was a bit on an eye opener for me was the floating picking hand as you sweep.
This basically means your palm is not stuck to the bridge but you actualy hover it slightly above the bridge.
It very strange at first but it does give you more flexibility.
Step 8 – Synchronizing Hand movements
sweep picking is not easy and requires lots of practice. You should synchronize your hands so that your fretting finger and the guitar pick can work on the strings at the same moment with precision. You would want your sound to be perfectly clean, and this can only happen if the notes on adjacent strings don’t ring together at the same time
A core aspect of guitar playing in general is being able to hit the fret and pick/strum it at the same time. For example strumming a chord or playing the seven nation army riff can be quite consider relatively easy. However, when learning how to sweep pick this synchronicity between fretting and and picking hand can be awfully troublesome.
If your suffering with this then you will be very sloppy playing and it will sound as if your almost falling over the fretboard. But, luckily there are a few things ou can do to avoid this.
- Drop the tempo – by dropping the tempo you will build better muscle memory of the motion, and the notes your aiming to hit.
- Hand articulation – by increasing the volume of the notes you play. by hitting the notes harder, accentuate will improve the accuracy. This only for practicing purposes but will make your notes sound more clear and precise. You cannot articulate the notes clearly if your hands are not in sync. so it helps you be aware of the subtle adjustments you need to make.
- Make sure your using the right pick – Use a stiff guitar pick (that doesn’t flex when you play). If your pick flexes while playing, it needs to return to its neutral state before each note. To avoid this, use guitar picks that are at least 1.0 mm thick.
6. Use a Metronome or Backing Track
When I started using a metronome everything fell into place.
The metronome sets the passe. Even if i screwed up it was so much simpler to just keep going and leap into the next metronome click.
At first it feel really alien and it is difficult but once you get familiar with it really does tighten up your playing.
Metronomes also educate you about syncopation. Having a drum machine or software running might also help to stimulate creativity. Something to play with, even if the drum sounds are a little corny.
But overall, they help you snap into the beat so you can become more contentiously connected with the song.
7. Start With Three-String Sweeps
When i first started learning sweep picking i started with a 6 string pattern. I was practicing for months and i could not get it sounding clean. It was only years later when i was introduced into 3 string sweeps.
3 note string sweep is a brilliant place to get started!
This is because 3 note sweep are actually relativity easy as compared to 4-string sweeps or more. Its much easier to learn 3 strings sweeps, then add an extra string later in your practicing routine.
8. Warm Up at Slow Speeds
Without a good warmup, you won’t be able to play to your best potential and even worse you actually build bad habbits.
Yes, you will play less smooth and your tone will deteriorate if your fingers cant reach the correct notes with strength.
This is because your hands are cold, when you at this state and your fingers are not limber enough, but by practicing in this state you may reinforce bad habits if you are not careful.
Even though some people just want to sweep all over the fretboard, you can use it for anything. I like to use it for short bursts (where i feel appropriate), making your playing slightly more interesting.
Outside of shred style playing, I’ve heard it employed nicely in a variety of contexts. I believe that the more tools/techniques you have in your arsenal, the better.
Sweeping is a helpful technique. It can give you access to notes around you more quickly as it allows you to travel between two strings more smoothly.