Sweep Picking – A Beginner’s Guide

Whilst this isn’t necessarily a site for beginners (see the About Greg section) I thought the first post in the Sweep Picking section should have a basic description of the technique. Like Alternate Picking, this technique has roles for both hands – it’s not a right hand only technique. This would be to confuse Sweep Picking with a raking technique, often used to ‘scrape’ up the lower strings with the pick to a note on a higher string. The general position of my picking hand when Sweep Picking is the same as when alternate picking (see here for a picture) as I need to move from technique to technique smoothly, so any unnecessary position movements are just that.

Sweep Picking is not a right hand only technique

Generally speaking, SP is used for arpeggios. The wider intervals common in arpeggios mean that we will often only be playing one or two notes per string which would make Alternate Picking quite a sluggish technique as a result – the pick can’t build up enough momentum before it needs to move off to the next string (try playing a one note-per-string lick with AP as fast as you can and you’ll see what I mean) So this technique gets around that by keeping the pick going in one direction, for momentum’s sake, for a longer period of time.

The Right Hand

When Alternate Picking or even down-only picking, the pick re-positions itself each time for another individual pick – not so with SP. The pick falls into the next string which cushions it until the pick pushes through to play the next note in the sequence (I like to imagine it like a person gradually slipping down the rungs of a ladder – gravity pulls the person down but a new rung is there to catch them) The best description I’ve heard of how the right hand behaves when Sweep Picking is that of a stick being dragged across a rail fence. The stick careers into and is caught by each new rail post as it sweeps along. Contrast this with the Alternate Picking/down-only picking style where the stick would tap each rail post individually.

The Left Hand

The main job of the left hand is to ‘synch up’ with the right. Each right hand pick is coordinated with a note on the left. As that note finishes and the next note is played, the left hand mutes the previous note and plays the next note, on the next string up, in synch with the right hand – there is no gap between notes but also no bleed through (notes overlapping) It can’t be stressed enough how well timed this needs to be.

I’ve put together 3 basic exercises to practice this technique. The first is an ascending only (pick travelling downwards) exercise which finishes on a bend, the second a descending only (pick travelling upwards) exercise which finishes on a long note with vibrato and the third combines ascending and descending continuously. I’ve included a 3 minute backing track to try the ideas to and also flesh them out into new ideas for songs/lead guitar improvisation.

I’ve played each exercise (except the third) as 8th note licks twice and then as 16th note licks twice. Feel free to mix this up over the backing track and, hopefully, it will ignite some creativity.

Exercise 1Ascending

Sweep Picking – Ascending Lick

This is a G Major triad on the 3 high strings. Ascending using the technique as described above and exiting on a 1 fret bend on the G string. There is a ‘finger roll’ on the 2 highest strings, using the first finger which will be the subject of my very next post in this area. I’ll link it here when it’s done. I hit the exit note with a down pick which will be an outside pick, see here for a description, but that is personal preference.

Exercise 2 – Descending

Sweep Picking – Descending Lick

The descending version of the above. This lick actually starts on a down pick and then the Sweep Picking comes into play – a favourite ploy of mine to ‘kick start’ a sweep picking lick. Almost like the up picks ‘bounce’ off the down pick. The left hand finger roll is still there but in reverse this time.

Exercise 3 – Ascending & Descending Combined

Sweep Picking – Asc & Desc

A combination of down and up Sweep Picking. This is a very useful, repetitive exercise. I first encountered this kind of 3 string sweep picking ‘loop’ in Steve Vai’s ‘The Attitude Song’ – a fearsome instrumental which I’ve yet to master nearly 20 years after hearing! I did however cherry pick said exercise from the song and practice it to sharpen my own SP skills. This is my own version of that. I’ve played it repetitively first using 8th notes, then 16th notes and then for fun 16th note triplets.

Here’s the backing track to practice to –

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