You’ve heard shred and heavy metal guitarists doing that super-fast thing, where they move their pick across all the strings in what seems like a sweeping motion, while at the same time moving their fretting fingers at lightning speed.
It sounds kind of like a chord, but with all the notes separated.
What is that?
Well, the technique, made popular in the ’80s by shredders Yngnie Malmsteen, Jason Becker, Marty Friedman and more, is called ‘sweep picking’. It’s also required learning for another common technique called economy picking which you can read about here.
Here’s a quick reminder:
In this article, we’ll look at what sweep picking is, how to do it and show you 8 sweep picking exercises that will take you from sweeping novice to a Malmsteen-esque maestro.
Table of Contents
What is Sweep Picking?
So, what is it? Pretty much what it says on the tin.
The technique involves making a ‘sweeping’ movement with your pick, whilst your fretting hand plays consecutive notes, one by one.
It’s a pretty advanced picking technique and can take some practice to get just right.
To get a ‘sweep’ with your pick means to do three or more downstrokes or up-strokes in a row quickly, on different strings, without it sounding like a strummed chord.
Let’s have a look at some ways to do that.
Many sweep picking licks make use of arpeggios, aka ‘broken chords’.
Although arpeggios can be played using chord shapes, usually an alternative shape is employed for the purpose of sweeping, as you can see in the diagram below.
This example is very similar to the A minor bar chord shape, but an additional ‘C’ is added on fret 3 of the A string.
This is to maintain the arpeggio’s shape, so the notes run in order: A, C, E, A, C, E, A.
Before you try sweep picking, have a go at playing the arpeggio forwards and backward a couple of times.
When you’re ready, get that sweeping motion across the D, G, B and E strings.
Make sure your fretting fingers are moving one by one. Sounds pretty cool, doesn’t it?
Tapping On and Pulling Off
In this example, we have an E major arpeggio sweep, finishing with a tap on the 12th fret on the E string.
This is a cool technique that really shows off your skills!
After tapping on the 12th fret, pull off to the 8, then sweep the rest of the notes on your E string back to your D string.
You can move this arpeggio shape up and down your fretboard, transposing it to whatever major arpeggio you like!
Upstroke sweeping dominated the second half of the last example, but you can start a sweep with an upward sweep, too.
In the example above, an A major arpeggio is swept backward, with an upward sweep, before coming back down again.
This can be a desirable effect, and Becker’s licks often begin with upward sweeps.
You can find upstroke sweeping as well as downstroke sweeping, littered around the legendary ‘Speed Metal Symphony’:
It’s usual to start off with downstroke sweeping. Just like it’s normal to strum your chords with downstrokes before you tackle upstrokes.
The example above is perhaps the simplest of those here.
However, although there are multiple fret 3s in a row, don’t be tempted to let it all ring out like a broken barre chord.
Although you can finger this like a barre chord with your first finger going across the 3rd fret, try to roll it over the strings in time with your sweeping pick.
This will give it a much more controlled sound that will suit the heavy metal style much better than sustained, ringing notes.
As you can see, the downstroke is ‘answered’ by an upstroke.
Have fun with this pattern; it might be the first one that gives you real sweeping confidence!
Sweeping in Triplets
So, time to think about timing!
When you’re sweeping, you usually play in either triplets/sextruplets, or fast quavers/semiquavers.
The example above, in triplets, requires you to count: “1 2 3, 1 2 3…”
It’s also only covering 3 strings.
The tricky bit here will be getting the pull off and upstroke on the B string in equal timing to your sweep.
Persevere, though; it’s worth it.
Semiquavers are equally common in sweep picking. Here, you count: “1 2 3 4” or “1 e and a”
Whatever works for you.
The E minor arpeggio in the example goes all the way up, back down again, then has a longer tonic at the end.
This is to make it fit into a bar and sound smooth.
It also gives you a moment to prepare for whatever arpeggio shape comes next. Try mixing this with your A minor arpeggio from earlier.
Sextruplets are, basically, fast triplets.
There’s a two-octave E minor arpeggio here, that includes a tap.
There’s also no time to breathe, unlike in the semiquaver example.
As you play each note, keep counting: “1 2 3 4 5 6,” over and over.
If you can keep it consistent, you’ve nailed it, but you’ll be able to tell that by how awesome it sounds!
Mixing Major and Minor Arpeggios
Finally, let’s study the shapes for a major arpeggio and a minor arpeggio.
Here’s an A major arpeggio. As you can see, it takes many of its notes from the A major barre chord.
Try playing it as sextruplets, then transpose it two frets lower.
You’ll be playing a G major arpeggio.
This is the A minor arpeggio again: the first shape you looked at. Try moving it two frets up. You’ll be playing a B minor arpeggio.
You can move these major and minor shapes all over the fretboard to change the key you’re in, and experiment with triplets, semiquavers, and sextruplets as you go.
There’s more than one shape for major and minor arpeggios, as you’ve already seen in the examples above, but it’s best to memorize one thing at a time.
Once you understand which notes belong in the arpeggio, and know where they are on the fretboard it’s easy to find the other shapes.
But that’s another lesson for another day :).
Sweeping is a technique that’s most at home in heavy metal and neoclassical music.
It can be a pain to get the hang of, but once you do it’s a trick that impresses audiences time and time again.
It can sound tasteful when used sparingly, awesome when used in a big chunk and coolest, in my opinion, when played as sextruplets with a tap on the end!
You can mix sweeping up with taps, pull-offs and even hammer-ons, just take care not to let it slip into messy playing.
When you’re confident you’ve mastered it, whack up the gain.
Hail the Rock God you’ve become!