Beginners Guide To Sweep Picking
Sweep picking is undoubtedly one of the most impressive lead guitar techniques you can learn. The flurry of notes unleashed by players like Marty Friedman and Rusty Cooley sound baffling, intricately detailed and impenetrably rapid, but learning to do it yourself can be exceptionally rewarding. Be under no illusions, though, sweep picking is a pretty challenging technique to pick up, and mastering it requires hours of practice and priestly diligence. So, with that in mind, it’s time to learn one of the coolest lead guitar techniques in existence. So here is some great advice to help you from My Guitar Lessons.
Before we get started, there are a couple of important points to keep in mind. Firstly – and most importantly – there is no sense rushing through the exercises. A guitarist who tries to rush through a sweeping pattern the first time he looks at it is setting himself up for failure. You’ll find that your fingers get lost and confused if you try to move too quickly – so start at a comfortable pace. It doesn’t matter if it’s almost painfully slow; the important thing is to get the movement right in both your picking and your fretting hand. You can speed it up when you’ve committed the motions to muscle memory. Secondly, even if you’re an accomplished guitarist, learning to sweep pick takes time. You won’t pick it up overnight. Run through the exercises as many times as you need, and practice your sweeping for a little while every time you pick up your guitar.
The simplest way to describe a sweep pick is a run of notes played on adjacent strings, a bit like a chord that’s been broken apart into its constituent notes. This means that your strumming hand does pretty much what it would do when you’re playing a chord, except that it moves more slowly and rhythmically across each string. Try to play this basic up and down sweeping motion across three strings. The “x” symbols represent a “dead” note, so just lay your fretting hand gently against the strings as you pick. A “D” means you strum downwards and a “U” means you strum upwards.
This may seem a little basic, but it’s important to get your strumming hand technique right. Keep the sweep deliberate and well-timed, with your hand relaxed and steady throughout. Increase the speed as you get used to the technique – remembering to keep the notes evenly spaced.
This is arguably the most difficult part of sweep picking. In order to make it a sweep and not simply a slowly strummed chord, you need to mute the notes you fret just after picking them. The easiest way to do this is to simply lift your finger off the string after you’ve picked the note. Practice this with a note now, lifting your finger ever so slightly until the sound disappears. This means that in the midst of a sweep, your fingers virtually “walk” over the desired notes one by one to separate them and prevent it from sounding like a sloppily-strummed chord. Practice the technique using these simple three-string, unidirectional (all down-stroke) sweeps:
Remember to keep the notes evenly spaced and as always, start slowly before you get cocky and play them more quickly!
Three String Sweeps
Now you’ve practiced using both of your hands together, you can tackle some basic sweeps. In the name of simplicity, we can stick to the patterns from the previous example:
Adding Hammer-ons and Pull-offs
Although the sweeps above give you a better feel for the technique, in practice they’re rarely used without being combined with some legato techniques. Hammer-ons (“h” in tabs) and pull-offs (“p”) work perfectly when used with sweeps. Here’s an example which uses both to add a little flair:
The best way to practice this is to keep the pattern rolling, or in other words, to play the above section as if it were stuck on repeat.
From now, the sweep picking technique doesn’t really change; it just gets a little harder to put into practice. When you’re tackling four, five or six-string sweeps, the best advice is to stick to one finger per fret wherever possible. Here’s a four-string sweep:
For bigger sweeps, it helps to break them down into sections of three. Once you can play each three swing sweep (both up and down) it’s easy to put them together to form the larger pattern.
Then try the whole thing, with hammer-ons and pull-offs built in:
The last vital technique for any sweep picker is the fretting hand technique known as “finger rolling.” Try to play this:
The first and last three notes create problems when combined with the technique we’ve used so far. How do you play consecutive notes with the same finger and still mute each note before you move on? Well, you basically “roll” your finger across the three frets in time with your strumming. Start by applying more pressure with the tip of your finger (your ring finger in the example) as you play the first note and then shift the pressure down to the top joint of your finger for the second note. This has the effect of muting the first note and allowing the second to sound out. Shift the pressure again to the middle section of your finger (or the lower joint, depending on which finger you’re using and the size of your hands) to play the final note.
Now you know everything you need to play sweeps. You can mix it up a little further by replacing the hammer-on at the high-end of your sweeps with a picking hand tap. This has the same effect but gives you a wider choice of notes. You can also move the sweep pattern up or down the fretboard to create a sense of melodic progression – following the chords creates a cool effect.
Remember, sweep picking is tough – so stick at it and revisit these exercises if you’re struggling!