Sweep picking is a problem for a lot of guitar players. I see it as the advanced guitarist’s barre chords. It takes an age to learn in the first place, and then you have to find out how to use it without sounding like it’s all you can do!
In traditional picking, you pick every individual note of an arpeggio using a separate motion. Sweep picking however requires you to move your picking hand in a continuous motion across the strings, in a synchronised movement with your fretting hand.
I got started with sweep picking in 2008. I heard Between the Buried and Me’s song ‘Selkies: the endless obsession’ and that was that. Paul Waggoner’s solo had me hooked. I spent days; weeks, months even, playing a C Major arpeggio over and over until I felt it was smooth.
It was hard work but as a teacher I’ve come to realise, it doesn’t have to be that arduous.
The reason it took me so long to get the technique right was that I was concentrating on the wrong hand. I was focusing so much on the arpeggio shapes that I was neglecting the most important thing: if you want to sweep, concentrate on your picking hand.
Simple Sweep Picking Rules
Rule 1: Slant your plectrum.
When sweeping, the temptation is to pick each note individually. This won’t work. It happens because players try to sweep in the same way as conventional picking, one note at a time. The way I got past this problem in my own playing was to adapt an alternate picking technique called pick slanting.
The most basic way to explain this technique is as follows:
When sweeping downwards, the tip of your plectrum should be pointing upwards. When sweeping back up, the tip should be slanted towards the floor.
This will stop your plectrum from getting caught up in the strings, and will allow you to sweep without the temptation to use too much force.
Rule 2: Keep your wrist loose.
Like strumming, if you sweep from your forearm or elbow, you’re doomed to failure. If the sweeping motion comes from your wrist, it will allow you more control and restraint. These two qualities are the key to effortless sweep picking.
If your picking lacks control and restraint, you’ll lose synchronisation between your picking and fretting hand.
Rule 3: Start slow
I would say this is a good idea for any type of practice, but for sweep picking it is essential. Good sweeping relies upon muscle memory and synchronisation between hands. The best way to build this is to start at a slow pace when tackling an arpeggio, and build your speed up a few bpm at a time.
Sweep Picking Exercises
Tackle each one of these arpeggios alternating between downward and upward sweeping, building towards the sequence I’ve set out as the last example.
As you can hear in the examples above, I’ve kept these sweeps at a fairly slow pace. The reason for this is a 4th rule which doesn’t relate directly to the technique. Musicality.
Sweep picking can be a great sonic weapon when you want effortless speed without the hassle of a picking pattern. I think however, it’s more effectively used as an extension of legato playing. It’s also a good way of moving to a different tonal range, without an awkward jump or the need for a scale run.
I’ll leave you with some links for pieces that have helped me to develop my technique over the years. Some of these examples will help you get to grips with sweeping , and some will give you ideas for how it can be used.
Between the Buried and Me, Selkies solo