Here we are to talk about sweep picking exercises, and the five common mistakes people make when learning this technique.
I have to say that I always had a lot of difficulty in applying this. I’m left-handed, so anything that involved the right hand was a struggle. So in the beginning, I was focused on alternate picking of players like jazz/fusion legend Al Dimeola, as well as guys like Paul Gilbert and Steve Morse. Then, at some point in the late 80’s, I started focusing on sweeping, thanks to music from Yngwie Malmsteen, Jason Becker, and Greg Howe. Those three were doing a lot of sweeps back then.
First Common Mistake: playing too fast with bad form.
All of you who follow my lessons know that I’m always telling you to play slowly when learning a new skill. I believe that this is the ultimate technique where you HAVE to play slowly — almost always. And why is that? Because sweeps are very easy to play fast and sloppy, the notes mash together sounding more like a chord.
The way to practice sweep picking is to compare the tone of each note to your alternate picked tone – they should sound almost exactly the same.
Here’s an example using alternate picking, then switching over to sweep picking on that same chord shape. The tone shouldn’t change — you want to try and get both the sweep picking and alternate picking to sound as close as possible.
See? It’s almost the same tone whether I’m alternate or sweep picking. I think if you keep that in mind, it’s going to change everything about your sweep skills.
For this first exercise, we’ll start with the basic movements, focusing on the motion of right hand. Experiment with the dynamics by changing the angle of your pick and level of attack.
This lick might seem fast, but it’s controlled. It’s not just a loose raking the pick across three or more guitar strings. You want the motion to be very controlled and consistent.
Once you have control, it’s going to be a lot easier to do these sweeps fast. You can also start adding slides, legato, and tapping to your sweeps, as well as mix it up with alternate picking. Which we will go over in a moment.
Whether you play jazz or rock, these techniques can be mixed into your playing. And I believe you can always take time to go deeper into one single technique, understand it better, then get better at using it.
The Second Common Mistake: hopping
Sometimes when players are trying to avoid the first common mistake, and are trying to make every note sound nice and clean, they start to sort of hop across the strings.
This type of motion is not going to be effective! You lose the energy and timing when you attempt it this way — you might as well use alternate in that case.
Now, “hopping” can be effective for certain riffs, check out the Guide to Downpicking for examples of that, but for sweeps, It’s not good. So no hopping!
The Third Common Mistake: not focusing on good, consistent-sounding notes
I mentioned this under the first common mistake, but it is very important.
Once again I suggest comparing your sweep picking sound to alternate picking. Spend some time to alternate between both, or even mix them up within the same arpeggios.
The Fourth Common Mistake: poor rhythm control
This is a struggle, even for me — I always say it’s because I’m left-handed, but it’s most likely because I didn’t practice enough!
Breaking things up into shorter passages, like two, three, or four notes, is an approach you can use to give your sweeps a more rhythmic quality.
Experiment and improvise with finger position, chord shapes, timing, syncopation, and division of the notes within the arpeggio. This will open you up to new ways to use this technique in your music and make things more interesting than just the straight-up-and-down sweeps.
The Fifth Common Mistake: poor left hand synchronization and muting
When you use distortion and high gain it’s, important to know how, and when, to mute the strings. Muting is so important I may do some video lessons focused entirely on that.
Basically, it’s a matter of placing your palm lightly across the bridge and finding the sweet spot:
It’s a very small area being muted, and just a tiny amount of pressure from the palm of the hand, but it makes a big difference in the tone.
Now let’s take a look at the left-hand finger positions. You have to be able to articulate the notes by synchronizing the fingers of your left hand with the motion of the right for it to sound clean.
There are some patterns and shapes that will be more difficult to sweep pick cleanly. These are shapes where you might have to barre your finger across the strings to do the lick. For these exercises, the right-hand string muting becomes very important in the articulation. Sometimes it’s easier to find another way to play these shapes and avoid having to barre the notes.
Speed is not the problem with sweep picking, the problem is playing articulate, with rhythmic control, and with good tone. It’s not about playing fast.
With alternate picking, it’s easier to have better timing because you usually practice it with a metronome, but it’s harder to play fast. With sweeps, and with legato and tapping, it’s easier to play faster, but harder to play with good control. So it’s important to practice these techniques slowly and using different rhythms and syncopations.
Again, start slowly. Never try to be super fast with sweep picking — that’s not the way to master the control of this technique.
Also, no “hopping” or jumping to each string with sweep arpeggios. Pay attention to muting and synchronization with right and left hands. Practice exercises with different chords, rhythms and syncopation. Focus on the quality of the notes and tone; remember, the notes should sound comparable to alternate picking, whether it’s legato, tapping, or sweeping.
This is basic stuff, I’m not throwing out complex scale patterns or anything fancy, because I believe in showing the foundation of the technique and leaving it up to you to be creative with how you use it.
Finally, you can download the backing music for “Vital Sign,” off my new album Open Source. Take some time to practice simple sweep patterns to that. The chords are C major, D, E minor or C major, and A minor.
On whether to hold the pick at an angle or not while playing sweeps
You can do it that way. I don’t angle the pick very much, there’s a little more attack when the pick is straight, but angled might be a little easier. You can try a little something in between and see how that sounds.
Another example of the pick angle here:
Do you always repeat the last note [string] of the arpeggio?
The easier way to start, I believe, would be to repeat the last string, So, on the way up you hit the E string on a downstroke, then again coming back with the upstroke.
Of course, you shouldn’t become dependent on always repeating the same strings in a phrase. One thing you can do are exercises that break up the arpeggio at different points of the scale. This will help you execute these arpeggios without repeating strings.
Today I’m plugged into the Archetype by Nolly, Neural DSP plugin Nolly mixed my album; he’s a great engineer and knows all about good tone. Also the Archetype lead with some modifications on that preset, no delays and just a little bit less gain.
The pick I am using is a 1.14 mm. But the pick doesn’t really matter — unless it’s too thin — then it probably matters for sweep picking.
Arpeggios from Judas Priest’s “Painkiller”
Yes! In the ’90s, Angra recorded Painkiller for a tribute album. I did a different arpeggio during the solo on that. You can probably find it online somewhere.
Kiko for president?
No thank you!