Sweep Picking: The How Tos, What Fors, And Why Nots

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The Sweep Picking Introduction

Jameson doing his morning warm up routine

What is a guitar web site without some sort of lecture or rant on sweep picking? Sweep picking is perhaps one of my favorite techniques to toy around with and among the most challenging skills to really nail down. The path to perfection is littered with broken souls and crushed dreams. Well, ok. It’s not actually quite that bad, but it’s among the elite group of skills that takes nothing short of good, old-fashion practice.

A Quick 411 On Sweep Picking

For any who may not be up to speed on just what sweep picking is it’s the case where you make consistent downward or upward strokes. At slower a speed this is hardly a daunting task, but rather just an exercise in consistent timing. At a higher speed it requires a lot of precision, but enables you to blaze through arpeggios or to add a lot of color to your style.

The trick to getting sweeping down is not much unlike general speed building exercises. Rule number 1 is to take it slowly. The above description is easy enough for one to wrap his or her mind around, but in practice there are a number of aspects that one should direct a lot of attention to until the wonders of muscle memory take over.

Does The Left Hand Know What The Right Hand Is Doing?

When it comes to sweeping both hands have their own roles both together and separately. Together the most important aspect is timing. For the sake of conversation let’s just say we’re flying through an E minor arpeggio starting on the 5th string. If either hand is moving faster than the other then it becomes painfully obvious to the point where even the most artsy fartsy of coffee shops won’t want you chasing their hipster demographic off.

The metronome enters the discussion here as the be all end all solution to this hurdle. It’s not developed any differently than any other speed exercise, just that the control over the pick direction and the fretting hand are utilized a bit differently. It just takes the discipline to consistently play at slower tempos repeatedly and ensuring that you are playing the part perfectly. And by perfectly I do mean perfectly. The monotony of exercises like this is to develop that muscle memory. Once you have that developed it becomes a question of whether or not you want to add the technique in. Not a question of can you?

Proper Muting

Timing isn’t the only concern, though. When it comes to the guitar muting is a general concern, but applying it to sweeping so the 5th string isn’t ringing when you’ve made it to the 1st string can be something of a challenge on its own. There are a few ways to approach and while similar are different enough. The muting can either be pushed off to the picking hand, the fretting hand, or both in synchronization.

For the picking hand you would gently rest the palm on the strings and nudge it along with the vibrating strings to stop the sound at the desired time. I don’t personally do this, but I have seen some videos of people using the pinky to assist with the higher strings going as far as to actually slip it under the 1st and 2nd strings. The biggest con to this is that it’s easy to get sloppy with this approach. It can be very easy to hear your hand sliding across the strings.

For the fretting hand the trick is to quickly lift the finger up without breaking physical contact with the string so that it’s no longer fretted and forced to cease vibration. This option allows you to float your picking hand above the strings and thus never hearing your hand rubbing the strings. The perceivable con is that depending on where you’re playing it can be easier to set off natural harmonics causing the tones to ring out when you may not want them to.

Therein lies the incentive to use both hands together. Pick and choose when to use which. I’ve seen people do all three to very effective results so that’s where personal preferences come in. Sweeping can be used to simply just play through arpeggios as excessively as as Malmsteen or Origin or it can be subtle and used quite sparingly with a quick rake across the first three strings for a bit of flavor here and there.

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Kyle Smitchens

Kyle Smitchens is the Guitar-Muse Managing Editor, super hero extraordinaire, and all around great guy. He has been playing guitar since his late teens and writing personal biographies almost as long. An appreciator of all music, his biggest influences include Tchaikovsky, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Steve Vai, Therion, and Jon Levasseur of Cryptopsy.

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10 years ago

You are a golden god. I’m just sayin’.

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