By Claude Johnson
“Sweep picking” is a technique where the guitarist plays single notes on consecutive strings with a “sweeping motion” of the pick. While simultaneously using the fret hand to produce a specific series of notes, usually an “arpeggio.” Both hands are essentially performing these motions in unison, to achieve the particular desired effect of the sound. This technique is common in metal, blues, and jazz, but can be found in a variety of other styles as well.
Before we jump into the technique, let’s look at arpeggios first. An arpeggio is when the notes of a chord are played separately in a sequence. The word comes from the Italian “apeggiare” which means “to play on a harp.” So just like its triad chord cousin, a major arpeggio consists of the first, third (major third) and fifth notes of the major scale and the minor arpeggio consists of the first, flattened third (minor third), and fifth.
To get started, we will use a simple major and minor arpeggio based on the first three strings in D. These shapes are in the second inversion, meaning that the first and third have been moved to the top, making the fifth the lowest note. Here’s a chart with the tablature beneath.
The note on the third string will be played with your first finger, the note on the second string with your second finger, the first note on the first string with your first finger, and the second note on the first string with your fourth finger. For the “sweep”, you will play the third string with a downstroke and let the pick come to a rest against the second string. Then pick the second string with a downstroke and let the pick come to a rest on the first string. After that do a hammer-on to the second note on the first string, then a pull-off back to the previous note. Next hit the second string with an upstroke and let the pick come to a rest on the third string before finally doing another upstroke on the third string.
The whole idea is to have one continuous downstroke when ascending, and one continuous upstroke when descending. Start off playing very slowly and gradually increase your speed in a repetitive ascending and descending motion of the arpeggio, focusing on keeping both hands synchronized; the picking hand is the hardest part to get down so that you are doing continuous down and up strokes instead of several down and upstrokes between strings.
After you have tackled these shapes you can move onto arpeggio shapes that cover more strings. Below are major and minor shapes in the root position, meaning that the notes are in the order of first, third and fifth, spanning across all six strings.
To keep the notes separate you will need to slide your hand vertically across the strings as you pick to keep the strings from ringing out. This is more difficult to execute than the first one we did, but with practice and patience, you will be able to pull it off. Giving you a really cool sounding technique in your bag of guitar tricks!
Claude runs the site Guitar Control. Head over and check it out for more lessons like this and a catalog of more than 60+ DVD courses! There you will be able to find instructional content perfect for any and all skill levels and the particular style of guitar that you play.
Before you go, be sure to check out this tiny Canadian Christian Bale shred in a sweep picking style.
Claude Johnson plays and teaches guitar online. He is the founder and owner of GuitarControl.com where he has been making learning the guitar simple and most importantly fun since 2004!