You’re gonna need your broomsticks out for this one because we’ve got some sweeping to do!
Except this form of sweeping is 50x cooler and makes you look like a pro.
But anyway, I’m guessing most of you are here because you either want to make the jump from intermediate to advanced or your sweep picking just sounds like dog faeces at the moment.
Whichever boat you’re in, I’ll gladly be your tour guide today and by the end, all you beginners will be sweep picking cleanly like a boss.
So let’s get cracking.
The Perfect Sweep Picking Technique
When you’re sweep picking, everything has got to feel as smooth as a drive-in movie. But at the same time, you gotta keep everything squeaky clean.
And if you have a hand, you can do this!
So these are the four main parts to a perfect sweep picking technique:
- Angling the pick
- Making the sweep motion
- Muting the other strings.
- Stopping the notes from overlapping
Get those down, and you’ll be a beast-mode sweep picker in no time.
So let’s start with how to angle the pick correctly…
Angling & Holding the Pick Correctly
Please don’t do what everyone else does at this part.
They try to angle the pick downwards on the way down and upwards on the way up.
And I hereby ban you from ever doing that.
Unless you want your sweep picking to sound like sandpaper in a washing machine.
TIP 1: Have your pick at a 45° angle, with your thumb pointing towards the higher strings.
That allows you to easily cut through the strings on the way up and on the way down without having to move.
You just get the right balance between ease and sound quality.
TIP 2: Make sure that you hold the pick really loosely.
As loosely as you can manage without it falling out of your fingers.
That way, you aren’t making the pick too rigid, which will just negate the whole reason you angled it in the first place.
TIP 3: Only use the very tip of the pick.
That way you’re making everything feel 10x easier for yourself and letting the pick easily cut through the strings.
This will stop everything being stiff whilst also not sounding too brushy.
*NOTE: Sweep picking is easier with sharper picks. I personally use Jim Dunlop Max Grip Jazz III’s, and they work a treat. I recommend looking into the Jazz III range or at least trying to find a sharper, thicker pick. Trust me, it’ll help.
How to Make The Sweeping Motion
Pick up your guitar and strum some chords for me.
Now look down at how you’re strumming these chords.
How are you making the strumming movement?
Err… with my knees?
What the heck?! You’re making the movement from your elbow.
And we want to use this exact same motion when sweep picking.
So angle the pick to 45°, hold it loosely, just use the very tip and mute all the strings with your fretting hand, it’s practice time.
Slowly play each muted string individually, letting your pick bounce from one string to the next, moving it downwards by rotating your elbow. (Almost like a really slow strum)
Go slowly up and down and start getting used to this movement – it’ll feel as awkward as heck to begin with.
My No.1 trick for beginners wanting to do sweep picking cleanly is to act like the strings aren’t there and let your elbow pivot smoothly up and down without making an attempt to pluck each one.
You want it to feel like one large, fluid movement.
If you have the correct pick angle and hold down, then the pick shouldn’t get stuck on the strings and everything should flow nicely.
Sometimes, you may even see the odd guitarist making the sweep movement from the wrist instead.
Although that’s a pretty idea, I first tried it that way, and it doesn’t work anywhere near as well.
And I don’t like stuff that doesn’t work well.
Muting With Your Picking Hand
No, you may not skip this step, it’s possibly the most important one.
Because guitar is a really annoying, frustrating, infuriating, devilish, irritating, troublesome, bothersome, irksome, vexing, vexatious, galling instrument…
(Thanks Oxford Thesaurus)
Strings tend to ring out when you’ve just lifted your finger off them, or even when you aren’t actually playing them.
And if we aren’t dampening that excess noise, we’re gonna sound as messy as a night in the Red-Light District.
So to do this, we want to mute all the strings lower in pitch than the one we are currently playing, using the palm of our hand.
You want to make sure that as you make this sweeping motion from the elbow, you gently slide your picking palm across the strings as you go.
E.g. You want to play an ascending sweep picking lick, starting on the A string.
Play the first note with your palm muting the low E string, the next note with your palm muting the E string AND the A string, the next note with your palm muting the E, A and D string etc…
By the time you get to the high E string, you have the EADGB strings above it all muted.
This prevents shedloads of excess noise.
And just in case you aren’t yet convinced, here’s a sweeped arpgeggio without palm muting:
And here’s one with muting:
Yeah, you’re gonna want to get used to muting.
The Best Fretting Hand Technique
That muting you’ve just spent ages practising was all a waste of time…
If you don’t get the fretting hand right.
Haha, I had you for a second there.
The major problem that most beginners have when learning to do sweep picking cleanly, is that the notes they play overlap with each other.
And under high gain, that leads to complete world destruction.
In the words of Ben Eller, “You want the notes to be stuck together like butter” – not overlapping, not spiky, but in line right next to each other.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what will either make you a sweep picking beast or sweep picking non-beast.
So what’s the best way to practice this?
Well, it’s just getting it right at a low speed and then working your way up.
Ugh, how tedious…
I knew you weren’t gonna like it.
But the good news is that you can use this low speed to focus on the other aspects of your technique at the same time and form the good habits early, rather than rushing it.
And you can use one of the exercises I’ve left down below to practice this.
Go slow, get rid of the overlap, and build up. Within a week or two you’ll be shredding cleanly like a boss.
Trust me, if there’s any part you want to get right, it’s this bit.
Tips For Practising Cleaner and Faster Sweep Picking
Nice one! By now you’ve got the basic technique down and are almost ready to go.
However, one of the problems you’ll run into when sweep picking is running into multiple notes on different strings using the same fret.
If you want to play these fast then you’ll want to bar/barre them down.
If you don’t know what barring is then you can view my post on how to play bar chords by clicking here.
And it can be particularly tricky to stop these kinds of notes from overlapping with each other.
A good way to cope with this is to use the “finger roll”.
Practice playing one string with your fingertip and rolling onto the next string and with the pad of your finger.
E.g. Try rolling with your index finger from the 5th fret of the B string onto the 5th fret of the high E string without making the notes overlap.
Play the B string with your fingertip and flatten your index finger down to hit the E string with the pad of your finger. As you do this, release pressure off the B string to stop it overlapping.
It ain’t easy, but hey, whoever said sweep picking was a walk in the park?
If you wanna look cool, you gotta put in the effort.
My second piece of advice is to use a really punishing tone when practising sweep picking.
That means: bridge pickup selected, some crunchy gain and no extra effects like reverb or delay.
This’ll mean that you can hear every bit of note overlap or excess string clanging as clear as day, so you can sort it out fast.
Anyway, enough chit-chat about technique, let’s get you rippin’.
Sweep Picking Practise Exercises
You know what you gotta do, so let’s get you doing it.
Most sweep picking licks are based on arpeggios, so its important you get used to these movements.
If you don’t know how to play arpeggios, then you can view my post on how to learn and solo with them by clicking here:
These exercises will help all you beginners learning to do sweep picking cleanly out there put everything into action.
The first one is based off an A minor arpeggio:
Use that as your practice lick.
Focus on getting your technique right and go as slow as you physically need to do that.
When I was practising sweep picking, oh boy, I went slower than a disabled tortoise.
But hey! Look at where I am today.
Once you’re comfortable with that you can have a go at this extended variation of the first one:
If you wanna really get the most out of sweep picking, then getting familiar with those slippery slides and pull-offs is a must.
This next lick uses smaller and faster sweeps, which break up the monotony of the same movements & sounds over and over again:
Watch out for those pesky barred notes on the 17th fret…
Get ’em right early on to save yourself crippling headaches in the future.
Will you please welcome…
The ultimate sweep picking lick of all time:
It’s so difficult, I can’t even play it myself!
But I admire you for trying hehehe…
Slides, pull-offs, barred notes, this lick has it all, with a half step bend at the end to finish.
If you can play that, it’s fair to say you could probably play anything…
Except Smoke on the Water, ooh that’s a tough one.
Wrapping it Up
If all you beginners follow these steps for sweep picking cleanly, then you ain’t gonna be a sweep picking beginner for much longer.
Just remember: pick at 45°, move with the elbow, mute with the palm and stop the notes overlapping.
After that, you’re good to go.
Sweep picking is never gonna be easy, and you’ll probably have moments of punching, kicking and caressing your guitar in rage…
But the hardest techniques are the coolest ones, so exhausting your reserves of patience will be well worth it!
I’ve been Sam Olverson…
See you in the next one!
P.S. If you want to learn how to play arpeggios on guitar and use them to solo, then click here to view my post on that and take your lead playing to a new level.