Learn the secrets to the dark art of sweep picking with our definitive guide from the legend that is Lee Wrathe.

We reveal ALL the secrets to this mystical technique

So, you want to know how to sweep pick? Well you’ve come to the right place! Some of you will already know this, but just to make sure we’re all on the same page. Sweep picking is a technique that unifies both the fretting hand (which is usually playing an arpeggio) and the picking hand…which “sweeps” across the strings at the same time, rather than picking them in a staccato-like manner.

The difficulty in performing the technique often arises from getting both hands to play in unison and controlling any extraneous noise from un-played strings. The technique was popularized in the 1980s (although it was around before then of course) and became a staple for Rock players who were fusing the Harmony of Baroque Classical music…think Bach, Paganini with the searing tones and power chords of modern rock. This was the era of big hair, tight spandex, garish guitar finishes and an emerging trend of fast players, known collectively as “Shredders”.

Sweeping across the strings allowed guitarists such as Yngwie Malmsteen, Jason Becker and Tony MacAlpine to play lightning fast, fluid and most importantly, accurate arpeggio patterns without having to alternate pick every single note.

Let’s Get Sweeping!

Part of the formula for sorting out your sweep picking, is to employ hammer-ons and pull-offs with your fretting hand when playing the arpeggio in question. This effectively means that you are only picking one note per string which in turn allows the pick to essentially “bounce” from one string to another without the need for a change in direction. So even before we look at your picking hand, we need to be certain that your fretting hand is performing arpeggio shapes that will work. Take a look at this A minor arpeggio.

A minor Arpeggio TAB

You will see that there are 2 hammer-ons and 2 pull offs. Try out the pattern very slowly not worrying too much about how you pick it. Once you’re fairly comfortable with the pattern we can begin to ramp up the accelerator a little by focusing on your picking hand.

Pick-Hand Movement

Sweep Picking

From the picture above you can see that we are holding the pick at an angle which will allow it to flow through the strings rather than getting stuck. Additionally, we aren’t digging in too far between the strings and there should be enough “give” in your grip to allow it flick off each string as you sweep down. Now see the reverse angle, which is poised to travel back upwards in unison with the arpeggio.

sweep picking

Keep it Clean

One of the toughest things to do, especially when you’ve cranked up your amp’s gain, is to keep all this sounding clean and accurate. Many players struggle with this and often it is simply a case of running before they can walk in terms of speed.

80/20 Ratio

Don’t fall into that trap, simply have a practice ratio which means that at least 80% of your attempts are at a tempo that keep the sweep clean. Then the other 20% can be faster and messier without it becoming habit. That 20% is important though, that’s the part where you’re effectively programming your brain by saying “this is where I want to be…now get me there”. The 80% section will give you the launch pad to keep pushing a little further each time.

Another huge factor in the cleanliness stakes is muting. When we talk about muting, many players will solely consider palm muting. Palm muting (if you didn’t already know) is the use of the fleshy edge of your palm on your picking hand. Think karate-chop! It becomes instinctive to rest your palm on the bridge which, with some unconscious milli-metric positioning, can allow you to mute the strings as you sweep. If this is a totally new and Alien concept to you then try the following as a practice session.

Muting the Strings

sweep picking palm mute

Place your hand as per the picture, you will see that the palm is heavily touching the strings which is dampening their resonance. If you pluck a string with this level of palm muting it will sound more like a percussive thud than a singing note, which in itself is a useful thing, but for now we want something that is just slightly less muted, so try releasing the pressure. Play your arpeggio shape and each time release a little more pressure until you get a balance between hearing the individual notes and controlling unwanted noise. Helping you to achieve this Nirvana is your fretting hand which, apart from the hammers and pull-offs shouldn’t be hanging around for too long on each fretted note. Being swift and accurate here will also help to keep the noise levels under control.

Taming that Noise

A final note on playing with distortion is…if you want to get better at controlling the noise, you need to play with noise! Simply practicing the sweep with a clean tone will not help you to learn how to control the extra noise being generated by your amp/pedals, so remember to practice as you intend to perform. That doesn’t necessarily mean extreme volume levels, we’re talking about gain and distortion here. Got all that? Great! Here’s a little exercise for you to master. A word of warning though, conquering this technique should NEVER justify the return of tight spandex legging and high kicks when soloing, okay?

sweep picking TAB

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If you’re struggling to nail the technique, we go into greater depth on “How to Palm Mute” in this handy guide.