When I was thinking about writing this, I wondered, “does the internet really need another another article about sweep picking?”
Then I saw a video advert on YouTube for a sweep picking course… and the in the video the demonstrator was teaching sweep picking… wrong.
So I thought yes, the internet could do with another sweep picking article.
The Problem With Sweep Picking Resources
A lot of guitar players really struggle to learn sweep picking.
I mean, really struggle. I did, for literally years.
Being able to do sweep picking is not the same as being able to teach sweep picking.
Being a great player does not make someone a great teacher
When you look at instructional material for sweep picking, it is all exactly the same:
A bunch of tabs, maybe diagrams, for arpeggios, with the instruction to ‘just do’ sweep picking when you play them. If you’re lucky, you get a video with a fast example and a slow example. If you’re unlucky, you get a video with a fast example and a slightly less fast example.
And somehow, magically, you will be able to learn sweep picking.
Guess what. That isn’t a guide to sweep picking. That is a guide to arpeggios, labelled as a guide to sweep picking.
Sweep picking is the mechanical motion your make with your picking hand (there is some fret hand stuff in there too, but that is easier to cover).
It is the pick hand that does sweep picking.
Those diagrams for your “Bumper pack of sweep picking arpeggios!”, they are working your fret hand and your music theory knowledge. They have nothing to do with your pick hand.
All those sweep picking courses… are training the WRONG HAND.
Even worse, some of them, like the one I saw, train your pick hand to do the wrong thing – you are paying them to make sweep picking harder for you to learn!!
Watch the motion of the picking hand that someone who is a great sweep picker makes. What do you notice?
Their hand moves in one, smooth, continuous motion across the strings.
Now watch your average sweep picking tutorial, and what do you notice?
When they do the ‘fast’ example, their hand probably moves correctly.
When they do the ‘slow’ example, the motion of their hand completely changes. Their hand “stops”, or “pauses” between each string.
The slow example is NOT a slowed down version of their fast example… it is a completely different motion.
When you buy these courses, you are effectively paying for someone to train you on how not to sweep pick.
(It’s ok to feel like a total chump at this point, I’ve made this mistake myself in the past. Hell, I once tried to learn sweep picking from a shred guitar comic book – bad move. Predictably… I got nowhere).
How do I get better at sweep picking?
You have to train yourself at it. You need to take that fast right hand motion and practice the movement slowly and consciously. This means slowly moving your pick hand across the strings, in a single, continuous motion.
You focus on the pick hand, NOT on the fret hand
This means actually looking at the pick hand.
Crazy right? 99% of guitar players will only look at their fret hand when practising.
You could video your pick hand and watch the video. Is you pick hand moving in a continuous motion, or is it physically stopping and pausing between strings? Is it doing something weird, like moving away from the guitar?
You need consistent practice. Consistent practice is the only way you improve at any skill and is the only way you will master a skill.
Allow 5-10 minutes of focussed practice, every day, for 8-12 months. You’ll get it.
You’ll get it, if you keep at it. Consistently.
A good sweep picking resource is going to give you specific training techniques to gradually build up your ability.
It will not list “303 easy sweep picking arpeggios”.
How to Spot Bad Sweep Picking Resources / Courses
Anything that talks about:
- Having a library of arpeggio shapes
- Having 101+, 29, 57 etc different shapes to learn
- Anything that focusses on patterns
- Promises fast results
Great sweep picking technique is mostly about the pick hand. Once you master the mechanics of the right hand, adding new arpeggio shapes into the mix is relatively easy.
(There is some fret hand stuff you need to know, but that is pretty basic compared to getting the pick hand stuff).
Having an encyclopeadia of “stuff to do” with your fret hand will do nothing for you ability to use your pick hand – unless you stumble across the technique without realising it.
Spoiler alert – this is exactly how most the guys that are great sweep pickers, and release unhelpful instructional material, learned sweep picking. They do not attribute their ability to a specific method, but to “practising loads”.
You need to practice… but you also need to know what you are meant to be doing.
I don’t know about you, but when I learn something, I want to know precisely what it is I am meant to be doing. You shoudn’t be relying on luck, or ‘figuring it out’. We have to know what to do, so we can do it.
We can use a couple of analogies to help show this is the case. The analogies are valid, because the human mind learns pretty much all skills… exactly the same way.
Two Sweep Picking Analogies
The Gym Analogy
Think about it like this. Imagine you started going to the gym, wanted to get stronger and get leaner.
Awesome. And by the way, that is something you should do. We are all too sedentary.
If you read a book about 101 deadlift variations… is that going to make you stronger?
If you read a book that detailed the exact motions you have to go through to do a great deadlift, would that help you get stronger?
You betcha. Implementing that ONE training method and working through and refining the exact, precise movements you need to do; that is what is going to make you stronger.
Not looking at “455 different ways to deadlift today!”.
Not trying out a different deadlift technique every time you goto the gym.
Master ONE technique makes the improvement.
When I make a variation to my gym routine, I do it once every 4 weeks. Not everyday.
Learning sweep picking is exactly the same.
The Shoelace Analogy
Everyone reading this is going to be a virtuoso at tying their shoe laces.
You can tie your shoe laces without looking, in the dark, while talking to someone.
You’re great at tying your shoe laces. You kick ass at tying your shoe laces.
You can literally do it with your eyes closed.
… why are you so damn good at tying your shoe laces?
Did your parents get you an encyclopaedia of “501 different methods for tying your shoes!” ?
I didn’t think so.
You were shown the precise, exact movements you have to recreate, in order to get those knots to stay together properly.
Then you trained on them.
Every. Single. Day.
For the rest of your life.
And as a result… you rock at tying your shoe laces.
Want to know a secret?
Sweep picking is exactly the same.
Any skill you want to master, is exactly the same.
You don’t need an encyclopaedia of a zillion different arpeggio shapes.
You need the simple, exact movements to move your hand through.
And then you have to have some self discipline and train on them.
That is how you get good at sweep picking.
That is the only reliable way to get good at sweep picking.
Anything less than that is pissing into the wind and praying you don’t get splash back.
A brief overview of sweep picking mechanics
Here is a brief description of what your hand is doing when you are sweep picking:
Your hand moves in a single, continuous motion, through the plane of the strings.
Your hand does not stop and start between strings.
Your hand does not lift up and down away from the guitar.
You are not alternate picking through an arpeggio shape.
Your hand is like a bulldozer. The strings are small bumps in the earth. The bulldozer does not go over the bumps. It just ploughs straight through them and onto the next. The bulldozer never changes speed.
(Oh by the way – use a stiff pick for this. Thin, flimsy picks are not up to the job).
So what do you actually have to do… in order to become a great sweep picker?
We’ve established that you need to know what to do, and you need to train on it.
There are two simple motions you have to practice with your right hand.
Before I give them to you, I’ll let you in on three sweep picking secrets:
The Three Secrets to Sweep Picking
Sweep picking secret 1: Focus and perseverance
You have to be able to mentally focus for this to work.
You have to be able to persevere for this to work.
If you have the attention span of a gnat, or you do this while watching TV, it is not going to work.
If you are going to give up after 5 minutes, this is not going to work.
How do you know if you focussed properly? You should feel mentally exhausted after 5-10 minutes of practice.
How do you know if you persevered? Even when it sounds crap and you don’t want to do it, you get on with and do it.
Sweep picking secret 2: Practising guitar sounds like shit. Playing guitar sounds like music
Practising these is going to sound awful.
Practising guitar should sound awful.
Our practising sounds awful so our playing can sound great
If your practising sounds great… then what are you learning? You can only play stuff great… that you know how to play.
If you know how to play it… you are not practising.
Practising is taking the flaws, the things that need working on, and working on them to improve.
Practising is looking at things that we cannot do… and figuring them out.
Practising is isolating our weaknesses and training them so they no longer hold us back.
Practising sounding kinda crappy is not a reflection of your ability as a guitar player. It’s just a fact. Like a rock. It is just there. A rock on the ground is not a reflection of you ability as a guitar player. Neither is how crap your practice sounds.
Get over it and get on with it.
Sweep picking secret 3: There is no such thing as ’natural talent’
Unfortunately, a lot of people have a flawed epistemology when it comes to learning guitar. They think that if you are not naturally talented, you will never get it.
Talent has nothing to do with it.
Humans do not have ‘innate’ skills when it comes to complex tasks, like sweep picking, or tying your shoe laces, or deadlifting 130kg.
Yes, I know, you have a million ‘examples’ of someone naturally talented who gets it.
Your choice to believe in the myth of ‘natural talent’, is holding you back.
There is a reason why they are so good. Stop using their ability as an excuse for your failure. Just get to work.
The Three Secrets of Sweep Picking
- Focus. This is squatting 150kg… for your mind
- It’s going to sound like crap. Get over it
- Sweep picking is not a god-granted gift, it’s within your grasp, IF you choose to work for it
BONUS: Don’t use the greatness of others as an excuse for failure.
The Two Exercises You MUST Master To Be Able To Sweep Pick
Both of these exercises are designed to give you total control over your picking hand, and to then program that control into your sub-conscious.
The first exercise is designed to start to get your hand moving in the correct motion across the strings. The second exercise gives you the complete motion and helps you program it into your sub conscious.
If you skip the first one, the second will be too hard.
If you wish through them, trying to play them too quickly, you will not learn.
Success in any endeavour requires patience.
The exercises are pretty simple, here they are:
Sweep Picking Exercise 1
The first thing you need to do, is to experience the sensation of having your pick move between the strings, without it stopping.
You have to know what that feels like.
Place your pick against the third string. Don’t do anything with your left hand. pick through the string, and have the pick slam into, but not through, the 2nd string. The 2nd string is going to ‘catch’ your pick.
Then do the same on the 2nd string. Pick through the string and have the 1st string ‘catch’ the pick.
Then we reverse it. Place the pick on the far side of the 1st string. Now we are going to so an upstroke. Pick up through the 1st string, and have the 2nd string catch the pick.
Same with the 2nd string to 3rd string. Pick up through the 2nd string and have the 3rd string catch the pick.
That’s the exercise. Take your time with it. You can make mistakes. Be aware of them, but don’t get frustrated over them.
How to Practice
5-10 minutes a day, for 4 weeks.
The low time duration is there to make it easy to do the exercise consistently for 4 weeks. If you spend 1 hour on it.. well that will work for maybe a few days, but after that you will be totally fed up of doing it, you won’t make it to 4 weeks.
And you’ll give up. I probably would if I was doing that for an hour a day.
5-10 minutes a day.
Check it out, it’s pretty easy:
Sweep Picking Exercise 2
For this exercise, we are going to look at the motion in a more controlled way.
This is going to take some serious, serious focus.
Your pick is going to become a bulldozer. A slow bulldozer.
You will pick through the strings, in a single slow, continuous motion. It should take 3-4 seconds for your pick to move between strings.
Your pick moves at a single speed. It is tempting to let the pick ‘fly’ away from the string, once the tension from the string is released after you pick through it, but, YOU MUST control the pick and it’s motion.
You are the boss. Not the guitar string.
A single, smooth, continuous, uninterrupted motion; through the strings.
Take your time. No rush.
5-10 minutes a day, for 4 weeks.
Exercise 1, 5-10 minutes a day, for 4 weeks. Then,
Exercise 2, 5-10 minutes a day, for 4 weeks.
Don’t try and skip ahead.
Don’t think on Week 2, “I got this, I don’t need to keep doing it”.
You don’t got it. You do need to keep doing it.
So keep doing it, for 4 weeks. You’ll be pleased you followed the advice when you finally crack sweep picking.
8 Weeks Later
So you’ve done the exercises… what do you do next?
NOW is the time to start learning some new arpeggio shapes. But not 455+ sweep picking arpeggios. That would overwhelm you.
Here’s what happens when you get a book of 455+ sweep picking arpeggios:
You flick through
You give them all a go
You don’t master any of them… because you have too much choice
As a result… you can’t use any of them fluently in your playing.
If you can’t use it fluently in your playing, it’s a useless skill
Here’s the truth about sweep picking arpeggios.
Most of the time, you only need 6 shapes or so.
You can build a lot from those shapes, but only once you have mastered those 6 shapes.
Mastering 6 shapes is pretty easy. This awesome Yngwie Malmsteen solo uses just a few simple triad shapes. No complex Amaj add 13 +5 stuff. Simple major, minor, diminished triads.
Mastering 1 shape out of 455+… that is tough.
This is one reason why having content metered out to you, or drip fed, is very valuable. It forces you to work with what you got… to actually master what it is you are being taught.
It prevents you from ‘having a go’ at a bunch of different things. You make progress faster this way.
Once you get the hang of the basic shapes, it’s time to start thinking about integrating your sweep picking skills.
Integrating Your Sweep Picking Skills
This means being able to transition from sweep picking to scale based picking runs.
Being able to move from different phrasing techniques into a killer sweep picking lick.
Being able to smoothly end your sweep picking lick on a killer pre-bend, followed by a throat grabbing vibrato.
Being able to sweep pick… in isolation… is only good for showing off to guys that can’t sweep pick.
Assuming they care.
Being able to sweep pick and to have it integrated with your other skills… that is what makes you a killer guitar player.
But it doesn’t just end there. There is so much more you can do!
You can start to add variation into your sweep picking licks. Rhythmic variation. So rather than a straight set of up and down sweep picked 16th notes, you have a varying rhythm, or directional shifts in the patterns.
Maybe you integrate some cool legato stuff in there?
These are the things that make your sweep picking sound musical.
… and isn’t that what you’ve been looking for?
Most guitar teachers, if you ask them to teach this stuff to you… well most can’t sweep pick very well in the first place, let alone do anything creative with it. Those that can sweep pick… can’t teach it.
“Just do it”
“You’re doing it wrong”
You also need some variety. You do need some new stuff to work on (but nowhere near as much as you think). This helps keep it interesting for your mind, and keeping it interesting helps sustain the consistency of your practice long term.
It’s that simple. But it’s not easy.
But nothing worth having in life ever came easy.
Until next time,
PPS What do you need to know about the fret hand? When sweep picking, only hold down one note at a time. Boom. Done.
Bonus: The Shortest Sweep Picking Lesson
This is an old post I thought would go better here.
Sweep picking is something that a lot of beginner guitar players really struggle with.
I know I did. Most approaches tell you to practice an arpeggio 1000 times until you “get it”. Most videos I’ve seen actually demonstrate the technique wrong!
There is a second part to this problem. Most guitar players, when practising… only look at their fret hand. The pick hand is just as important as the fret hand… but receives hardly any attention!
I think every guitar player has tried learning sweep picking, so here is my short and sweet sweep picking lesson for you – this is by no means the be all and end all of sweep picking, but it will finally get you on the road.
Sweep picking is about a controlled and continuous motion of the pick hand.
So take an arpeggio shape you know well, that is simple (only 3 strings) and only has one note on each string – no hammer ons or pull offs.
“Sweep” through the arpeggio, WATCHING your pick hand continuously.
If you make mistakes with your fret hand, that is ok.
Here’s the cool part – I want your pick to take 4 seconds to move between strings AND it must NEVER stop moving.
That’s right – a slow continuous motion, taking 4 seconds to cross each string.
This is about building control and helping your body understand the motion required.
It’s a great first step!
Leave your thoughts below!