The Guitarists Guide to Sweep Picking

Sweep picking is a popular technique amongst shred guitar players, and cracking the technique is often seen as an important milestone for guitarists interested in that genre. 

But is sweep picking a technique that is only useful for those who want to shred, or is it worth learning for all lead guitar players?

That is what we are going to discuss.

But, before we do so, we should take a minute to think about what sweep picking is and is not.

What is Sweep Picking?

Sweep picking is often associated with ripping through arpeggios at lightning fast speeds.

While sweep picking is used to play arpeggios fast, playing arpeggios fast is not what sweep picking is. 

Sweep picking is the act of playing 2 or more notes, with one motion with the right hand, across the strings. 

Sweep Picking vs Economy Picking

Economy picking is when the you pick a string in the direction the pick is already moving in.

This is a technique that is favoured amongst lead guitar players, wanting to create efficient motions with their right hand.

Quite often when using economy picking, guitarists will “pause” the motion of the pick when moving between strings. 

Here is an example of a 3 note per string scale, that is being picking using economy picking:

Economy picking example showing picking directions.

If we hi-light the string transitions, you can see that the first note that is picked on each string, is picked in the direction the pick is moving in:

Let’s give into how the picking is moving at the string transitions in a bit more detail.

As an example, assume that a guitarist is playing the following two notes:

This isn’t the most exciting melody in the world, but it will serve to illustrate the point. 

Most guitarists, when using economy picking, will move the pick across those two strings using the following 3 steps:

Economy Picking Step 1: Play string 4

Horizontal black lines are the strings, blue arrow shows direction of pick

Economy Picking Step 2: Rest the pick in-between strings 4 and 3

Horizontal black lines are the strings, blue circle shows pick resting

Economy Picking Step 3: Play string 3

Horizontal black lines are the strings, blue arrow shows direction of pick

As you can see, this creates a lot of inefficiencies with your playing.

Step 2 is completely unnecessary and interrupts the flow of your playing. 

It should be noted that the above method isn’t something people consciously set out to do.

The above method tends to develop from guitarists not considering the motions that their pick hand should be doing.

What sweep picking looks like

Here is what sweep picking looks like:

Horizontal black lines are the strings, blue arrow shows direction of pick

That’s it. When we use sweep picking to cross string, there is only one step. 

Now, there are a few more steps involved with the fret hand, but today we are only going to talk about the pick hand.

The above diagram demonstrating how the pick moves when sweep picking could have the arrow extended to 3 or more strings, and it would still be a single step with the pick hand. 

Alternate Picking vs Sweep Picking

What is Alternate Picking?

Alternate picking is when the pick follows a strict “down up down up” motion, regardless of what is being played.

Here is the 3 note per string scale that we looked at before, this time showing how we could apply alternate picking:

3 note per string G major scale being played with alternate picking.

If we look at the string transitions:

3 note per string G major scale being played with alternate picking, with the string transitions circled in red.

You can see that on the first string transition, from string 5 to 4, we pick the string in the direction that the pick is moving in.

However, on the remaining string transitions, we have to “hop” the pick back over a string that we just played, in order to start the next string in the correct pick direction.

Here is a diagram showing the motion of the pick in alternate picking, of a possible approach to playing the following tab:

Alternate Picking Step 1: Pick the string

Alternate picking on electric guitar step 1: Pick the string

Alternate Picking Step 2: “Skip” the pick back across the string

Alternate Picking Step 3: Pick the string

As you can see, alternate picking is a lot less efficient that economy picking… and a lot, lot less efficient than sweep picking.

Benefits to Applying Sweep Picking to 3 Note Per String Scale Runs

One of the most practical applications of sweep picking for guitar players interested in lead guitar, is in playing scale sequences.

By using sweep picking to cross strings when playing through a scale sequence, we can achieve much smoother playing than by using the “pick stop pick” technique shown above.

This works most effectively with 3 note per string scales, as we always start the next string in the direction that the pick is moving in.

Let’s take the following 3 note per string G major scale as an example:

Simple G major scale using 3 note per string scales.

We can see that this example had four points where we transition between strings:

Red circles indicate where the pick is transition between strings.

If we were to consistently apply sweep picking to these transition points, our ability to play through the scale smoothly will vastly improve. 

In general, this is one of the most useful ways that the non-shredder can apply sweep picking to their playing. 

In fact, having the pick “rest” between strings is one of the biggest mistakes that holds back the late beginner-intermediate level guitarist from improving their technique. 

How To Learn Sweep Picking for Scale Runs 

If you are interested in training this technique for scale runs, then the most effective way is to first master two string sweep picking. 

Working on exercises that focus on two string sweep picking will help you develop the technique for transitioning between strings in scale runs. 

Once you’ve cracked two string sweep picking, you will want to spend some time training that skill with scale sequences, as the skill may not automatically “cross over” from sweep picking to scale sequences.

How Hard Is Sweep Picking?

I think of sweep picking in the following way: It is difficult to learn, and once you have learned it, it’s very easy to use.

Why Is Sweep Picking So Hard?

People often struggle to learn sweep picking, and find it a very difficult skill to learn.

This is down to two reasons:

  • They are focussed on the wrong things
  • They are rushing too quickly through lessons

We mentioned at the start that sweep picking is fundamentally a motion with the right hand.

The technique is not dependent on what the left hand plays.

However, very few tutorials, lesson and courses that claim to teach sweep picking, ever mention the right hand technique.

Most of these courses focus on left hand arpeggio shapes.

So students end up learning the arpeggio shapes, but can’t play them properly, because they haven’t learned the correct right hand technique.

This leads to a lot of frustration that the student does not understand how to solve.

When courses do talk about the right hand element of the technique, they rarely take the time to properly break down the motion into manageable steps that the student can follow, in order to understand the technique and gradually build skill and control of the right hand.

How To Practice Sweep Picking With a Metronome

When practising sweep picking, it is important to understand when to use a metronome, and how to use it to make your guitar practice as effective as possible.

Useful article: Read more about how to use a metronome to practice guitar more effectively.

When practising sweep picking, the first thing to check is that you have the correct right hand motion.

This means physically looking at your right hand to make sure it is moving correctly.

While working on this, you do not want to use a metronome.

Once you have got the hang of making the correct movements with the right hand, you then want to use a metronome to make those movements in time.

7 Sweep Picking Practice Tips

1) Memorise The Exercise

When learning anything on guitar, memorising the exercise will free up your brain to focus on how you are playing, rather than what you are playing.

2) Use A Metronome

Where appropriate, you should be using a metronome to practice guitar.

If you are not using a metronome, you are not in time. No chance!

3) Evaluate What You Are Doing

It is easy to play an exercise and think it’s good enough.

In fact, it can be difficult to evaluate what we are playing, while we are playing - we can be so focussed on what we are doing that it is difficult to listen to what we are doing.

So do yourself a favour and video your practice on your phone.

Look at your right hand - is it moving correctly?

Listen to what you are doing - are all the notes sounding correctly?

4) Take Your Time

Too many students are in a rush to try and play quickly.

Give yourself some time.

Work through exercises SLOWLY so that you can play them accurately.

Speed is a by-product of accuracy.

Practice playing accurately and you will develop killer speed.

5) Set Your Expectations

If you expect to learn sweep picking in a weekend… you’re in a for a disappointing weekend.

Allow yourself to take several months, or even a year; to really get to grips with this skill.

It is a difficult skill and requires patience and persistence to learn properly.

6) Practice With Full Mental Focus

You have to be mentally focussed on what you are doing.

If you are practising properly, you will find that it is mentally exhausting.

Practice in a distraction free environment, with your full focus being on what you are doing.

Short, highly focussed practice sessions are much more effective than meandering noodling infront of the TV.

7) Find Effective Instructional Material

This really is key.

You ideally want a program that has a proven and effective process for training your body to make the right motions necessary for sweep picking, and to teach your body to automate those motions, so that you can then think about what it is you are applying sweep picking to, for example, some awesome arpeggios.

You can read about such a program here.

Examples of Sweep Picking

You can hear an example of sweep picking using three string arpeggios in the following song, from my album Impetuous Desire:

Guitarists That Use Sweep Picking

Here are some famous guitarists that use sweep picking:

  • Yngwie Malmsteen
  • Jason Becker
  • Tosin Abasi
  • Jeff Loomis
  • Michael Angelo Batio
  • Andy James
  • Marty Friedman

When To Learn Sweep Picking?

So to wrap this up, is sweep picking suitable for you? 

If so, when should you think about learning it?

Sweep picking is an advanced technique, so it’s not for beginners.

If you are a late beginner, you can start to think about learning sweep picking.

So if you can play the minor pentatonic scale, strum chords in time and play some riffs nicely; then if sweep picking is something you are interested in, you are probably in a good place to start thinking about the technique.

If you are going to be playing a style of guitar that involves lots of adjacent string transitions, then sweep picking will absolutely help you make your playing faster, more fluid and more relaxed. 

If you are wanting to play advanced, neoclassical lead guitar, then you will definitely want to learn it.