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A Closer Look At Sweep-Picking


Hello there,

Weird, huh? I have written an "introduction" to sweep-picking before (actually, one of the first articles I ever wrote for ibreathe, and that was an updated version of the one I wrote for Guitar4U, back in '99)

But I have seen quite a few posts with questions regarding the basics of sweep-picking in the forums, and maybe it's time to take another, closer look at the basics of this technique. I guess I went through the whole topic too quickly in my other sweep-article. So, this one could be considered a "preface" to the other one. This time, I will take you by the hand and guide you through the very basics. Let's jump right in, ok?!?

The right hand

One of the toughest things for a player who wants to get into the technique is the actual motion of the right hand. Because either, it's too fast (kind of like a strum, which should be avoided), or too slow (kind of like picking each string on it's own, which results in some dragging sound, and should be avoided, too).

What you actually have to do is to consider the right hand sweep a continuous, big picking-motion. Read that again. ONE MOTION. If you i.e. wanna do a sweep on the top three strings, you pick the G-string, and then, without hesitating or resting, move on to the B-string etc. Let the pick "fall" from one string to the next. You can practise doing that by muting the strings with your left hand or some kind of cloth, and just do that right hand-motion. Check out this TAB:

That would be the right hand-sweep on the upper four strings. Here's how that looks for three strings:

Use a metronome, and make sure that all of these notes are in time. Most beginners tend to rush in between, or drag... which results in an uneven timing of the 3 or 4 notes. That should be avoided, so use a metronome and really make sure all those "percussive" notes are in time. And this is important for all the other licks I am gonna show you in this article, as well!

Now, before we get to the left hand and the synchronisation of both hands, let me give you some advice on how to approach this technique, how to practise it and eventually get it up to speed.

When I first heard about sweeping, and first tried it, I tried to immediately go for some big 6 string-sweep with hammer on's and everything. Not surprisingly, it did not work. It sounded sloppy, more like a slow, awkward strum. That was because I was trying to skip all the important steps and wasn't familiar with the basic technique yet.

Later, I tried those small 3 string-sweeps just to get into the technique, but it wasn't until I went to the GIT that I really got into sweeping and was able to break it down and learn it step by step. And that process is what this article is about. We're gonna break down some basic sweep-exercises into small segments or steps, work on these little steps separately, and later connect them so that we get the full exercises. Once you can nail those, and once you are able to come up with a few licks and sweeps on your own, you should take another look at my other sweep-article for more advanced exercises.
OK, here we go

The left hand

This is the other thing that a lot of beginners struggle with (I did big time!). You do not fret a chord and hold it while applying than "one pick-motion"-sweep with the right hand. Because all the notes will ring together, and that is not what the sweep-technique is about. It will sound sloppy, and it's merely a slow strum.

What you do is you fret that chord (arp) one note at a time. You have to fret each note right when the right hand is picking it, and then let go and mute the string while you move on to the next string. This is the tough part about it: Synchronizing both hands, and fretting accurately with the left hand.

One of the most basic exercises to try after you have worked on the r.h.-exercise above would be this one:

It's basically an A minor arp (A-C-E), and I think that the left hand fingering is quite easy to execute. Fingering: 3rd finger for the A, 2nd finger for the C, 1st finger for the E.

Now, do this SLOWLY: Put your fingers into the right position, kinda resting on or hovering about the strings at the frets you're gonna play at. Then, put down the 3rd finger onto the A, and pick it. Then, slightly lift that finger, relax it, fret the C on the next string with yer 2nd finger, while the pick continues its motion and picks that note.

Then, lift or relax that 2nd finger and fret the E with your first finger at the same moment that the pick arrives at and picks that string.

What you SHOULD hear is ONE NOTE AT A TIME. If you hear two notes together (a diad), you should try again. Some gain might help ya to hear whether the notes are ringing together or not.

A word about gain: Cut back on it. Seriously. It's almost impossible to play high speed sophisticated sweeps with ultra-gain / distortion. Cuz, as you surely know, a lot of distortion tends to amplify and bring out unwanted noises. At high speeds, one tends to generate a few of those (i.e. when ya lift the finger off the note you just played), and the results will be nasty-sounding, although you might have done a good job. So, until you really MASTER sweep-picking, cut back on the gain a bit (I am not talking about Mark Knopfler clean-sounds here. I am talking about cutting back a bit, say from 10 to 7 or so, to clear up the sound a bit. Using the neck-pickup might be a good idea too). So, some gain is helpful to hear whether you're doing it right, too much of it will make it even more difficult.

Do this sweep over and over, till you can nail it. Don't pay too much attention to the note values in the TAB... you can make the rest between each sweep shorter, if you're able to.

Let's reverse the exercise and go backwards (an upward sweep), from E to A:

The first two sweeps in the article have a "let ring" above them. I included those to show you what NOT to do!

If you listen to the ptb-file, you'll hear that the notes ring together, which we wanna avoid. The third sweep and all the others after that are displayed correctly, with one note at a time.

So those are two basic exercises you should work on for a while, until you can execute them accurately.

General stuff and pick directions

A few words on working on techniques like sweeping: One thing that you should ALWAYS remember is: to work on a technique (pretty much any technique, although sweep-picking is one of the hardest techniques to learn) takes a lot of time.

People often look for shortcuts, or think "Hey, I have worked on ________ (fill in any technique you might work on) for 2 hours and it still doesn't work. I suck!"

Guys, it takes A LOT of time. It took me weeks to really get into the technique and execute it accurately. I spent several hours, day after day doing those basic sweeps in this article. And so did all the other guys... Petrucci, Yngwie, Gilbert, Jason Becker. That seems to forget that... but those guys used to sit down for hours every day when they were growing up, working on those techniques.

And that is something you should remember. It always sounds very easy in an article or interview... sounds like Shredder X is like "Yeah, I got my first guitar and practised a lot, then I played my first gig, then I recorded my first album".

This sounds like it took him a few weeks. But we're talking months and years here. And you will have to put in a serious amount of time to work on all those cool techniques. So don't get frustrated if it takes a while. Remember that you're on your way, and that you'll eventually be able to nail this stuff. It just will take some time!

Be honest to yourself. Don't cheat yourself. If it doesn't sound good or isn't executed accurately, slow down and WORK on it, do it AGAIN until it works. If you go "Well, no one will notice that it's not as accurate", you're pretty much teaching yourself bad technique, and once you get to the point where you go "Gee, I should sit down and eliminate those little mistakes till I can nail it!", you'll have twice as much work... you'll have to "un-learn" that faulty technique and "re-learn" it the right way. So, be honest and realistic and make sure it sounds good and is played correctly. Let's get back to our regular program now...

Picking directions

Another tough part about sweep-picking is when to change pick-directions. Because if you really wanna sweep up AND down, you have to be able to i.e. execute a d-d-d-d-sweep (sweep on 4 adjacent strings), and then "turn around" and move upwards again (u-u-u-u). Or, i.e. sweep d-d-d-d and then play the first note with an upstroke. Believe me, that takes a while to get used to.

One exercise that helped me a lot to get this to work was an exercise I saw Paul Gilbert do, both in his "Intense Rock" video and during a workshop I attended years go. Here's what it looks like:

This basically is an inverted C major arp (C-E-G, the inversion here is G-C-E, with another G on top). We start with the G at the 15th fret, high E-String.

It's played with a downstroke, and we immediately follow that up with an upstroke... actually a downward sweep, 3 consecutive downstrokes. Each note should ring out loud and clear, and each note should be in time... don't rush or drag. Switch on the metronome or play along to the ptb-file...

Here's the opposite one:

Down-Down-Down-UP. Practise those two over and over until you can do it. Make sure to keep your pinkie (which you use to fret the high G) relaxed. Don't HAMMER ON the G, fret it and pick it. Move this exercise up and down the string, too.

Incorporating legato

Hammer On's / Pull Off's

Now, let's take it up a notch and incorporate another tough part: incorporating hammer-ons and pull-offs. Take a look at the next example:

This is quite similar to one of the previous examples. But this time, we're using a pull-off to get from the first to the second note. I'll tell you the advantage of that a bit later.

First, you might find out that this actually involves another difficulty: You have to stop the picking motion in between. In order to play all notes at equal length, you have to start the sweep-motion with an upstroke, then STOP, execute the pull-off, and then continue the sweep-motion on the next two strings.

This might prove to be difficult, so take yer time and work on it. Again, DO NOT RUSH OR DRAG!

Our next example...

...is again a reversed version of the previous one. This time, we're throwing in a hammer-on. This might be a bit easier, since the sweep-motion is over already, and the pull-off is the last thing you have to do.

Now, why include those hammer ons and pull offs? Why not change picking-directions to pick each note?

See, it makes sweeping a bit easier. Many of the "common" sweep-licks involve two notes on one of the strings, and it's way easier to play the second note of these two with a hammer-on or pull-off, especially at high speed. I'll show you what I mean:

Take a look at the next TAB:

This is kind of a combination of the previous two exercises. We're sweeping upwards until we reach the high E-string, play the G (15th fret) with an upstroke, pull off back to E and play the C on the B-string with another upstroke... then, we start over again.

Imagine you'd play that G with an upstroke and the E with a downstroke... you'd have to skip around the E-string to be able to execute the upstroke on the B-string. It's way easier to include that pull off... you only have to change the picking-direction once, and this will allow you to get this lick to "flow"...

Incorporating legato-moves like hos, pos and slides is a completely normal thing, that's why you should really work the previous three examples and get used to them. Take your time, and always listen to see whether it sounds good or not. Once you increase speed, make sure you can still hear all the notes.

The previous example was a C major triad. Let's see what a minor triad would look like, using a D minor as an example. Everything stays the same (pick-directions, pull off etc.), you just play a minor third (F) instead of a major third.
Here ya go:

Basic arp-shapes

As I mentioned before, this is some kind of a preface to my other sweep-article. I wanna stick to the basics of the technique and some basic arp-shapes for this one. Three arp-shapes I use a lot are the "C shape", the "A Shape" and the "E-shape". Those are, as the name indicates, based on C major, A major and E major chords.

Here's the C shape:

First, we have a regular C major chord. Every one of you probably knows it. Now, let's move it up an octave (bar 2). In bar 3 you see it arpeggiated (like you sweep it) with an added G on the high E-string. Next, we'll add another G on the bottom, so we get an inverted C major arp. This is a shape I use a lot for sweeping.

Another variation can be seen in the final bar: To avoid the stretch from the low G to C, we'll play the G on the low E-string. I actually prefer the previous version, though (with the G on the A-string).

The A-shape:

First, a regular A major chord. Let's move that up till we get the C major bar-chord in the 15th position. Let's arpeggiate it with another C on top (bar 3). Now, let's avoid the leap from the low C to the next note, G, by adding another E in between (C major triad: C-E-G). This can be seen in bar 4. And that actually is another shape I use a whole lot.

Another way to put in that E can be seen in the final bar... adding it on the A-string. Again, I prefer the previous version, and so did guys like Richie Kotzen and Jason Becker.

And finally, the E-shape:

First, an E major (bar 1). Then, we move that up to the 8th position to turn it into a C major (bar 2). Let's arpeggiate it and add another E on top (bar 3). Again, let's avoid big intervals by adding another E on the A-string (bar 4).

And finally, another way to add that E can be seen in the final bar (adding it on the low E-string). You guessed it... I prefer the previous version.

Sweeping those arps

Those are our shapes. Let's try to sweep them, which, if you're just starting out with sweep-picking, will require breaking `em down. Let me show ya how!
Here's the sweep we wanna learn and eventually be able to play. It's a C major arp, starting with the G.

Now, don't try to immediately go for the whole thing! Break it down to small segments. This sweep involves hammer ons and pull-offs, so let's separate the thing into segments and work on them separately... once we can play all those little segments, we can chain em together and play the whole thing (does this approach sound familiar to you? Yes? Good!)

Let's just take the first three notes. We start on the G, hammer on to C and then pick the E on the next string. This involves that dreaded little "stop"... you have to interrupt the sweeping motion till you have executed the hammer-on. Here:

Play this one over and over. Play it exactly like it's shown in the TAB, and play it in time, too.
Then, let's move on to the next segment:

This, as you can see, is the complete upwards-parts of the lick. Again, make sure each note is in time. Once you can nail this half of the lick, let's take a look at the opposite direction, the second half of the lick.

These are the first few notes, involving a pull-off.
Now, let's try to play the second half of the lick, the downwards-part:

I am not explaining too much about those segments. First of all, I think I explained all the important stuff before, and second, there ain't too much to explain anyway. It simply takes some time and patience. Practise each segment and eventually merge em together to get that full sweep.

How about a minor version of that whole lick. There ya go, a D minor-arp:

Same procedure as before: Split it up, work on the segments that in your opinion need work, and isolate the tough parts. Once you can nail those little "building blocks", throw em together and slowly bring the complete lick up to speed.

Sweeping the A-shape

Now, let's move on to the aforementioned A-shape:

This one is quite similar to a previous one, but the pattern / shape is a bit different, and the hammer on appears at a different spot. So again, split up the lick and work on the parts. Here's the first part:

And the reverse version of that:

Keep rollin', rollin', rollin'...

Before we look at a different part of that Amajor-shape sweep (by the way, of course you should always look at the minor versions too... after you nail the major ones. The minor ones look slightly different and will require some practise, too. So take your time), lets remember what I said about the "rolling technique".

Sometimes (like in our A-shape-sweep), you'll have to play adjacent strings at the same fret. The way to play this is to play the notes at that fret with one finger (in our example, I'd recommend the middle finger), and then bend it slightly backwards. That way, you'll be able to play one note at a time. Look at the example:

Fret the D with the tip of the index finger and pick it. While you continue the r.h.-sweep-motion, you "roll" your finger so you relax the part of the finger that is fretting the D... this should stop the D from ringing. Your index finger "rolls on" till it frets the G (same fret, G-string) right when the pick hits that string. Then, you release / relax the part of the finger that was fretting the G and "roll on" till you fret the B on the B-string.

Do this very slowly and make sure the notes don't ring together. It will take some practise, but is worth the effort. In the TAB above, you can see what to do next: put your middle finger onto the 14th fret and do the roll backwards.
And here is the same exercise on the top 3 strings:

This is necessary to execute our A shape-sweep, cuz we have three notes at the 14th fret, on adjacent strings. Let's practise that part, ascending:

and descending:

Turn up the volume on your amp and switch off all effects in the signal chain. Pay attention and check whether the notes ring together. If they do, try again or work on that rolling exercise again (which should be moved up and down the fret. Don't get frustrated! I know I am repeating myself constantly, but... it will take some time!)

The E-shape

Ok, to sum this up, let's work on that E major-shape... at the 8th position, which makes it a C major-arp. Here's the lick we wanna play:

I won't show you how to separate this lick into smaller segments this time. By now, you should know how to do it, it's the same process that we used with our previous examples.

But I wanna show you one more thing... how to get a nice lick out of that shape (of course, it works with all other shapes, too). Take this segment of the arp only, and practise it over and over till it works and is accurate.

This one is quite easy for me from the beginning for some reason, easier than the A-shape-arps. If the stretch is too big for ya (after all, the rest of the lick is difficult too), move this shape up to, say, the G (15th position).
Now.. once you can play this correctly, let's change the top-note...

Eventually, keep changing the top note between D, E and F (as seen in the final Tab). This one sounds really cool once it's brought up to speed.

Connecting the shapes

You can use this shape in many different ways... if you i.e. play a solo in a certain position, you can use one of these shapes to play a sweep... and since you know those three shapes, you can pick the one that is closest to where you currently are.

One fun-thing to do (it's kinda tough at first, though) would be to combine two or even all three of these shapes, playing only one triad-arp using those shapes. One perfect example of this would be the legendary "Serrana" by Jason Becker. It's a sweeping-etude (later, it was also featured on his brilliant "Perspective-album", played by a synth, though), and Jason can be seen playing it in the "Legendary Guitar Of Jason Becker" video (it's featured in the footage of the AIM-Workshop).

Anyway, Jason used to prefer the three shapes (E, A and D) mentioned above when he went for high-speed sweeping, and "Serrana" is pretty much based on that. Below, you'll see a transcription of the first two bars of Serrana. (There are several TABs of the piece around. I watched the video closely to see what shapes he was using, so this TAB is pretty accurate).

The triad those two bars are based on is D Major (D-F#-A). In bar 1, we start with that arp in the "E-Shape". Once we reach the F#, we slide up to the A and that puts us into the "C-shape". Eventually, in the second half of bar 2, we move up to the high D and that puts us into the A-shape (17th position).
This is a very nice way of combining shapes, and enables us to move from the lower to the higher positions smoothly.

Check out the video I mentioned, and maybe you feel tempted to transcribe the rest of the piece (it's FAST, though), or even learn it. It is a GREAT sweeping-etude anyway.

Also, experiment with this concept yourself, combining the shapes like this. Try other triad-arps and play them in those three shapes, try to link the shapes together. Have FUN!

OK, that's pretty much it. I was just trying to break the sweep-technique down for ya, or rather, show you how to do it, so you can do it yourself. Always remember that it'll take some time to learn how to sweep, but if you keep going for it, and if you practise by taking small segments and working on them, you'll eventually be able to do it.

Hang in there, don't get frustrated, work on it!

The ptb-file for this article can be download HERE

This article can be read online at http://www.iBreatheMusic.com/article/124
Eric started playing the guitar at age 10. He attended GIT and studied with Scott Henderson, Brett Garsed, Dan Gilbert amo. Eric is involved in several bands and recording projects and his instrumental debut - Hidden Creek - plus his instructional book Talking Hands - A Guide To Contemporary Lead Guitar Techniques is available HERE
Visit his website at www.ericvandenberg.net

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