Sweep Picking Demystified

Sweep-picking is another one of those guitar techniques shrouded in mystery and folklore. One that – like two-handed tapping – can be great to have in one’s arsenal until it’s overused. Unless you’re Yngwie Malmsteen or Eddie Van Halen, it’s better to use either or both as spice rather than the meat of a solo. While I’ve previously done a Duncan blog tutorial/breakdown on The Art of the Hammer(on), let’s take a look at what’s so cool about sweep-picking, and how when, especially applied to arpeggios, is a great tool to have at one’s disposal.

Couldn't resist.
Couldn’t resist.

Sweep picking (also referred to as “rake” picking) is basically, hitting multiple notes in one pass of the pick. This as opposed to alternate-picking each note in say, a string-crossing lick of any type, be it blues to metal. It’s an economic approach if you think about it – unless you’re looking for that specific sound, why do down, up, down for three notes across three adjacent strings, if one down-stroke could accomplish the same task? Easier on the picking hand, and more fluid sounding in some cases. It’s a great way to hint at or embellish a melodic idea, as you can outline a chord in a given progression to add flavoring. Also, sometimes merely teasing the technique is far more tension-building and dramatic than a full-on flourish depending on the musical situation. As in most scenarios, generally less is more.

There are probably more -and more subtle- musical examples of the sweep in use out there in the ether than you think, too. Did you know Mark Knopfler hints at the technique in the “Sultans of Swing” solos? Sure, with his thumb, but still… What was that, 1978? No distortion pedals, no gimmickry, just juicy Strat tones and bubbling, melodic licks.  Pre-dating that, to 1973 in fact – what about that  wacky percolating bit in the the chorus of the guitar part in Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock”? Could totally be played that way. How about the swinging guitar lick that follows the keyboard progression in the verses of “D’yer Maker”? Jimmy Page may or may not have been sweep/rake picking that, but sure sounds like it, and the lick sounds right when played that way. So as you can see, the use of the technique can be far more subtle than you think.

Of course, later would come the neo-classical movement of the mid-to-late 80s, and more obvious examples of sweep-picking from the likes of the aforementioned Yngwie, Paul Gilbert and Bruce Bouilett, Vinnie Moore and so many others. There’s even a killer sweep-picked arpeggio sequence in the epic Judas Priest tune and title track of their 1990 release “Painkiller“, that’s how popular sweep-picking became.  People like Guthrie Govan and Gus G are still blazing the trail with that in their arsenal, no reason why you or I shouldn’t have it at our disposal either, right?

But “what’s an arpeggio” you ask? An arpeggio is basically a broken chord. NO, it’s not “broken”, that is to say the notes are spelled out individually rather than strummed all at once. It works for any chord, and therefore for any chord progression if you want to break it down to that level. If you’re the adventurous type, why wouldn’t you? Break that sucker down, build it up an octave or two, then you can come up with something truly crazy sounding.

The approach itself is fairly straightforward: For whatever sequence you’re about to tackle, the general rule of thumb is downstroke for ascending runs (hammering and pulling off appropriately with the fretting hand) and an upstroke on the (descending) return. Down is up, and up is down (string-wise). It’s good to remember the old adage “Work smart, not hard” here – don’t over-exert yourself. Don’t bear down with your grip on the pick so hard you give yourself a cramp. Put effort into making clean transitions between notes and strings, but if you’re doing it right, it shouldn’t be something that requires stiffness or sounds like you’re killing yourself; it should flow.

Like I said earlier, any chord idea can be turned into an arpeggio. Let’s take for example, the trusty A minor chord. Spelled out (if you were playing the form with the root note on the 6th string low “E”), it’s  A-E-A-C-E-A low to high, right? Build an arpeggio off of that.

A minor arpeggio tonic note string 6.

Probably best to start this pattern on an upstroke, the perform 2nd note on the 6th string and cross the next 3 strings with one downstroke, hammer the 2nd note one the “G” string, then an upstroke/hammer combo to bring you back. It sounds a little more difficult than it actually is in execution. As with any new technique, practice it slowly, with a metronome until it becomes second nature. Now let’s apply the same logic to a A major pattern:

A major arpeggio, tonic string 6.
A major arpeggio, tonic string 6.

See? Not rocket science. You’re not required to do climbing multi-octave versions of these, either. While part of the beauty of the technique is that it can be used for so many things other than just wailing on arpeggios, it’s still a lot of fun as well as a great music theory exercise to do just that. Once you get the major and minor forms under your fingers, expand your knowledge base of forms. Talk about a wealth of possibilities: Remember, you can work these out for not just almost any chord voicing, but also for modes as well. You can build entire sequences based around, say, the modes generated by a melodic minor scale. Or you could, in the case of the example I’ll leave you with, work out a sequence based on 5ths. The sky – and your imagination – is the limit. Have fun!

It's all about the circle of 5ths, really...
It’s all about the circle of 5ths, really…

Sweep picking everywhere


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  1. I’ll never forget hearing the sweep picking in Painkiller, when we all thought JP was behind the curve, here comes Glenn Tipton with an upgrade to his blues based solo style, jumping into the fray with some in your face sweeps. Killer stuff. Thanks for the breakdown Jay!

  2. Frank Gambale is also an expert on sweep picking. His definition of Sweep Picking is that your last pick stroke on the current string goes in the direction of the string change–downstroke to go to a higher string, upstroke to a lower string. You then pick the new string in the same direction. However, you can use any odd number of notes on the current string (e.g., 1, 3, 5) when continuing in the same direction, with those same-string notes being alternate picked. I hope this isn’t too confusing.
    An example. A portion of the A Major scale, 5th position. Low E: 5 7 9 | A: 5 7 9. The strokes would be v ┌┐v | v ┌┐v (down up down | down up down). My point is that sweep picking (by this definition) can include alternate picking when you’re staying on the same string.

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