Last updated on July 9, 2019
If you’re an intermediate level, or even advanced guitarist, sweep picking is probably one of those techniques you feel you should be able to do by now. I know I certainly did, and although I was never a serious shredder, I was always curious about the technique and thought it’d be useful to know. I have a kind of sweep-ish picking technique anyway from watching a lot of Frank Gambale videos but transitioning to actual sweep-picking was another step entirely. The technique itself is made up of composite parts, and once you reverse engineer them, you discover that the mechanics of it are far easier to digest and assimilate into your playing if you work on it in the following order.
1. Start with your picking hand ONLY, and just damp the strings with your fretting hand for now. The technique was named SWEEP picking for a reason, and that reason is that you must do a sweep with your picking hand, and NOT pick every note by dragging your pick across the strings. This is a sweep, almost like a quick brushstroke, so there shouldn’t be any dragging of the pick to make the individual notes sound. When you’re practicing the picking hand part, you can also rest one of your fingers over the 12th fret so that the harmonics sound as you move your picking hand. This will give you more of an idea as to whether you’re getting, or going to get, the right sound when you sync your hands later. Once this clicks, and you’re hearing the ‘sweep-picking’ sound, move on to the next step.
2. Learn to finger-roll. Finger-rolling is prominent in a lot of sweep arpeggios and will lead to a lack of synchronization if you don’t master it first. The technique simply involves moving the top part of your finger across two or three adjacent strings in a rolling motion so that the notes sound separately and don’t bleed into each other. Practice with all four of your fretting-hand fingers; yes, even your pinky. Check out this article for an in-depth look at getting the finger-roll going.
3. Practice each hand separately. I can’t stress this enough as each hand needs to know what it’s supposed to be doing before you attempt any kind of hand-synchronization. Resist the temptation to use both hands at this point because each hand needs to know (in a mechanical way) what it’s supposed to be doing. If you watch great sweep-pickers, you’ll see that each hand is focused on its particular role in the technique, almost as if they were separate entities. Check out the example below and practice first with your picking hand and then with your fretting hand.
4. Hand Synchronization. It’s time to start meshing the motions of each hand. I say meshing because you’ll really need to work on syncing them together until they become one unit. Remember that you’re synchronizing two different motions here and depending on how second nature their individual roles have become, the faster you’ll be able to synchronize them. This is the absolute crux of sweep-picking, and where most players give up. They can’t synchronize their hands because they didn’t define their roles well enough in the previous steps. If this is happening to you, go back to Step 3 and practice each hand individually, then try syncing them again.
Once you’ve gotten your hands working in sync, be sure to try an example which includes a finger-roll such as the one below.
99% of your problems with sweep-picking are the direct result of how easy/difficult you made the hand-syncing part. Steps 1, 2, and 3 contain the elements of the technique that need to be mastered before syncing can take place. What most players do is go straight to Step 4 and try to learn everything at once. You can probably see that this won’t work as it’s too much information for the hands and brain to assimilate; therefore, any issue you have will either be due to: a) your right hand sweeping motion (tip – getting it to sound right on its own is the key); b) your left-hand motion; or, c) an underdeveloped finger-roll technique.
How Do I Know Where I’m Going Wrong?
It’s quite simple to diagnose the root of your sweep-picking problem, simply be aware of where your attention is going when you screw up. Do you look at your fretting or picking hand? If it’s your fretting hand it must be either the finger-roll, or the left-hand motion, and if it’s your right hand it must be something to do with your sweeping motion.
Above all, take your time and follow the steps; you’ll be able to pull it off sooner than you think.
You’ll also find this and 49 other hacks in our bestselling book, ‘50 Guitar Hacks for the Advancing Guitarist‘.