The Sweep Picking Secrets That Can Make Anyone a Master
Sweep picking is one of the most coveted techniques on the guitar and has become surrounded with myth and legend. While it’s true that it takes real dedication and a good deal of practice to completely master sweep picking, it’s nowhere near as difficult to learn when you know the secrets behind it.
A lot of guitarists get very skeptical when they hear claims like that, and it’s no wonder. Among the uninitiated, sweep picking seems to be reserved for denizens of Valhalla – people somehow chosen by fate to dominate the world with the guitar.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The first and most important secret to know about sweep picking is that it is nothing but a shortcut, a trick to play certain types of passages faster and more easily than you could otherwise. That’s what it is. The reason why it seems prohibitively difficult is simply that in order for someone to play those types of passages at that speed without the crutch of sweep picking, it would require some kind of superhuman ability.
It’s an illusion.
That’s one secret… let’s look at another:
When most people first try to learn sweep picking, it can seem impossibly challenging. This fact alone makes the majority of people who try it give up before they ever make any real progress.
So, if sweep picking is so much easier than it seems, what’s really happening here?
Imagine that someone challenges you to free climb a mountain to the top. When you look at the mountain, all you see is a sheer cliff going up thousands of feet. While looking at that mountain, do you believe you can climb it without the assistance of climbing equipment?
The reasonable answer would be: almost certainly not.
So, the next question would be, how much effort would you be willing to expend to climb a mountain that you know you have absolutely zero chance of successfully climbing?
But let’s say that you’ve seen other people at the top of the mountain. You didn’t see them climb it, but you’ve seen that sheer cliff and it’s easy to assume that they would need superhuman abilities to accomplish such a feat. It’s perfectly natural to come to that conclusion under those circumstances. If you have no chance of climbing it and those people can, those people must have some special ability that you don’t have, right?
In this hypothetical scenario, you’d be wrong.
The reality is, there is a nice steady incline on the other side of the mountain that allows people to simply hike their way to the top. No climbing necessary. The problem here is that you were so impressed by these people’s apparent feat of climbing a sheer cliff that you never stopped to imagine that you could be missing some key information about how they got up there.
So then, what is the steady incline of sweep picking technique?
First of all, throw away any notions you might have about sweep picking being an amazing technique. Sweep picking is meant to look amazing to the audience, but every master of sweep picking knows the truth – and when they act otherwise, they are playing the part of a showman in the same way a stage magician would.
If you want to be a magician yourself, you have to learn the secrets of how the tricks work. It might spoil some of the fun, but that’s part of the process.
Once you’ve sufficiently disillusioned yourself about the “magic” of sweep picking, it’s time to change your approach to practicing the technique. You have to remember that any time you’re learning something new on the guitar, you have to spend some time training your fingers. This is the same concept as when you were first learning the guitar. There is nothing happening here that you haven’t already faced and conquered before.
Think about when you learned your first chord. Remember how daunting the concept of chords seemed? You would see other players running through a seemingly endless variety of chords and you couldn’t imagine how it was possible. If it took this long to learn one chord, it must have taken them decades to learn so many chords. But obviously, you eventually realized that wasn’t true. Once you got the concept of chords down, you could learn new chords in a heartbeat. It became easy.
This is also true for learning different types of sweep arpeggios and patterns. It is exactly the same principle. Just like with chords, sometimes you have to learn new types that require training your fingers again – think of barre chords. Sweep picking patterns are no different.
Just like with when you were first learning chords, when getting into sweep picking, start with something simple to get the basic concept down and branch out from there.
Okay, here’s the last secret and it’s one you can apply right now: how to practice sweep picking.
Do you know why so many people try and give up on sweep picking? The main reason is that, because they don’t know the secrets I already mentioned, they approach practicing it in a ridiculous way. They try to free climb the sheer cliff. They simply memorize where the notes go and try to will themselves to play it at full speed, over and over again.
They might as well be hitting their head against a brick wall, expecting to break through it.
If you want a good exercise in futility and frustration, try practicing sweep picking this way. You can spend years on it and, while you might make some progress towards a sloppy mess of a technique, you will never achieve control, fluidity or articulation. This is because this method isn’t even trying to practice those things.
However, you practice something is how you will learn it. If you practice it sloppy and out of time, your playing will be sloppy and out of time. While that may seem obvious while reading that, this is something that must be learned and doesn’t come stock.
First things first: practice the picking technique of sweep picking. Get out a metronome (no excuses here – if you have a device that lets you read this e-mail, you can download a free metronome), mute the strings with your fretting hand and practice sweeping up and down at a slow enough tempo that you can get it perfectly. Slowly increase the speed in such a way that you are never pushing yourself beyond the ability to play it right. Do this long enough to at least be comfortable sweeping at a slow tempo. If this sounds hard, remember that you’re just practicing strumming slowly and focusing on control. If you can strum, you can sweep pick.
If you approach it correctly, that part will not take long.
Next step: Now, memorize a simple sweep pattern. Don’t practice it, memorize it. I mean literally memorize where the notes and fingers go with your fretting hand, so you don’t have to look at the tab while practicing it with the metronome.
I recommend starting with a 3-string pattern that doesn’t use rolling barre or extra hammer-ons or pull-offs. A basic Major arpeggio on the top three strings with a single hammer-pull on the first string is a great way to start. Pick one that is played somewhere around the 12th fret because the fret distance makes it less of a challenge there.
Remember that we are simply putting down a foundation for the technique. If you follow my advice here, we’re talking about memorizing just 4 notes.
If you believe you have some innate special ability that should allow you to jump forward with something more complicated, then you didn’t understand what I said earlier. The illusion of “innate ability” is not for us to believe in – it’s strictly for the audience’s enjoyment. Remember this: a stage magician who believes in their own “supernatural powers” would fail at almost every trick they attempted.
Now comes the fun part: practice sweeping the pattern using the metronome in the same manner as you did when you isolated the sweeping technique. Start with a tempo that is absurdly easy, play it through until you get 5 perfect iterations in a row and then increase the metronome by just 2 beats per minute. Repeat this process until you truly can’t get 5 perfect iterations in a row (meaning, try as you might, it’s just not going to happen at that tempo yet) and stop for the day. On the next day, start a little faster than you started the day before and repeat.
Put a solid 15 minutes a day into this for one full week in addition to whatever else you’re practicing.
Let’s jump forward that week… woah, looks like sweep picking isn’t so difficult after all…
Dan Mumm is a Metal Method instructor and shred master. Check out Dan’s lessons here.