Sweep picking is cool and flashy, and players like Yngwie Malmsteen make it look appear effortless. As it so happens, it is considered advanced technique.
But if you’re going to start, you might as well start now. There aren’t that many advantages to waiting to learn how to sweep. It’s an aspect of playing in which learning other theory and techniques might not complement or help you in any way. It’s just a different way of playing the guitar.
So here are some tips on how to practice sweep picking for beginner guitarists.
Commit To 100 Days
There are a several experiments online showing how different guitarists have been able to get a better handle on sweep picking within a 100-day time frame. Have a look at this video:
This doesn’t mean that there’s something magical about the number of days you practice, but it does encourage you to think long-term rather than short-term. And if you don’t think long-term with sweep picking, you’re going to get very frustrated and give up.
So, why not take the 100-day challenge? What do you have to lose? Set aside some time every single day to work on your sweep picking technique.
Learn To Rake
Raking is the precursor to sweeping. It’s much easier to do, because you don’t necessarily have to fret a specific set of notes to perform a rake (i.e. like an arpeggio). You can simply add a bit of a percussive flare to a lick or a solo.
Raking requires a bit of muting, and that’s probably the hardest thing about it. Let’s say that your target note is the fifth fret on the third string (C). Raking is typically a downward motion, so you would mute a string (or several strings) above the target string (in this case the third string), and then “rake” (drag the pick across the strings) the two strings with your picking hand. The muting is done with your fretting hand (for example, if you were fretting the C with your index finger, you’d mute strings above it with your ring finger), picking hand (palm muting), or a combination thereof.
Raking usually involves three or more strings. So, for the following example, I’ve provided both the two-string and three string versions of the same exercise. If you’re finding three strings too hard, just work on the two-string version for a while, and then work your way up to more strings.
Again, raking isn’t hard to do, but if you need a visual, here’s a video that shows you how to do it.
Learn Three-String Arpeggios
Sweep picking and arpeggios tend to go hand in hand. But we’re not going to get into full-on sweeping just yet. First, let’s work on some three-string arpeggios.
I wouldn’t recommend getting into six-string arpeggios off the bat, because sweeping across all six strings is one of the hardest things to do. As you begin to feel comfortable with two or three strings, you can start adding more.
Here are a few three string arpeggios in the key of C. We’re not going to complete the entire scale, as playing higher up on the fretboard could be kind of awkward depending on the guitar.
There are two ways to practice this exercise.
The first is to hold down the chord shapes and pick the notes as you normally would. The second is to use one finger at a time – placing them on the fretboard only as they are needed, and then picking the notes individually. I would suggest practicing it both ways, but the second way is the most important, because this is pretty much exactly what you must do with sweep picking.
There are other three-string arpeggio shapes, so don’t limit yourself to these alone. Use the above exercise as a starting point.
Practice Sweeping With Two Strings
If you’re starting to get a hang of rakes and three string arpeggios, then you’re ready to try some basic sweeping.
We’re going to be working on two strings for now, but in some ways, it can be harder to sweep with just two strings as opposed to three or four. This is because it requires more control. But it’s the same control you’re going to need to develop if you want to get good at sweeping.
When you’re just picking notes normally, your pick should be parallel with the strings. But when you’re sweeping in a downwards direction, your pick should be pointed slightly upwards. Similarly, when you’re sweeping in an upwards direction, your pick should be pointed slightly downwards. You’ll need to make this adjustment with your wrist.
Let’s give this a try. In this exercise, you’re going to sweep the fourth and the third strings in a downward direction. Then, you’re going to come back up by sweeping the third, and then the fourth string. The goal is to work on this until it’s one smooth and complete motion.
Again, because this is a precision exercise, it will take time to master, even though it’s just two strings. Be patient – you’ll need to repeat this many times to get it right.
To finish things off, we’ll try a three-string sweeping exercise. You might not be ready for this, and that’s okay. We’re going be sweeping an Am arpeggio. The motion is the same as before, sweep down from the fourth string to the second string, and then sweep back up from the second string to the fourth string.
At times, learning to sweep will feel like banging your head against the wall. You’ll make some progress, and then you’ll feel like you’re getting worse instead of better. It’s two steps forward, one step back. That’s why I would suggest playing long ball with it. Prepare to practice every day for 100 days or more, monitoring your progress as you go. If you stick with it, you will improve, and eventually master the technique.
As you begin to get a hang of two string and three string sweeping, slowly add in the fourth, fifth, and six strings. Learn all your arpeggio patterns, too.