Cram Session: Sweep Picking
Ten exercises to help you master blazing-fast pick runs.
• Develop a smooth sweep-picking technique.
• Link multiple arpeggios to cover the entire fretboard.
• Explore essential stylistic traits of Jason Becker, Richie Kotzen, and Frank Gambale.
Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.
Sweep picking is often seen as one of the most demanding techniques to master on the guitar. Pioneered by such revered 6-stringers as Les Paul, Yngwie Malmsteen, Richie Kotzen, Jason Becker, and Frank Gambale, the technique is used in many different ways in a wide variety of genres.
The basic concept of sweep picking is to use all downstrokes when ascending across adjacent strings and all upstrokes on the descent. Sweep picking has many different applications that include arpeggios and pentatonic, major, and minor scales. The key to this technique is to use a rest stroke on each string, which means after striking a string your pick comes to rest on the next string in a single, smooth motion. This idea is very important for mastering sweep picking.
Sweep picking can be incorporated into other techniques. Frank Gambale—one of the greatest ambassadors of sweep picking—mixes alternate picking with sweep picking to play complex runs. The fusion of these two approaches is often referred to as economy picking. Before Richie Kotzen ditched the pick he blended sweep picking with legato fretting-hand techniques to play extended arpeggio lines.
Ex. 1 is a basic sweep picking lick that illustrates a triplet rhythm figure on the top two strings. The first two notes of each arpeggio are performed with a downward sweep, while the final note is performed with an upstroke. Make sure the pick comes to rest on the 1st string directly after attacking the 2nd string.
In Ex. 2, we move to a three-string pattern that moves up and down the neck through a Bm–F#m–E–A progression. To give the phrase some movement, I use a few different inversions of the F#m, E, and A chords.
We add yet another string for Ex. 3. This four-string pattern moves through a series of major arpeggios in various whole- and half-step root movements.
The legendary Jason Becker is a complete and total inspiration. Not only because of his seminal work on the Shrapnel label, but his story of living with ALS. Here’s a look at a young Becker blazing through his tune “Serrana.”
That inspiration leads us to Ex. 4, a short etude inspired by Becker. It opens with a series of A major (A–C–E) arpeggios that move up the neck through several inversions. We then shift to F#m—A major’s relative minor—for a series of descending arpeggios that ultimately carry us down to 5th position. You can hear Becker use these shapes in “Altitudes.” Once again, strive to create a smooth, fluent sweep, and look out for the occasional hammer-on and pull-off.
The Winery Dogs’ Richie Kotzen provides the inspiration for Ex. 5. As I mentioned earlier, before Kotzen ditched his pick, he’d craft incredible lines that combined legato techniques with sweep picking. Here we’re playing a chord progression similar to “Pachelbel’s Canon.” There are some rather difficult stretches, so be sure to start slow and work up to a comfortable tempo.
You can hear shades of both Kotzen and Becker in Ex. 6. This is from one of my tunes called “Ceremony” and involves not only sweeping and legato, but also some tapping.The idea of this lick is to perform diatonic arpeggios over a static D5 chord. In this case, we’re using Bm (B–D–F#) and Gmaj7 (G–B–D–F#). I love this approach to sweep picking: We simply cascade over the beats rather than playing “in time.”
Ex. 7 is a Frank Gambale-inspired figure that extends the harmony over an E minor tonality. We basically play off each degree of Em (E–G–B) using a diatonic arpeggio. This lick concludes with a 1st-string bend embellished with a tapped note on the held bend.
We’re using E Dorian (E–F#–G–A–B–C#–D) for the various approaches in Ex. 8. The quintuplets in the first measure alternate between Bm9 (B–D–F#–A–C) and Em9 (E–G–B–D–F#). The intensity picks up in the second measure with a wild combination of tapping, pull-offs, slides, and more.
Ex. 9 is a great lick based around symmetrical triads from the G half-whole diminished scale (G–Ab–Bb–B–Db–D–E–F). This lick is a great way of playing “outside” on the fourth measure of a G blues progression before G7 moves to C9, the IV. This phrase implies an altered tonality, but has a satisfying resolution.
Our final example (Ex. 10) is another Frank Gambale idea, based around D Dorian (D–E–F–G–A–B–C). This modern-sounding lick kicks off with some sus2 arpeggios performed in quintuplets. The next phrase includes a cross rhythm idea: three groups of 16th-notes played to the value of a quarter-note triplet. This figure mixes fourth and fifths and lets you play flurries of notes. To conclude, we cascade across a series of four-note arpeggios.