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Drop Dead Shred: Sweep City

Learn the ins and outs, ups and downs of sweep picking with this lesson by uber-shredder Nita Strauss.

Chops: Intermediate
Theory: Beginner
Lesson Overview:
• Understand the basics behind sweep picking.
• Combine sweep picking and tapping to create blistering licks.
• Learn how to play through minor and major arpeggios at warp speed.

Click here to download MP3s and a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.

So I’m guilty of one of the main sins of guitar playing. You know which one I mean. A lot of us do it. You spend all this time at home on a metronome working out these tricky licks and then you get on stage and you want to show them off—to everyone. Loudly. All the time. Tapping slides or pinch harmonics in between phrases of verses (cue dirty look from singer), unbelievably loud lead channel with ridiculous delay (dirty look from FOH), syncopated string-skipping nonsense (unison dirty looks from rhythm section), playing between songs when the singer is plugging the band’s website, etc, etc. I’ve lost count of how many times the other guitarist of the Iron Maidens has looked at me and said sternly: “Nita, Dave Murray does not do any dive bombs!” We do it because it makes us happy! And we feel like it’s appropriate—as in, all the time.

All of that goes to say this: Drop Dead Shred is going to be a column by one of us, for us. Guitarists who aren’t into this may not like it, but for the rest of you, I’m going to share some of my favorite fun techniques to integrate into your playing and spice things up a bit. It’ll be up to you to use your powers wisely and not get kicked out of bands for overplaying. What I plan to do in each installment is to show you a bit of the journey I went on technique-wise to get to the final version. Obviously everyone learns things in a different sequence and because I’m entirely self-taught, I’m in no way saying this is the only right way. This is what I did that worked for me. We’ll be starting with the basic version and working up to what I do now.

When I was a very early/intermediate-level guitarist—meaning just barely starting to hate life—I was not the most well-rounded player out there. I hated alternate picking, so I would sweep and tap and dive bomb my way through everything. In this first installment, we’re going to take a look at some basic ways to develop your sweep technique following the same path that I did, and in the next part we’ll start to integrate it with other licks. Sweep picking is actually an early jazz technique (the more you know) and now it’s grown to be an absolute essential in any proficient guitarist’s shred vocabulary.

Let’s talk for a minute about the metronome—every guitarist’s best friend and worst nightmare. After particularly brutal practice days or long sessions, I literally hear the click in my ear when I lay my head down as if it’s coming from inside the pillow! It’s important all the time, but in my mind it’s absolutely essential when it comes to speed-training sweeps. I’ll typically start the metronome at an almost unbearably slow speed, and set a goal of how many times I have to play it perfectly in a row. Once I’ve played it 10 times in a row perfectly—no cheating—I’ll move the metronome up, usually in increments of five bpm.

Just about all of my early solos had this three-string sweep (Fig. 1) in them, generally repeated more than once. If you’re new to sweep picking, this is a great place to start. Make sure each note is cleanly articulated, especially the pull-off at the top, which is often glossed over in the hurry to finish the shape. You’ll have heard a lot of people saying, “Just let the pick fall down the strings,” or “Just let your fingers roll.” While that’s true in a sense, it is absolutely crucial that you isolate the motions of the left and right hand and move deliberately.

Once you’ve tortured yourself with that one enough, you can move on to Fig. 2 and use more strings in your sweeps. One thing I like to do as an exercise is play a five-string sweep using the same notes, but in different positions. This helps your muscle memory adapt to not just repeating the same old pattern every time you want to achieve a certain sound.

This brings us to a lick from the solo in my band Consume the Fire’s song “There is Only Today” in Fig. 3. But here’s the twist—I’m going to show you how I do it live, not how I do it on the record. If I go to a show and see a guitarist doing their solos absolutely note-for-note like the album, I’ll be impressed. If I see them throw in some cool off-the-cuff tricks, I’ll be absolutely blown away! So I always try to incorporate some fun stuff like this in my live shows.

The beginning of this lick is a standard ascending Dm sweep with a tap, but instead of tapping on the 22nd fret for the octave on the high D, I move up the Dorian scale before ending with a C on the 20th fret. After using pull-offs to descend back down to F at the 13th fret, I move to the 2nd string with a tap on G at the 20th fret. I again use pull-offs to move down to C at the 13th fret. From there I move down a whole-step to an ascending C major sweep and do the same kind of technique.

Feel free to experiment with different phrasings of this. I’ve had grand success with doing the tapping and hammer-on/pull-off bit chromatically too. Get these down and in the next installment we’re going to talk about some more exotic sweep phrasings and more about how to integrate them naturally with other techniques.

Nita Strauss
Guitarist Nita Strauss began her career playing in clubs at age 13 and has since risen to become one of the most sought-after and versatile female guitarists on the scene today. She has dazzled audiences across the U.S., U.K., Europe, South and Central America, and Africa, and she has been featured on numerous soundtracks, most recently Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. For more information, visit