The Shred Decoder’s Guide to Sweep Picking
One of modern rock’s most buzzed-about shredders shares his insights on an often-misunderstood topic.
• Develop proper sweep-picking technique.
• Learn how to move across two, three, and four strings.
• Create diatonic shapes that move up and down the entire fretboard.
Click here to download a printable PDF of this lesson's notation.
This lesson is about my bittersweet relationship with sweep picking. To be honest, sweep picking has always scared the ever-living crap out of me (and it still does). For whatever reason, it has taken years for me to find any use for it. It’s only recently I’ve found myself applying the technique here and there, kind of like a loose light bulb flickering on and off.
Well, I finally put on my big-boy pants and started tackling it, or rather, it started tackling me.
When you adopt a new technique, it all comes down to context: where you learned it, how you learned it, and the application. For me, the neo-classical art of sweep picking, although pivotal in its contribution to rock and metal music, has never been quite enough to get me off my feet. I never really found a use for that super-rapid sweeping motion for my sound or phrasing. It just didn’t stick in my ear. But arpeggios are essential in writing and playing, and now—who knows why—sweep picking has become an itch I need to scratch.
So I devised a way to make use of those same good ol’ 5-string patterns and sweep them in a way that compliments my sound. In the space allotted for this lesson, I can’t get into too much depth with every way I’ve found to use sweep picking, but I can show you how it all started. You are getting the very first preview ever of my growth as a soon-to-be-sweep-picking fiend … but from what I believe to be a more modern take on this technique.
First, I’ll give those of you who may be unfamiliar with sweep picking the lay of the land. Basically, you want to play each note of the arpeggio as cleanly as possible by pushing the pick through each string. If you do this at a fast-enough pace, either ascending or descending, you generate a nice sweeping motion.
Ex. 1 is a simple D major (D–F#–A) arpeggio that rotates through a triplet rhythm at a medium tempo. Use this warmup exercise to get a feel for the sound and structure of this picking approach. As you play through this example, notice how each note occurs on a new string until the pattern turns around on the 1st string. This is what allows you to push across strings 5, 4, 3, and 2 using one continuous downstroke or upstroke.
In Ex. 2, we move to the F#m triad (F#–A–C#), which is still diatonic to the key of D major. This shape stretches out your hand a bit more—especially on the top strings—so focus on being as relaxed as possible to prevent your muscles from becoming strained.
Now we’ll move to the diminished triad, which for our purposes will be G#dim (G#–B–D). This might feel odd at first, but will serve us well in our upcoming examples.
In this next section (Ex. 4, Ex. 5, Ex. 6), we’ll divide up the same three arpeggios and practice them using subdivisions to increase speed. We’ll start out playing quarter-notes, quarter-note triplets, eighth-notes, eighth-note triplets, 16th-notes, and then reverse the order.
This next part is how it all began for me. I needed a way to play these arpeggio shapes up and down the neck in a way that adheres to my sense of legato. Here, I lay out how to move through the neck diatonically over three strings (Ex. 7), four strings (Ex. 8), and five strings (Ex. 9). Using diatonic or functional harmony is super-important for songwriting and can be equally useful in practicing technique.
The idea here is to connect the arpeggios together one after another. In my opinion, this creates more of a continuous legato sound when sweeping, as opposed to the rapid neo-classical sound.
Now let’s sweep through a pair of triads using inversions. In Ex. 10, we’re moving between a D major triad (D–F#–A) and an E major triad (E–G#–B), both in 1st inversion. An inversion is simply the same notes in a different order, and in this example, each shape has the 3 (F# for D major and G# for E major) in the bass.
Naturally, we’ll move to the 2nd inversion of these triads for Ex. 11.
Our final opus (Ex. 12) takes us through all inversions of the D and E major chords across five strings up and down the fretboard. It’s a heck of a workout.
That’s all folks. Thanks for stopping by. Go shred some heads!