There’s no getting around it, if you want to improve your sweep picking — or any music technique — time and practice are required. These ideas will help make your practice more productive.
Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
If you are looking to be faster and smoother at sweep picking, I’ve got some tips and techniques that can help. Of course, there is no wand waving or magic that will make your playing incredible, but especially for beginner guitar players, proper practice — and putting in practice time — is the only path to becoming a great guitarist.
That said, there are things you can do to improve your practice routine and make better progress. Here are five ways to improve your sweep picking!
1. Slow down and reset
Sweep picking requires very strict coordination of both the picking and fretting hands. Each downstroke and upstroke must be played correctly while the fretting hand plays only one note, with no bleed from other strings. The reason this style is a hallmark of shred guitar is that the hands move synchronously to create that fast and awesome arpeggiated sound.
The genres that use sweep picking are inspired by piano-centric classical music, which also requires two-hand coordination when playing. But to get to that point of a smooth flow on either instrument, you must start slow. And this advice also holds true for any picking pattern — too many guitarists want to jump ahead and skip steps, which leads to frustration and failure. Start from the beginning, if necessary, reset, and fix any bad habits you may have picked up.
2. Try a different approach
If you have been sweep picking for a while, you may not need to reset to the beginning, but you may be stuck in advancing. If this is the case, it may be worth considering a new approach. After all, not every guitar player sweep picks in the same manner.
The same goes for tabs and the common way songs are played. Some tabs may call for a specific fingering order, but if you’re struggling with a song or technique, try a more customized approach and see if it works better. Every guitarist has different hand lengths and finger strengths — try different techniques to find the one that best suits you.
And make an effort to play music that you are not familiar with. Learning a tune that your ear has no experience with can present a good challenge. Or take a song that does not use sweep picking and add it. It will help you be creative and is fun to do!
3. The fretting hand has the power
For many beginners, the thought of sweep picking conjures images of the picking hand moving at lighting speed, which it eventually does. However, that hand should always be as relaxed and flexible as possible. The power and importance of the sweeping technique really lies in the fretting hand. All your fingers, including the pinky, need to have total control over the fretboard.
Your fretting hand needs strength for all the hammer-ons and pull-offs that will be added to save time picking. The less you pick, and the more notes you hit with your fretting hand, the more music you produce with less playing. But be sure to keep the pick moving up and down to keep the synchronicity between hands, even when you’re not striking the strings. As you practice new riffs and arpeggios, look for fretting techniques that may increase speed and allow no worries of muting on the pick end.
4. Without muting, it will be muddy
Your left and right hands also need to have control over the muting of the strings not being played. Like moving ahead too fast, bad muting is often the source of many problems for shredding guitarists. You may be able to pick through a speed burst and fret the right notes, but without precise muting, the sweep will not sound right.
When playing ascending arpeggios, you can use palm muting with your picking hand. When descending, it is helpful to use your fretting fingers to mute the string next to it. Again, you may find one way more comfortable than the other, but either way, it is essential to have only one string sounding at a time. Tailor your picking, muting, and voicing to what is suitable — if it sounds good, you’re OK. If it’s not working, it’s time to diagnose the problem.
5. Listen and isolate problem areas
As sweep picking gets more complicated, there are many factors that can cause issues. You may have reached a point where you can play relatively fast but your articulation in low notes or rolls may need to be cleared up. In this case, you may not have to reset, but you will have to isolate problem areas.
Don’t just play these isolated problems over and over, though. Repeat them, but keep them in the context of the song. Otherwise, you may fix the problem in isolation, but once you mix all the other aspects together, it may not work. And if you find one area is hard, move on to another, easier section of the song before returning to the problem. Break that repetitive playing up to challenge the muscle memory.
When you find yourself hitting a plateau with your guitar skills, it’s time to beef up your ear training. When you improve your critical hearing, you’ll be able to find your mistakes. From there, let physical practice with a little creativity take over!
As with any musical technique, there is no instant remedy for improving your sweep picking. You can find a lot of great lessons out there and unique approaches, but they all require slow and steady practice. At the end of the day, the best way to improve your sweep picking is to play guitar as much as possible and know how to fix the mistakes you make!
Shawn Leonhardt is a freelance writer for Guitar Tricks, the original online guitar lessons program since 1998. With over four million members, Guitar Tricks is the premier guitar lessons platform for beginner guitarists and advanced players alike.
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