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Quick Tip: Sweep Picking

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Guitarists such as Yngwie Malmsteen and Alexi Laiho create mind-boggling flurries of notes with a technique called sweep picking. This entails playing a group of notes with a single sweep of the picking hand, but so that they sound out like several individual notes instead of like a chord.

Pulling this off in practice is exceptionally difficult, because it requires perfect coordination and nimble fingers. Learning how to sweep pick is challenging, make sure you have the right guitar for you and with a few simple tips it can be accomplished!


The Basics

Splitting the notes within a sweep apart is essential for preventing the sweep from sounding like a strummed chord. This is actually done with your fretting hand. Fret and play any note, and then relax the finger on your fretting hand, allowing it to lift up from the string. As your finger rises, the string stops ringing out. When you sweep pick, you have to do this with every note that you play, lifting each finger after the note has been plucked.


Practice

Try a three string sweep in one direction to start with. Play the 14th fret of the G string, the 13th fret of the B string and the 12th fret of the E string. You can fret these notes with your index, ring and middle fingers.

Practice the run of three notes until they sound out individually. Keep your picking hand relaxed as you bring it down across the three strings.

Remember, every note should be picked downwards so the notes are played as a single “sweep.” You can start slowly and build up your speed as you get used to it.


Picking Tips

The most important thing about sweep picking with your picking hand is to maintain a smooth, rhythmic speed. It’s tempting to try to move ultra-fast, but as with all music, you have to keep a steady beat. Try the three-string sweep above again, but focus on keeping the notes evenly spaced apart.

When you’re sweep picking downwards, you should tilt the pick slightly downwards. To help it glide over the strings, adjust the pick so the edge hits the string first, rather than it being parallel. In the next section, when you start sweeping upwards too, you should tilt your pick upwards.


Advanced Sweeps

Try a sweep which moves in two directions. Most sweeps are comprised of a downwards and an upwards movement of the picking hand, and the two are usually linked by a couple of additional notes.

When you reach the bottom of the example sweep (the 12th fret of the E string), play the 15th fret of the E string before going back to the 12th fret for the upwards sweep. You can play this as a hammer-on and pull-off if you like.

Finish on the 12th fret of the G string on the upwards sweep to add some variety. Repeat these two sweeps until you have mastered the technique.

Find some exercises with harder sweeps after you’ve got used to three-string ones. Try a five string sweep first, and then graduate to a six-string one when you’ve mastered the technique. This level might take a while to reach, but when you get there people will gawp at you like you’re a true guitar god.

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