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Sweep picking is a technique used on the guitar in which a 'sweeping' motion of the pick is combined with a matching fret hand technique in order to produce a specific series of notes which are fast and fluid in sound. Despite being commonly known as sweep picking, both hands essentially perform an integral motion in unison to achieve the desired effect.


The technique is almost exclusively applied for arpeggios, with a common shape being the one- or two-octave stacked triad; or in scalar terms the first (tonic), third (mediant) and fifth (dominant) of a scale, played twice with an additional tonic added to the highest point in the shape. For example, an A minor stacked triad would notate as A-C-E-A-E-C-A. When these series of notes are played quickly up and down as an arpeggio, they are notably classical-sounding as opposed to more blues-based progressions. The ability to move the shape of an arpeggio up and down the fretboard in order to initiate, or because of, a change in key lends itself to being the primary choice of guitar players, helping ease the use of what is considered an intermediate technique of guitar performance.

Compared to other techniques often used by shredders, such as alternate picking, few strokes are required in sweep picking; although all sweeps can be seen as a minimum of three to five strokes. Each time the pick strikes a string could be considered a stroke in itself. In certain instances, however, legato is used to sound notes instead of an actual pick stroke (in the case of guitar, hammer-ons and pull-offs); notably in the upper and lower sections of an arpeggio, where successive strokes on the same string in a row would effectively negate the natural sweeping motion in question. This comes into play whenever a certain string has to sound two notes in the shape due to the natural limits of a fretted string instrument.

However, as with all guitar techniques, each individual player can seek to integrate sweep picking into their existing repertoire and make use of it in an individually stylistic manner. Therefore some guitarists may use legato whereas others may have a natural tendency to double-pick multiple notes on a single string. This in itself can be seen as separate yet related idea or technique, due to the obvious differences in the sound of legato versus struck notes, as well as the shift in the timing of the entire arpeggio. Furthering the idea, most players who master the basic sweep picking pattern will use only parts of it or alter the technique to purposefully achieve a certain lick. In this sense, sweep picking is not so much a concrete action such as the aforementioned alternate picking, but instead is a technical idea with many possible applications.

Practical examples

A common way to break up the technique is the use of the three-string sweep arpeggio done on the upper three (thinnest) strings, more so than the lower (thicker) strings due to the awkward motion necessary and general lack of tonal clarity in comparison to the higher notes. In the case of a sweep on the upper three strings, one can see the arpeggio as the upper register of a standard five-string sweep, where the notes for A minor would be, in an ascending order, A-C-E-A-C-E-A.

Beginning on the middle tonic of this progression, the player may sweep first up the arpeggio and then back down to resolve on the initial tonic. This would notate as A-C-E-A-E-C-A. Written in tablature form for the twelfth position, it would be seen as:


If one then adds to it the lower octave of the arpeggio, the complete shape (in this particular position) is seen as:


In the middle of the above sequence, on the third and fourth string, there is a need to finger the same fret for both strings. By design there are more fingerings than humans have actual fingers, although both of these problems are solved by first fretting the initial string (fourth on the downstroke) with the tip of the ring finger, then rolling into the next string by fretting it with the pad of the same finger. In the returning upstroke, one frets the third string first by consequently reversing the rolling action from before. Also note that on the lowest and highest strings in the shape, two notes must be played immediately following each other, but on the same string. This is where the general use of the aforementioned application of legato comes into effect, so that a fluid picking motion is sustained.

However, the sounding of these notes in the arpeggio may be accomplished through any number of techniques, including a change in pick articulation; double-picking notes (which would then mean an additional upstroke or downstroke); legato; or in some instances sliding, though the latter is rarely enforced due to the acute control necessary to slide to a precise point on the string (Steve Vai and Shane Gibson are two artists who have been known to use this method fluidly).

Sweeps may even be continued to the next note via means of tapping and may facilitate the ability to play passing notes outside of the classic arpeggio sequence. Hence, sweeps should never be limited solely to the above pattern; one can choose to construct completely new and different patterns just as chords can be modified into endless combinations. Ultimately, once mastered, sweep picking can be applied to virtually any idea—arpeggio or otherwise.


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