Sweep picking for guitar

Sweep picking on guitar involves playing individual notes on adjacent strings with one movement, either upwards or downwards. Read on to understand its origins and history.

Introduction

Heavy metal guitar and technique have been inextricably linked over the years, and as a teacher with 15 years of experience, no technique has deserved that unicorn status more than sweep picking!

With that being said, sweep picking has history that long predates its popularity in heavy metal guitar, in fact, it predates the electric guitar all together.

So what is sweep picking?

Well at it’s core sweep picking a the application of rest strokes on the guitar to facilitate economy in changing strings. So rather than alternate picking across 6 strings (which requires 6 motions and a lot of accuracy), you can play those same 6 notes with one controlled downstroke. This single motion has no wasted movement of the pick changing direction, and as such you can pick up some real speed doing this.

Sweep picking isn’t just about speed though, as the pick is striking the string in a completely different way it has a completely different tone too. When looking at the classical guitar world there are two main strokes, the free stroke (tirando), and the rest stroke (apoyando). The free stroke plucks the sting with the finger pulling away from the body, while the rest stroke pushes the finger through the string so it comes to rest on the string underneath. In the classical world this is done purely for tonal reasons, the free stroke is a lot brighter but thinner in sound, while the rest stroke gives a fuller bassy sound with better projection.

So when you combine the ease of application and tonal benefits, we can assume that players will have dabbled in this technique since the rise of stringed instruments. One of my main passions in music is gypsy jazz guitar, and there’s no doubt that those guys drop some outrageous sweeps in their playing. Here’s a clip on Django Reinhardt back in 1939, check the arpeggio at the 10 second mark.

Another well known example of sweep picking in a pre-shred guitar era came from Chet Atkins in 1975 during a performance with Jerry Reed. Check the lick at 1:13

As this technique facilitates string crossing, one of the main applications has always been for the execution of arpeggios. The distance between notes in a scale is small enough that you can easily play them up and down a string on the guitar, but as that distance increases you need to cross strings. So executing arpeggios at speed almost requires sweep picking.

An early proponent of this sound was Ritchie Blackmore in both Rainbow and Deep Purple. A big part of his sound was to play unison or harmony arpeggio patterns with the keyboard (just think of the classic ending to the solo on Burn).

Yngwie Malmsteen and sweep picking

It was undeniably the Blackmore influenced (to put it lightly) Yngwie Malmsteen that was an early perfector of this arpeggio technique, and sweep picking was the way to achieve blistering speed and accuracy. From the insanely fast 2 string pattern on Rising Force, or the 3 string mastery on Liar, to some of the shorter 5 string patterns he used in solos, there are few names as linked to the technique as him.

Just as Eddie Van Halen completely changed the game in 78 with his tapping and Floyd rose dive bombs, Yngwie had a similar impact in the early 80s with everyone and their dog just having to be able to imitate him. You might consider this a dark time in metal music as every generic hair metal act was sure to have some arpeggios in their set so their guitarist could show he’d been practicing.

Mike Varney’s shrapnel

It would take a little longer for something new to be brought to the table, and most of that came from Mike Varney’s shrapnel label when players like Tony Macalpine and Jason Becker took sweep picking to the extreme with arpeggios covering all 6 strings. To date Jason’s arpeggio patterns on Altitudes and Serrana are considered standards for developing the technique of combining 3 and 5 string patterns across inversions, while his arpeggios on Black Cat with his band Cacophony are beyond incredible.

Frank Gambale

One of the most important names in sweep picking is Australian guitarist Frank Gambale. While he initially rejected the label as what he was doing wasn’t the same application as what Malmsteen had made ubiquitous (with his initial publications on the subject being labelled as speed picking), at its core his economy picking technique seeks to organise your fingerings for scales and arpeggios to include more sweep picking between strings. This means that you use an odd number of notes per string to continue in one direction, and an odd number of notes to change direction. While this goes a little beyond the core sweep picking concept, you can’t deny Frank’s absolute mastery of sweep picking arpeggios.

Sweep picking in the 90s

This explosion of technical capabilities in the guitar world fell out of favour in popular circles for a while as it became a bit predictable and potentially a little exclusionary. The rise in popularity of grunge music almost feels like a direct response to the shred movement of the 80s, taking rock music back to the days of attitude rather than academia.

But that doesn’t mean that the technique stopped developing, or that there wasn’t a popular underground scene for it. A notable resource for this period of technique development was Chop From Hell, a site where a community could build around technique and with the ability to share videos, something that could be used to help push each other. The most notable of these players was absolutely Rusty Cooley, with Derek Taylor and Scott Stine bringing up the rear. These guys took things to the extreme while keeping it alive.

While the popular rock music of the mid 90s might not have been technique driven metal, that doesn’t mean that this sound wasn’t popular on the metal scene still, especially any band with a neoclassical vibe, so bands like Symphony X (Michael Romeo) and Nevermore (Jeff Loomis) both feature some of the coolest examples of sweep picking.

Sweep picking today

And things haven’t stopped there. With the rise of popularity in the progressive metal scene and externed range instruments, you’ve got bands like Animals As Leaders (Tosin Abasi) employing new sweep picking ideas across 8 strings! It’s hard to imagine where things will go from here, but it’s safe to say that the technique will be at the forefront of more advanced playing for a long time to come.

To learn more about sweep picking, check out my module on learning the technique from the ground up.