Why Sweep Picking Helps To Play Guitar In Many Essential Areas

Article Written By Daniel Bainbridge

There are two main reasons you may want to read an article about the benefits of sweep picking;

A) You are relatively new to sweep picking and are interested in developing this skill to enhance your playing

B) You are skeptical about whether sweep picking is a technique worth investing any time and effort into for your guitar playing interests

For a long time, I fell into category B. I believed that sweep picking was a flashy way of playing notes lightning fast, without expression and exclusively for shredders. I thought it was going to completely ruin my picking technique in other areas of my playing and that the learning curve would be too steep.

It is because of these beliefs that I actively avoided it for a long time, even though I prefer to play rock and metal styles where sweep picking is more commonly used. I focused instead on other areas of my playing such as developing my rhythm, string bends, vibrato and the speed of my directional picking which were all badass techniques which helped create the sounds I was looking for. Sweep picking just had not entered the arena for my playing needs for many years.

I have since realized that I missed out big time on practicing a technique that could have shaved off months of improvement in other areas of my playing.

If you are new to the term “sweep picking”, what I am referring to a picking technique on guitar where you rake your guitar pick across several strings in a single motion (no stopping between strings), in a way that you can hear each individual note rather than a strum.

This is not the same as playing arpeggios with up and down strokes one after the other (alternative picking) and is neither the same as picking each note individually with a single direction in a stop start motion. The sound of sweeping is unique and if you have not done so already you should listen to several examples from many genres to get an idea of what it is and how it can be used.

I stumbled into sweep picking when I was working with a guitar teacher to sharpen my creative skills and physical technique to play and write songs that I thought sounded awesome.

At first I thought, “Really? I don’t want to do this, I already know this isn’t for me”, but I trusted my guitar teacher who had already helped me achieve my goals in many other areas of my guitar playing and he had assured me that this was part of his strategy and that it was going to drastically help my playing and my songwriting.

I practiced diligently and what I found blew my mind. Practicing sweep picking had helped me get huge breakthroughs in my playing, which I will share with you now.

3 Benefits From Practicing Sweep Picking That Help Other Areas Of Your Playing

 

1. Improves two hand synchronization so that you can play anything with less mistakes and less string noise

Having your picking hand and your fretting hand working simultaneously at precisely the right time is essential when playing music so that you avoid unwanted string noise or mistakes. This is obvious but as you are trying to increase speed with any technique on guitar it becomes increasingly apparent that accuracy and synchronicity between both hands has to be managed.

This attention to detail is needed because as your speed increases the amount of time is shortened between each physical movement making it more challenging to hear, feel and correct mistakes.

When I first started sweep picking, my technique was sloppy. No surprises there but what I noticed was that when I would rake with my pick using a down stroke, ascending across the strings past the thinner E string, to then have to turn my pick around to an upstroke and descend towards the thicker strings, was causing me to slip up and I would pick dead notes or miss the string altogether. If my fretting hand movements and picking hand movements were cogs of a clock, they were not lining up with each other.

Paying detailed attention to exactly how my picking hand was moving, at what time the pick was making contact with the string and whether or not my fretting hand fingers were holding the notes at just the right time allowed me to improve the synchronicity of having this all working together.  This dramatically helped playing everything that I did because the hands were tight in time with each other making clear notes and having a tighter rhythm.

 

2. Improves chord construction so that you can create more interesting guitar solos, strum patterns and riffs

By definition, when you sweep pick the notes must be laid out across 2 or more strings as you need something to rake (or sweep). This physical requirement naturally goes well with learning chord shapes as well as the notes that make chords as they sound very musical.

By learning several different types of chord shapes and what the melody sounds like when you sweep pick, you get to expand the knowledge of your fretboard and the feeling (emotional quality) that the chords you play have. This is great fuel for your songwriting tools; you don’t have to use the technique of sweep picking to use these newly learnt chord shapes, this is why I have mentioned it as another useful benefit of going through the process of learning sweep picking.

 

Instead, you can try strumming the chords, use them for riffs or even pick the patterns using whatever picking technique you are using now and prefer now, to create several interesting ideas for music that sounds spectacular. Of course, if you enjoy the sound that sweep picking creates and think that it might have a place in the music you enjoy, you are already developing the skills to utilize this tool in your songwriting and/or improvising practice and playing.

3. Improves the speed and accuracy of directional picking so that you can enjoy nailing guitar solos

I have already discussed how sweep picking improves synchronicity and the benefits to playing at faster speeds but an additional benefit is how the raking motion used in sweep picking can be used for other techniques.

I personally use directional picking in my playing, if you aren’t yet familiar with this technique it essentially requires that when you picking from one string to another,  the direction that the next string played is in relation to the first note is the direction of the pick stroke you should use.

I use this technique because it is the most efficient use of your picking hand, think about if you had to pick a down stroke on one string (eg. The thin high E string) and then a down stroke on the string above it (The B string), your picking hand has already had to pass the second string that you want to play in order to get into a position where you can do a down stroke.

When you play with directional picking you would use a down stroke on the first string and then use an upstroke to strike the B string as your picking hand raises conserving muscles to reduce tension, improve endurance and speed.

For most of the time when I am using directional picking, I am using my wrist to physically play just as you would with other picking methods. What is unique is that when I have to do two or more strokes on adjacent strings in the same direction, I can use the raking motion from sweep picking to conserve even more energy.

For an example of this imagine you are playing the first note on the thick low E string with a down stroke and then the A string below it with a down stroke. Instead of using my wrist to play two down strokes I would pick the first note straight through to the second note using the raking motion by extending my arm from my elbow just as you would when sweep picking.

As you can see by practicing sweep picking it has helped me to improve my accuracy, creativity, speed, has reduced tension, increased endurance and given me a brand tool for phrasing. From having been skeptical for such a long time about practicing sweep picking, I truly believe that this is one of the building blocks that can massively turn your guitar playing around.

About The Author

Daniel is a member of the Elite Guitar Teachers Inner Circle, a network of the best guitar teachers around the world and he has helped over a hundred students to improve their guitar playing. Daniel Bainbridge continues to teach students from Albany and the surrounding areas in the great southern region, if you are looking for a guitar teacher in Albany, WA, be sure to contact him.