Sweep picking is a guitar technique where you rapidly sweep the guitar pick across multiple strings to play arpeggios.
When done right, sweep picking can help you play blisteringly fast arpeggios across as many strings as you want.
This lesson will give you a set of effective exercises you can use to take your sweep picking skill from beginner to expert.
Take your time with each exercise and don’t skip the easy ones.
If you have trouble getting started with the easier sweep picking exercises, try working on your economy picking technique first. Learning economy picking will help prepare you for sweep picking.
How to Develop Good Sweep Picking Skills
There are three steps to learning sweep picking. First, you need to develop good picking accuracy. Second, you need to work on syncing both hands with good coordination. Finally, you should work on building up your speed.
Here are the three steps to learn sweep picking:
Step 1: Picking Accuracy
Picking accuracy is all about being able to accurately pick the correct string in the correct direction.
The best way to work on picking accuracy is to focus 100% on your picking hand and completely ignore your fretting hand.
The first few exercises in this lesson will help you master your picking accuracy. The first few exercises ask you to mute the strings using your fretting hand. By doing this, you can focus completely on your picking hand.
You won’t need to worry about playing the right frets or even thinking about what note to play next. You can place 100% of your attention on the way your pick hits the strings.
Tip: don’t skip the first few exercises. You will develop your sweep picking skills faster if you practice the muted exercises first.
The good news is that this step is quick and easy to master. Sweeping the strings is a simple skill to learn. What makes sweep picking challenging is your hand coordination.
Step 2: Hand Coordination
Hand coordination is how well you’re able to place your fretting hand fingers down on the string in time for you to pick the note correctly.
Hand coordination is crucial to a good sweep picking technique. If you get your hand coordination wrong, your sweeps will sound bad.
A common sign of bad hand coordination with sweep picking is when you hear any muted notes, fret buzzing, or notes bleed on top of each other.
You need to perfectly sync both of your hands together so you pick the string at just the right time.
When playing a sweep picked arpeggio, listen carefully and make sure you can clearly hear one note at a time. If you hear two notes at once, or you hear a muted hit instead of a note, slow the exercise down and try again.
Important: do not try to speed up your playing unless you can play an exercise perfectly without any mistakes.
Step 3: Speed
Speed should be the last thing you think about when working through these exercises.
While everybody who learns sweep picking wants to play lightning-fast arpeggios, you need to resist the temptation to increase the tempo too soon.
Don’t try to play any of these exercises at a high tempo until you have developed your picking accuracy and hand coordination to a high level.
When you’re ready to work on building up your speed, use a metronome and gradually raise the tempo.
Only raise the tempo if you can play the exercise perfectly. If you start noticing mistakes creep into your playing, it’s a sign that you’re trying to push yourself too fast. Back the tempo off slightly and try again.
Focus on accuracy and the speed will follow. If you try to push the speed too soon, you’ll end up with a sloppy sweep picking technique. Remember: accuracy is the main goal.
How to properly build up speed is explained in this lesson on how to play guitar fast. Work through those exercises to learn more.
Sweep Picking Exercise 1: Sweep Warmup
As explained above, the first step to learning sweep picking is to focus on perfecting your picking hand’s accuracy.
It might seem odd, but the best way to do this is to mute the strings with your fretting hand and focus 100% of your attention on your picking hand.
Watch how you sweep the pick across the strings and the angle the pick hits each string.
Note: if you don’t know how to read the above example, check out this lesson on How to Read Guitar TAB.
Your goal is to smoothly sweep the pick across all six strings in one single motion.
At the same time, you should clearly hear six evenly spaced notes. The notes should sound as even as a click of a metronome.
Start off as slow as you need to and make sure your rhythm is consistent. Playing this exercise fast isn’t the goal – the goal is to work on your picking motion and hand control.
You’re not playing six separate down-picking motions here, instead you’re playing one smooth sweep across all six strings to produce six clear notes.
Some guitarists find the down sweeps easy to play and the up sweeps awkward. Work on both exercises until both down and up sweeps feel equally easy.
Work on this exercise until all six notes sound identical in terms of rhythm before you move on.
Sweep Picking Exercise 2: Separate Sweep Warmup
This exercise continues the focus on your picking accuracy and teaches you how to connect separate sweeps into one smooth and constant rhythm.
The goal with this exercise is to hear all 12 notes as 12 evenly spaced notes. It shouldn’t sound like three notes, then a short rest before another three notes. You should hear 12 notes in a row without any speeding up or slowing down.
Start off by practicing this as slow as you need to so you hear 12 notes in a row without any breaks in rhythm.
Use a metronome and play three notes per click. It should not sound like groups of three notes, it should sound like a constant rhythm the entire time.
In other words, it should sound like 1-2-3-1-2-3-1-2-3-1-2-3 and not 123-123-123-123.
I know I’ve said this over and over, but not keeping a constant rhythm is a common beginner mistake. If you can avoid this mistake, you’ll master sweep picking faster and easier.
Sweep Picking Exercise 3: Hand Coordination
If you can play the first two exercises perfectly at a range of different tempos, you should feel confident in your picking accuracy.
Only if your picking accuracy is perfect should you start focusing on hand coordination.
This exercise will get you comfortable with timing your fretting hand and syncing it with your sweeps.
The main point to keep in mind when playing this exercise is that you should only press a finger down onto a fret when you want that note to ring out.
Only one finger should be pushing the string against a fret at a time. Don’t start by holding all three fingers down, or you’ll end up with a chord ringing out.
Here’s a step by step explanation of what you need to do to play this exercise:
- Start by pressing your index finger down on the fifth fret
- Start your sweep across the third string
- After the first note rings out, lift your index finger off of the fret, but not off of the string. This will mute the note but not let an open string ring out
- Push your middle finger down on the sixth fret just before the pick sweeps across to pick the second string
- After the note rings out, lift your middle finger off of the fret, but not off of the string
- Push your ring finger down on the seventh fret just before the pick sweeps across the first string
- Lift your ring finger off of the fret after the note rings out
As you can see, a lot happens in the short time you sweep across those three strings. It might seem like a lot to remember, but this will soon become natural and automatic.
The secret to a clean sweep is to avoid any string noise. If you were to lift a finger completely off of a string, you might hear the open string ring out. This can easily ruin a sweep.
By lightly lifting your fingers off of the frets, but not off of the strings, you can avoid a lot of string noise.
Practice the ascending and descending exercises over and over until the steps listed above all feel automatic and you can play it perfectly.
Sweep Picking Exercise 4: Changing Strings Practice
If you can play Exercise 3 perfectly at a decent tempo, this exercise will test you to see how well you really know it.
You might recognize this exercise as the same string patterns from Exercise 2, only this time you need to use the three fret positions used in Exercise 3. In other words, this exercise combines everything you have practiced so far.
If you have trouble with this exercise, take it as a sign that you haven’t spent enough time on the previous three exercises.
Your main focus here needs to be on making sure each note rings out clearly and stops ringing out before the next note.
If you read the notes for Exercise 2, you should know that you need to keep your rhythm consistent. This exercise should sound like 12 notes in a row, not groups of three notes with a gap in between.
Look out for common mistakes such as notes ringing on to each other, fret buzzing, muted notes, or open string noise.
Open string noise will be your biggest noise challenge as you move across the strings. A single open string ringing out can completely ruin your sweeps, so pay extra attention to how you mute the strings.
Sweep Picking Exercise 5: Linking Arpeggios
So far, the exercises have separated down and up sweeps into separate exercises. This exercise combines the down and up sweeps into a single exercise.
It’s important to start by practicing down sweeps and up sweeps separately to help you get used to each motion. But once you can do that, it’s time to combine them.
Practice the muted version so you can start by focusing on your picking accuracy. Watch how your hand moves across the strings and how you change the angle of the pick as you switch directions.
If you play this exercise correctly, it should sound like 12 notes in a row. There shouldn’t be any speeding up or slowing down during a sweep and there shouldn’t be any gap in between sweeps.
This will take some time, but make sure you work on these skills using the muted version before you start practicing the fretted version.
The temptation will be for you to rush through this exercise so you can move on to more interesting sweeps, but you need to resist this temptation. If you spend enough time on these ‘easier’ exercises, you’ll master the harder exercises sooner and easier.
When practicing the fretted version, be careful you don’t introduce any string noise when you lift your fingers off of the strings. You need to move your first and third fingers back and forth to different strings, so think about how you will keep the strings muted as you move your fingers.
Some guitarists use their picking hand to help keep the strings muted as they sweep across the strings.
You might want to experiment with using the side of your thumb or your palm to mute the strings as you sweep.
Sweep Picking Exercise 6: Adding Hammer-ons
One of the most common things you will see in sweep-picked arpeggios is hammer-ons and pull-offs as a simple way to extend the arpeggio further.
This exercise introduces a typical hammer-on at the end of a sweep to extend it further.
This is extremely common, so spend plenty of time making sure that all four notes ring out clearly. The hammer-on note should ring out just as clearly as the picked notes.
A short rest has been added after each arpeggio to give you time to stop and reset. You don’t need to connect these sweeps together, practice them as separate motions.
At this point, you should start to feel comfortable with sweep picking and you may even find that it’s quite easy to play these arpeggios at a high tempo.
Just make sure you don’t rush or push yourself too fast too soon or you’ll end up developing bad habits and sloppy technique. Focus on clean arpeggios and avoiding string noise.
Sweep Picking Exercise 7: Typical Arpeggio Patterns
If the hammer-ons in the previous exercise feel easy, let’s add in a pull-off to play the most common sweep-picked arpeggio patterns you’ll find in solos.
What makes this arpeggio pattern odd to play at first is the single up-pick used to bring the arpeggio back to the start.
It might feel strange to play, but eventually, it will feel completely natural. As you move on to arpeggios across more strings, this single up-pick turns into a sweep.
As always, here are the main things you want to keep in mind when working on these exercises:
- Keep a constant rhythm
- Avoid string noise, muted notes, multiple notes ringing out, or fret buzzing
- Each note should be clear
This arpeggio combines picked notes with legato notes (hammer-ons and pull-offs are a form of legato), so it may take some practice for all of the notes to ring out clearly at the same volume.
Sweep Picking Exercise 8: Four String Practice
Once you can play the three string sweeps from the last two exercises, moving to four strings won’t be much of a challenge.
The challenge with bigger sweeps is keeping your coordination as you sweep across the strings.
Make sure you feel comfortable with the shape of the arpeggio before you start and which fingers you will use on each string.
Some arpeggio shapes are easier to play than others. These two shapes tend to be easy for beginners to learn.
Sweep Picking Exercise 9: Four String Arpeggios
If the arpeggios in the last exercise feel easy, you can use the same idea from the three string exercise and link them together in a constant sweep pattern.
As you can see, the single up-pick from the three-string arpeggios now turns into a short two-string sweep.
If you can play this arpeggio, moving on to five or six string arpeggios will be straightforward. Spend plenty of time working on these patterns before you move on to more complex arpeggios.
Sweep Picking Exercise 10: Complex Four String Patterns
There are many different ways you can use sweep picking and not all arpeggios follow the simple pattern shown so far.
This exercise is an example of one way you can mix up an arpeggio and combining it with sweep picking.
Starting the sweep with a hammer-on may feel awkward at first. It breaks up the first sweep into two separate motions.
It also changes the up-sweep into a three-string sweep. This pattern will trip up a lot of guitarists, so slow it down if you have any issues.
There are ten notes in this pattern and you want to make sure your rhythm is even so it sounds like 10 notes in a row without speeding up or slowing down at any point.
Combining picking and legato can feel strange at first and the beginners often have trouble keeping rhythm constant.
I recommend recording your playing so you can hear how you perform this exercise with fresh ears. Find out why I recommend recording your playing as a practice tool in this podcast episode (transcript included).
Sweep Picking Exercise 11: Five String Arpeggios
The first arpeggio shape in this exercise simply extends the previous exercise by an extra string. The sweeps may be longer, but this isn’t any more complicated than the four string version.
The second arpeggio shape includes a skill you will need to learn to play quite a few arpeggio shapes.
You will notice that the 14th fret is played across the D and G strings. To play this, you need to roll your finger across the two strings as you sweep through the strings.
Rolling your finger across the strings will help you make sure that only one note rings out at a time. As you roll your finger on to the G string, your finger will lift off of the D string and mute that string.
This will take some practice before it feels natural. If you want to spend some time working on this skill, practice the four string version of this arpeggio shape.
Sweep Picking Exercise 12: Complex Five String Arpeggios
You should recognize the pattern these arpeggios follow as an extension of the complex four-string exercise.
Wider arpeggios like these make your mistakes more obvious. You should easily notice if you accidentally speed up or slow down during the sweeps. Pay attention to the hammer-ons and pull-offs and make sure you don’t play them faster or slower than the sweeped notes.
Some arpeggios feel awkward to play at first. Don’t give up on any of the exercises in this lesson. Even if they feel hard now, with enough practice they will eventually feel easy.
Sweep Picking Exercise 13: Six String Arpeggios
By the time you get to this exercise, you should feel confident with your sweep picking skills. If not, spend more time on the earlier exercises.
Don’t try to learn a six string arpeggio until you have a solid grasp of the skills involved. You don’t want to develop bad habits in your technique by rushing through important exercises.
The challenge with big arpeggios like these is keeping your hands coordinated. As you memorize the shapes, muscle memory starts to take over and you’ll find that your fingers seem to effortlessly move in and out of the correct positions.
The second arpeggio shape requires you to roll two fingers across several strings, so this is a good test to see how well you have practiced this skill. If you have trouble with this arpeggio, practice the three-string version of this shape to focus your attention on rolling your first finger across the 12th fret.
Sweep Picking Exercise 14: Adding Tapping
Something you can do to add some extra range to your arpeggios is to add in one or more tapped notes.
In the below arpeggios, you can see that when you get to the highest note after the sweep, you can continue adding notes to the arpeggio using tapping.
The first arpeggio taps a note on the 20th fret, which is a note in the arpeggio. Learn how to memorize the notes on the fretboard in this lesson if you want to figure out what notes to add to any arpeggio.
The great thing about doing this is that you have plenty of time to move your picking hand over to tap the note before you need to pick the strings again. The hammer-ons and pull-offs give you more than enough time to sweep the strings, tap the note, then sweep the strings again.
The second arpeggio adds a tapped note, then slides that tapped note to a higher fret, then slides back down before pulling off to the 12th fret.
This is an advanced technique and will take some practice to get right. It will at first feel awkward to tap a note and slide it around using your picking hand.
Learn more about tapping in this lesson with links to tapping exercises and some fun tapping-based guitar solos worth learning.
Sweep picking can be a fun technique to learn and while it can feel difficult at first, anybody can learn and master it.
The above exercises help you work on the fundamental skills needed to play any sweep-picked arpeggios.
There are definitely more complicated arpeggios and patterns you can learn, but the above exercises will prepare you for any sweep picking you see in songs.
Take your time working through the above exercises and don’t rush through them. Only advance to the next exercise when you are sure you have mastered the previous one.
Here are some useful lessons and guides to check out after you work through these exercises:
- Alternate Picking Exercises
- Economy Picking Exercises
- Different Picking Styles Explained
- Ultimate Guide to Tapping
- How to Play Guitar Fast
- How to Memorize the Fretboard