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【Free Lesson PDF】Sweeping Through the Basics

Updated: Apr 23

This blog post is a companion to the technique video and performance short video I put together on the subject of sweeping picking - hopefully you will get to take these all in at the same time! In this post I will discuss the theory behind the exercise that was handed to me by one of my former guitar teachers, the phenomenal Pete Roth.

In essence, the theory behind rudimentary sweep picking is quite basic, hence the title of this blog post. You will need to have a good understanding of triads, inversions as well as a good legato technique. 

Sweep picking is a term often associated with shredders and, whilst it is common in those circles, I manage to find a use for sweep picking in many different places and genres. The concept is to imitate the long, flowing arpeggios common to piano players, and to some extent saxophonists also. On the guitar you are likely to come across many three and five string arpeggio shapes that are perfect for sweep picking, however, there are some two, four and six string shapes too! Thankfully, this exercise only uses the former.


                  Fig. 1

You will notice in Fig. 1, and throughout the entire exercise, that the rhythm is exclusively sextuplet eighth notes (quavers). When counting this, you will fit six notes in over the first two beats, so the second group of notes starts on beat 3. It might be beneficial for you to practice counting or strumming this in isolation for a moment. The reason that this note grouping works so well is because most of the arpeggios here are of the three string variety and, as you will see, typically have two notes on the high E string. Therefore, when ascending and descending through the pattern you play exactly six notes before moving on to the next shape.


As I mentioned earlier, you will need to have a good understanding of triads and inversions to fully understand and use this technique. Let us break down some of the shapes.

                   Fig. 2

In Fig. 2 you will see the first bar of music, and in it are the first two shapes we are using in this exercise. Don’t worry, the full exercise will be posted at the end of this blog post. The section highlighted in pink is an F triad, but in a second inversion. This means that the notes played are C F A with the second note on the E string being the octave of the first note, in this case C. If you look closely, we are starting on the highest note and descending first, so the order of notes played are actually C A F C F A. The clever thing here is that the first note of the D7 arpeggio, highlighted in green, is a C - this would be the ♭7 note of the new chord - a very nice transition because that is a common tone between the two chords (see the arrows). Remember, D7 is not a triad as it has four notes.

The next bar is the same thing, just up a tone (or two frets higher). 

                                           Fig. 3

You will notice in Fig. 3 that we come across a new shape, which is an Am triad in the second inversion - the one that is often called the ‘Dm shape’. Many people mistakenly call this an Em triad owing to the minor tonality and the fact that it starts on an E note. However, Em uses the notes E G B whereas the shape above uses E A C with an E on the top.

                                Fig. 4

Fig. 4 features the appearance of our first six string shape. This has the second inversion over the EBG string set, highlighted in purple, and a common root inversion over the GDB string set, highlighted in yellow. Notice how the E note is shared between the two of them - this further provides a smooth, flowing sound that would not be achievable if you simply shifted to the next position. 

The most common pattern to use for sweep picking is that of the minor barre chord on the A string, though with that usual octave note on the top. You will almost definitely know this chord shape, so try to see the pattern as that but separated out. See this highlighted in orange. The eagle-eyed amongst you will notice that there is another shared note here - some people like to slide between notes like this. 

From bar five onwards, we see that every arpeggio shape is repeated twice, so it has a bar of its own - until the very last bar where we descend through Fig. 4 and end on the A note (12th fret A string).

                                    Fig. 5

Fig. 5 is another shape that confuses some people because of the large stretch between the 16th and 12th frets. This arpeggio is a second inversion, as the notes used are B D E G#. The same pattern applies as we are starting with the highest note and descending first. It is not tricky to change between the previous Am root position triad shape and the E7 shape above because the highest notes are only a semitone (or one fret) apart. 

Developing the Idea

If you choose to develop this idea further as you become more confident with the theory behind the idea, you may choose to apply the concept on different string sets or changing around the inversions used. 

Playing on the lower strings, but keeping with triads and not spreading them out, is atypical for rock and metal styles, and more akin to what a jazz guitarist would do. This is even more true when you consider how deftly and accomplished jazz players can move between harmonic ideas in their lead lines, using common tones or minimal movement - this is true for any polyphonic discipline. 

The Best Sweepers

No, I do not mean the winners of the National Janitorial Awards, but rather a few players whom I believe are amongst the best in the world at this.

George Benson

Check out this amazing performance of ‘Affirmations’, one of Benson’s most popular instrumental hits. You’ll notice that he is not only on fire with his picking chops, but often punctuates his solos with a blistering sweep picked passage. There is no specific place or time he does this as far as I can tell, though I can tell you he plays them all over the neck and across all the strings - a true master of the guitar and phenomenal singer too!

Alex Hutchings

I have met Alex Hutchings a few times, and it is clear after talking with him that not only is he one of the best guitar players around and a genuinely lovely guy, but he is also heavily influenced by the legendary Frank Gambale - a man known for his ridiculous sweeping technique. However, sweep picking can quickly become stale and sometimes it is just a bit too much with Gambale, at least for my tastes. Hutchings takes this and builds the idea to something more. Interspersed with crazy alternate, economy and seemingly magical picking with an otherworldly knowledge of the fretboard, it is one to check out for sure. 

Stephen Taranto

One of the best newcomers on the scene is Stephen Taranto. He has fantastic technical ability and can use large sweep picking patterns seemingly at will, almost like his guitar is scared of displeasing him. His style is much heavier than my other two recommendations, it is still worth checking out just to appreciate his technical ability and how clean his playing is.

Final Thoughts

The ideas behind this exercise are quite straightforward in the grand scheme of things. However, you would do well to really internalize the technique using the blog, the longer video and the short and also pay heed to the theoretical lessons within.

Like many other techniques, don’t over do this. The initial admiration you get from showing your skill with the technique will quickly be overshadowed by how boring and tasteless it sounds when used repetitively. 

Try your best, make sure to consult one of the teachers from The American Guitar Academy if you need any help and good luck with incorporating this into your playing!


As promised, here is the whole exercise:

Sweep Picking Exercise
Download PDF • 36KB

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