I know, I know—some of you are already thinking, “sweep picking? Tasteful? Isn’t that an oxymoron?” Though sweep picking is often associated with virtuosic displays of technique and mindless shredding, it is a technique that is actually surprisingly versatile.
Guitarists from all sorts of genres utilize sweep picking to add texture, bursts of intensity, subtle moving arpeggios, and more. From jazz to country, sweep picking is a more varied and useful technique than you might think at first glance.
So today, we’re going to look at five tasteful applications of sweep picking. Hopefully, we can break down some of the preconceptions people have about sweeping picking and show it can be used outside of the usual neoclassical and metal contexts.
Country Sweep Picking
Let’s start with country since that’s about the last thing you’d think of when you hear sweep picking.
Modern country, particularly popular radio country, has given country guitarists a bit of a bad rap in the past decade or so. While a lot of popular country music today only features a guitar playing chords and maybe a rock-style solo, country has been home to some of the most interesting guitar playing ever.
Many country guitarists are/were true virtuosos, and there are countless examples from throughout the years—Merle Travis, Tony Rice, Glen Campbell, and Willie Nelson being just a few. Today though, we’ll be talking about Mr. Guitar himself, Chet Atkins.
Chet Atkins is a truly legendary player and guitar pioneer. He changed the sound of country music, innovated guitar playing in numerous areas, and made some absolutely timeless music. And for the purposes of this article, he utilized sweep picking as well.
Here is a clip of Chet Atkins playing Jerry’s Breakdown with Jerry Reed. In the middle of Atkin’s solo, he briefly uses some sweep picking to outline the quick chord changes being played by Reed. While it is a flashy move, he uses the sweep to tastefully change through the chords.
Jazz/Fusion Sweep Picking
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that sweeps get used in jazz and fusion. Both genres place an emphasis on technical skill, though they also both reward restraint at the same time. Still sweep picking is a technique that can be very convenient when it comes to playing jazz and fusion, which is why it gets used.
When tasked with imitating horn lines from the likes of players like Coltrane, guitarists’ options are limited. Playing such a quick succession of notes on the guitar is incredibly difficult, especially if alternate or economy picked. With sweep picking though, it’s possible to get those “sheets of sound” arpeggios many jazz horn players utilize.
It’s also worth noting that many of the pioneers of sweep picking were jazz guitarists. Early gypsy jazz guitarists were utilizing sweeps, and though the precise origins of sweeping are still debated, Frank Gambale is often credited as the first guitarist to really formalize sweep picking application and technique.
In this playthrough of Magritte, Gambale uses sweep picking numerous times. Many of his usages are just short, little runs that add some emphasis to the end of a phrase. Other times, he uses longer sweeps across multiple chord changes to add more intensity to the solo. Throughout though, he mixes sweeping with other picking techniques to create a tasteful fusion solo.
Gypsy Jazz Sweep Picking
We mentioned gypsy jazz guitarists in the previous section, but they deserve their own showcase. These guitars were some of the earliest to use sweep picking and sweep-esque techniques.
While their sweeps may not be 100% the same as modern sweeping (the technique had yet to be cemented and formalized), they are very similar movements that result in the same sort of sound.
This style of jazz can be deceiving when it comes to complexity. Though you immediately hear a lot going on harmonically, a lot of the licks and melodies seem relatively simple. However, those simple licks are also following the chords, which as noted, can get pretty complex.
On top of that though, those simpler licks are often punctuated with speedy runs using legato, sweeps, and other techniques that enable fast playing. In the example below, Django Reinhardt uses some fast sweeps in St. Louis Blues. Many of them are used to end a phrase as mentioned above, giving a sense of urgency to the last moments of a solo or section.
Classical Sweep Picking
Since the days of Yngwie Malmsteen, sweep picking has been associated with neoclassical guitar. However, what about regular old classical guitar, as in acoustic nylon string guitars? Surprisingly, yes!
Classical guitarists have been using sweep picking for a while, and they’ve used very similar techniques for even longer than that. As you’d expect from classical guitarists, they usually implement sweeping in a tasteful way as well.
As with gypsy jazz guitarists, the sweep picking techniques don’t line up 1:1. Most classical guitarists use their fingers, meaning the specifics are going to be different. However, the end result is the same—going across the strings in one motion to play quick runs and arpeggios.
A good example of this is Concierto de Aranjuez, composed by Joaquín Rodrigo Vidre. The piece calls for sweeps in a few key moments, such as at the 7:35 mark in the video. Here, they are used to highlight specific chords during the solo section in an almost harp-like fashion.
Hard Rock/Metal Sweep Picking
Would it really be a list of tasteful sweeps without one example in hard rock and metal? Though the heavier end of the spectrum is often associated with nonsensical sweeps and shredding, plenty of players have used sweeps tastefully over the years.
Avenged Sevenfold guitarist Synyster Gates is well-known for his technical ability and frequent use of sweep picking. While many of his solos can be a bit over the top for many, he’s also no stranger to being more tasteful and practicing restraint. And considering he’s also a proficient gypsy jazz guitarist, it shouldn’t be that surprising.
A good example of this is on their hit Seize the Day. During the first solo, he holds back on the sweeps and plays a solo that’s more Slash than Malmsteen. He holds off on sweeping until the last 30 seconds of the song, kicking in with the fast arpeggios to add some lift and texture to the big finale. The sweeps are even relatively low in the mix, emphasizing that they aren’t there just for a display of virtuosity.
Sweep Picking: A Useful and Versatile Technique
Sweep picking might be associated with the kind of shredding that makes you want to immediately leave the Guitar Center you just walked into, but it doesn’t have to be an emotionless display of virtuosity.
Jazz and classical guitarists were using sweeps in subtle ways long before shred became a thing, and country guitarists like Chet Atkins have put sweeping to good use too. And even in the world of hard rock, metal, and fusion where technical prowess often comes first, there are plenty of examples of sweep picking being used tastefully.
So don’t discount sweep picking; it’s a very useful and versatile technique that is applicable to all types of music. Give sweep picking a shot and see how you can use it in your own playing. You might just stumble upon your next favorite riff or lick. Just remember to throw on a fresh set of Stringjoys before you get sweeping!