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Let's take a look at how a few famous pro guitarists execute 3-string sweep arpeggios. We'll compare the techniques of Rusty Cooley, Yngwie Malmsteen, and Andy James. Players tend to stick to one sweep picking style for their entire musical careers without even considering alternatives. It is my hope that this article will open your eyes to the other methods of sweeping. I wish you great success with them!
Method #1: Rusty Cooley First up is Rusty's technique. He uses the classic/traditional style which is the most true to economy and sweep picking in that he 2-way slants his pick in the direction of travel and executes his direction changes with inside picking. Check out the image below! Slant the pick upwards/towards yourself and pick the 17 on the high e. The pick should immediately come to rest up against the B string. Leave it there while you go on to pull-off with the pinky to fret 13. Now pick through the b string allowing the pick to rest once again on the next string - the G string. Now it's very important that you don't play through the G string and rest on the D string. Instead you play the G string with a curved "Crosspicked" or forearm rotational movement. This will achieve two things: It will lift your pick up into the air, and it will change the slant of your pick so that it is now slanting downward away from you. Without playing the G string a second time, fly back over the top of it and play the b string, making sure to rest the pick up against the high e string. Now do a second forearm rotational "Crosspicked" stroke to play fret 13 on the high e and change the slant. Now with an upward pick slant, upstroke the 17 on the high e to complete the loop. Players who are either unfamiliar with 2-way pickslanting or do not wish to learn may want to stay away from this method of 3-string sweeping. This technique extends perfectly onto 4-string sweeps.
Method #2: Yngwie Malmsteen This second method seems to be more popular than the traditional. Probably because it is slightly easier. No 2-way pickslanting is required! Maintain a downward pickslant thoughout. Upstroke the 17 on the high e string. Pull-off to the 13. Upstroke the b string fret 15. The pick will hop over to the far side of the G string. Now it's just three downstrokes to the finish. Make sure to rest the pick on the next string while doing those downstrokes. This is a very effective and easy method when it comes to 3-string sweeps. Though it doesn't extend well on to 4-string arpeggios.
Method #3: Andy James Andy James circumvented the problem that is 3-string sweeps. He did this in a very clever way indeed: by using a hammer-on during the return direction of the sweep. This makes the technique even easier than the Yngwie method. As before, downward pickslant the whole time through this. Upstroke the 17 on the high e string. The pick will slowly make its way over both the b and G string as the next two notes are performed. Pull-off to the 13 high e. Hammer-on to the 15 on the b. Now execute the same three downstrokes as you did with the Yngwie method. It may take a bit of work to get the hammer-on to sound as strong as the picked notes, and this technique doesn't work at all with finger roll shapes where notes are barred on the high e and b strings. But other than that it is an amazingly easy and effective technique.
Conclusion: All three of these techniques are fantastic. Pure and simple. Though I will mention which techniques I use and when. The Rusty/traditional method is the best "all-rounder" and if enough time and effort is invested into developing the technique, it can be used to play literally any sweep picking pattern. It is the hardest of the three techniques. This is the technique I use for top speed sweeps. The Yngwie method is slightly easier than the traditional method as no 2-way pickslanting is required. The trade-off is that it doesn't extend to 4-string arpeggios and beyond very well. I typically use this for slower sweeps and sweep melodies. The Andy James approach is the easiest by far. I use this when I'm nervous playing in front of people or if I've had a few drinks and I'm concerned that my accuracy may be impaired. So it's a safer technique for sure. There are many trade-offs though. The first is that some players may consider it as cheating. And I do understand this viewpoint. After all, we are sweeping just one direction of the arpeggio and using legato for the other. Also, as I mentioned, it is impossible to use for finger roll arpeggios as we can't barre and hammer-on at the same time. You'll find that it doesn't really work well when extended to 4-string arpeggios and beyond as those hammer-ons become weaker and more noticeable. I will say that I enjoy briefly switching to this technique at the top of 5/6-string arpeggios as it gives my picking hand a fraction of a second to rest.
This lesson is a no-frills study of how sweep picking is performed. Always start with the basics when learning a new technique. Nailing them and creating a strong foundation is essential for making good, quick progress. Do not dive right into large 5 and 6 string sweep shapes/passages - This is a huge and very common mistake!
The Picking Motion
-Mute the strings by covering them with your fretting hand. -Now using your wrist (or forearm if you would prefer - both methods work) begin by downpicking the G string. The trick here is not to pick like you would usually, but to pick through the G string and let your pick land up against the next string, in this case, the B string. So, you play the string and the pick immediately falls through and lands on the next. -Now play the B string with another downstroke and immediately land on the high e string. -Downpick the high e and get ready to turn around. -Pick the high e with an upstroke this time and let the pick immediately land up against the B string. -Upstroke the B string and land against the G string. -Upstroke the G string, do not land against the D string, turn around again to repeat the exercise. -Let that pick fall through the strings!
That same part of your hand that you use to mute riffs is the same you use to mute lower strings that have just been swept. Try this open string muting exercise to get a feel for palm muting in a sweep picking context. -Place your palm mute on the strings near the bridge. Get it so that the D string is muted by your palm but the G string is not. -Pick the G string and let your pick fall and land against the B string. -Now pick the B string and let the pick fall and land against the high e string. At the exact same time as you do this, you want to shift your palm mute up to mute the G string. -Now pick the high e string and again, instantly move your mute up to mute the B string. -The palm mute chases the notes you just swept and silences them when a higher string is played. That is its purpose. -If you can execute this exercise with 3 distinct and separate notes sounding out then you are muting well.
Clean Note Transitions
You also need to make sure that your fretting hand is transitioning between notes cleanly. This aided with a good palm mute is what creates a clean sweeping technique. -Fret the 12th fret on the high e with the index finger and play with a downstroke. -Now all at the same time you want to: unfret the 12th fret but do not take your finger off the string, fret the 13 fret (with middle finger) on the B string and upstroke it. -Next, all at the same time, unfret the 13th (do not take your finger off the string though) and palm mute it, fret the 12th fret on the high e and downstroke it. -Keep going back and forth between these two notes, fretting one and instantly unfretting the other, always keeping both of your fingers in contact with the strings. And whenever you return to the high e then your palm mute should catch the B string.
2-string and 3-string sweep examples
Use the picking motion, the palm mute, and the clean note transitions to play your first 2 string and 3 string sweep arpeggio shapes. Remember what you have learned and follow the picking instructions provided.
If any of this has been unclear then check out my video lesson below!