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Sweep picking (i.e. two or more pick strokes in the same direction on adjacent strings), is typically associated with arpeggios but can also be used to play scales more efficiently. This lesson will focus on sweep picking pentatonic scales but the process can be adapted to any scale. While this lesson will cover some initial steps, familiarity with sweep picking technique will help you to proces this material more quickly. If you're unfamiliar with sweep picking, Frank Gambale's books or DVDs may be a great place to start.



The following examples use the B Pentatonic Minor scale. While it can be played over a B minor chord, to my ears it works even better over an Em, Em7 or Em9 chord.

To review, here is B pentatonic minor starting from the root in 7th position.


Since this is being played over an E minor tonality, I'm going to start the scale from the E note on the A string and then add an E on the 12th fret of the high E string.


Two-note-per string patterns lend themselves well to alternate picking but don’t work well for sweeping. To sweep pick this scale, I’ll modify the number of notes per string from two to an odd number.

To start, I’ll take the A on the D string and move it to the 12th fret of the A string.  For all the examples presented here, play any notes on the 7th fret with the first finger, 9th fret with the second finger, 10th fret with the third finger and any notes on the 11th or 12th fret with the pinky.




Also note: the stretches involved in some of these patterns may be too much for your level of flexibility.  You can always transpose the pattern up (i.e. play the pattern where the frets are closer together) - which makes it easier to play.

If any of the stretches presented here are painful in any way you should stop immediately! You can do long term damage to yourself by practicing through pain!


Next I’ll take the same approach and apply it to the other strings in this scale. When most people think of sweep picking, they typically think of arpeggios that are primarily one note per string. In this approach, the three-notes-per-string fingering alternating with a single note-per-string creates a sweep.


I’ve picked every note in the following examples because I like the consistency of the pick attack. If this creates some picking patterns that may seem unorthodox, you could use hammer-ons or pull offs to attack the three-note patterns on single strings (and also create a more legato sound).


Performance notes

Pay close attention to the 3 T’s (Tension, Tone production and Timing). 

  • Try to be aware of the level of tension in both hands as you practice this. If your hands are relaxed, it will make playing much easier.
  • You should also pay attention to the tone of the notes. Ask yourself, “Are all of the notes clear? Are any of them muffled?”
  • It’s beneficial to practice all of the examples with a metronome and play them over a chord to supply a harmonic context. I’ve listed E minor as the intial tonality, but you may want to try this over C major as well.


Example I

Normal Speed

Slow Speed

With any new approach it’s best to isolate trouble spots and develop them. You may want to isolate a three-string section (like A, D, G or G, B, E) and just practice getting the picking and the articulation clear.

The next lick that uses an improvised variation on the scale - hence the doubled notes at the end of the first bar.


Example II



Here is one final lick which focuses on the top 3 strings.


Example III


I like to start sweeps on a downstroke whenever possible, but in this case the motion of the fingering lends itself to starting on an up stroke. If you work with this approach for a while, the picking patterns will become automatic to you and you can focus more on the music and less on the technique.

Feel free to post any questions or comments about the lesson you might have.

I hope this helps!



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