Alternate Picking vs. Sweep Picking - Which is Best?

In the land of shred, nanometer adjustments to your pick, your picking hand or the strength of your stroke can make the difference between fitting in 500 notes per minute or 1000.

The two big techniques that lead to maximum speed are alternate picking, which involves picking in a down/up motion between each note, and sweep picking, which involves consecutive picks in one direction. 

This month, we're going to analyse the two in depth. We'll start the discussion by showing you when to use each each technique plus a few examples to get you started.

Alternate Picking

Alternate picking is probably the second picking technique you learnt on the guitar. It's simple - pick down, then pick up. Or, pick up, and then pick down. Then repeat it.

So what's it good for?

Fast notes on one string

If you're playing on one string, there's no substitute for alternate picking. It's extremely efficient, as each time your hand moves down, it has to come back up anyway. 

May as well have it play the string again on the way!


2 or 4 note per string patterns

Your basic root 6 minor pentatonic pattern? The one with two notes per string? Perfect for alternate picking, because you can pick down up on one string, then down up on the next.

Simple to remember, reasonably efficient and sensible. 


Where to learn more?

There are a bunch of great shred guitar vids from the 80s and early 90s which focussed on this style of playing, but many of them are a bit old fashioned and were written before sweep picking and economy picking became a big thing, so don't take them as the ONLY way to shred.

My pick is Intense Rock by Paul Gilbert - some great 'guitar tricks' in there for comedic value too!


Sweep Picking

Sweep picking was originally used for arpeggios, but I'm also including economy picking and hybrid picking under this umbrella, as the self-proclaimed inventor of the technique, Frank Gambale, calls it sweep picking. Whichever term you want to use is fine for our purposes today.

It involved picking in the direction your hand is moving. So, if you're moving down a string, pick down. If you're moving up, pick up. Extremely efficient.

So what's it good for?

1 Note per String Patterns

If you're playing one note per string (ie like an arpeggio, picking each string in order), sweep picking is super easy. Just pull your hand down across the strings and you're done!


3 or 6 note per string Patterns

Scales that have 3 notes per string are perfect for sweep picking, because you will always end up picking in the direction your hand is moving!

For example, if I was to play 3 notes on the bottom string, I would go down, up, down.

Now, I'm moving down to the next string, so I can continue to move down, up, down on that one too. 

The best bit? To go the other way, all I have to do is start on an upstroke.

Simple to remember, heaps more natural a movement and silky smooth!


Where to learn more?

There's nothing better than Frank Gambale's sweep picking and chop builder courses for learning more about sweep picking. 


Next week, we'll look at some example licks that move between the two techniques to highlight some of the disadvantages of each technique - as well as some ways to make your alternate picking and sweep picking better!

Remember, the best way to correct these extremely microscopic technique changes is in person - so either upload a video or book yourself in for a free evaluation shred guitar lesson at our studio.