Home  ›  Q&A

Improving Down Stroke When Sweep Picking

Question by Josh Dada
(fort McMurray )

I've been playing guitar for just about two years now and I've started to practice very difficult techniques so I can master than as soon as possible.

It seems that my down stroke is much slower and less accurate than my up stroke (from thin to thick string) when I'm practicing my sweeps with a metronome. It's like my muscles are just not used to going in that direction and I have to strain my arm (bicep area) to down stroke properly.

Also, while I'm practicing economy picking or shredding, it seems that when I play links going from thick to thin string (ascending) I have a very hard time even keeping the pick hitting every note, my arm becomes very very tense, and it feels like I'm flexing when I try to do so, but my descending (from thin to thick) runs and sweeps are so much smoother.

Any help on how to improve down stroke sweep and picking? Do I just need to practice more?


Josh, it's clearly time to refocus your practice time on your down strokes, but you'll need to take a few steps back. Practicing more of the same will simply further ingrain any bad habits.

It may be necessary to go "back to basics" with your down strokes. You've inadvertently developed a type of unwanted muscle memory - tensing your arm when down stroking. Tension is a very common problem for guitarists and it can lead to strain injury later on, so it needs sorting.

The solution is to retreat back to the point where you were actually thinking about your pick hand movement, when you were doing things a lot more consciously. That is the "critical period" as far as avoiding, or ironing out any unwanted muscle activity.

As time goes on, as I'm sure you know, you'll think less and less about your pick hand movement and it'll become automatic. But it carries with it all the subtle habits you've persistently rehearsed, whether knowingly or unknowingly.

Here's what I would do...

First, make sure the word "RELAX!" is at the front of your mind every time you work on your down strokes. Every time you feel your arm tensing up, stop, shake it off and refocus on that part of your arm. Actually think about relaxing the muscle. I know it's unnatural to think about muscle activity, but you won't have to do it for very long.

Go back to some simple, two string sweeps, using only down strokes at first.

For example, divide up a major arpeggio pattern into string pairings and focus on your pick hand/arm. Repeat each string pairing a good number of times until you can down stroke smoothly, without tensing up.

The reason I would go back to two string sweeps is because you'll have less to think about with your fret hand, allowing you to give your pick hand/arm more attention.

Add in the up stroke when you can down sweep the string pairings smoothly.

For example...

two string sweep exercise on D and G strings

I'm sure this is a familiar exercise to you if you already learned sweep/economy picking.

It's then just a case of moving on to three string sweeps, again first using only down strokes, focusing on the tension (or lack thereof!) in your arm and then adding in the up strokes when you can down stroke smoothly.

If no matter how much you try the tension remains (it could be like an uncontrollable spasm), another possible solution would be to change the angle of your pick attack.

This is even more of a "back to basics" solution so I think we should cross that bridge when/if we come to it.

There is also the option of trying strict alternate picking instead of economy picking (although obviously this won't apply to sweep arpeggios).

Some guitarists (myself included) start out by using economy picking, almost without thinking about it, but then refocus on strict alternate picking for more control and momentum.

Other guitarists start out using strict alternate picking and then find economy picking more comfortable.

Everyone's different, but if your up strokes and descending runs are smooth, that's a pretty good sign you can get your down strokes up to par without any radical change in how you pick.

Josh, use the comments link below to keep us informed of your progress.

Share Your Comments

Click here to add your own comments

By: Josh

thanks for the feedback. what before reading this question I tried to loosen up more and focus on hitting every note rather than blazing through them like yngwie malmsteen (which is what caused my muscles to tense up), and I've started to hold the pick more softly and my down strokes have killed some of the tensing up that happened in my muscles, all I need to do know is place the 9, 88 99 shape you showed me with a metronome and what not. thanks for the feed back it helped. also if it helps where I found this problem with my down stroke is the segment in a song called curse of castle dragon (at around 1 minute in the song) and fuzz universe by Paul Gilbert (about 1:30) into the song

Pick gauge
By: Mike

What gauge pick are you using Josh? Along with holding the pick more softly you could try a thinner gauge.

I went from .88mm to .46mm (very thin by many guitarists' standards) a few years ago and I've never gone back. I find it flexes over the strings with less obstruction. Combined with slightly angling the pick towards the strings, this could help in releasing a lot of tension.

It'll just take some adjustment.

Pick gauge
By: Paul

I personally disagree with Mike's gauge suggestion. Here's why.
The thinner the pick; when the user's current speed of the sweep picking is at its fastest, provides too much "flex". Thus the vital synchronicity between both hands is off timed, because the pick is literally bent when striking the string. And snaps back into the next string before the user's intention of a downstroke/upstroke.
A thicker pick; 1.mm & up, remedies this.
I have used .46 mm, but only for rythmic chords strumming.

Pick guage
By: Mike

Paul, I actually agree with you. I went back to playing with .88 and 1mm picks a couple of years ago (my previous comment is several years old!), and just stuck with it.

I actually thought I'd made a typo when I re-read my comment! However, I stick by the advice of trying different sized picks, whether lighter or heavier.

.88 is still considered relatively light, but I find offers a good compromise between rhythm and lead playing.

Click here to add your own comments

Ask Your Own Question