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How To Practice Effectively, Part 2 — Toolbox

Having the proper tools for any task is essential and instrument practice is no exception. Having a few tools onhand will help with organization, workflow, accuracy, and time management in order to make the best use of your practice time.

Pencil and Paper

As simple as this sounds, writing everything down will help you to remember what you’ve done, what you need to do, what your goals are, and how you’ve progressed in your practice routine. These notes are for no one but you so it doesn’t matter what they look like as long as they make sense to you. I prefer pencil, specifically Mirado Black Warrior Pencils, No. 2, Medium Soft Lead which are available at most office supply stores. They make a much darker, fatter mark than most No. 2 or mechanical pencils, which is easier to see, especially if you’re making notes on a written piece of music or writing your own charts. They also make less indention on the paper, so they’re easier to erase. Of course, a decent eraser and small pencil sharpener will be necessary. Blank staff paper is essential if you read music and if you’re a guitarist that doesn’t, blank tablature paper will work. A three-ring binder notebook and plastic sleeves will keep your written or printed charts in performance-ready shape but a two-pocket paper portfolio will do fine job of keeping notes and music organized.

Music Stand and Light

A music stand is an absolute must and the sturdier, the better. I tend to use my music stand for picks, capo, slide, etc., and with a loaded 3-ring binder, the total weight can get pretty heavy. Thicker songbooks by themselves will topple a flimsy music stand. I also prefer a solid-backed music stand for the occasions when you only have a single piece of music because light from behind an open-backed music stand will shine through a single sheet of paper and obscure your ability to read. If space and portability pose an issue, sturdy, collapsible stands are available. If the light over your practice area isn’t aimed in the right spot, clip-on music stand lights are a great way to ensure that you can accurately see what you’re reading. They’re also perfect for reading music on dimly lit stages.


I could write a book on why every musician needs a metronome. Making you aware of exactly how steady tempo feels when you’re trying to execute an unfamiliar piece of music and training yourself to play it with correct subdivision are the most obvious reasons to practice with a metronome. A metronome exposes the trouble spots, allows you to start slowly with them, and gradually increase your speed accurately. With repeated use a metronome can also improve your “internal clock.” I prefer a stand-alone metronome as opposed to a phone or tablet app because your phone or tablet can be of more valuable service. I’ve also tried a few free phone apps that didn’t keep steady time — talk about useless!


Listening to a recording of your playing gives you the objectivity you can’t have while you’re concentrating on performing. You can immediately assess problems and get right to fixing them. You can also find out what you like about your playing. Your phone or iPadis a portable solution for this because you can see and hear yourself. Don’t think of these as YouTube material for the world to see, these videos are simply tools to help you improve your playing. A small video camera can also record group rehearsals and performances and offer better sound quality in case you do want to post your videos online or archive them. You can also use a recording app or DAW for the highest audio quality and flexibility.

These tools should help you organize your practice time and become even more efficient.

Don Carr

About Don Carr

With a three-decade career as a professional guitarist in Nashville, Tennessee, Sweetwater's Don Carr has a long list of album credits in multiple genres of music. His resume includes hundreds of radio and television appearances, as well as thousands of live performances in America and abroad as lead guitarist for the legendary Oak Ridge Boys. Don provides Sweetwater with professional insight through product demos, reviews, how-to’s, and group instruction. He is also the first-call session guitarist for Sweetwater Studios.
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