So you want to learn how to DJ. It can’t be that hard right?
According to Techno producer Joel Zimmerman, aka Deadmau5, “…it takes two days to learn, as long as you can count to four.”
Not so much. Mr. Zimmerman is referring to the most elemental of DJ skills; beatmatching. A DJ plays a song on one player (turntable, cdj, et al.), and counts the beats in time. He then manually cues a second record in his headphones, dropping it on the first count of the first record. He then adjusts the speed so that the beats of both records are in synch, before bringing the record into the mix. For the musically inclined, this skill can be learned in a matter of hours or days depending upon the person. Equipment like synchable CDJs and beat counters can make the learning curve that much more efficient, but as Natalie Fobehmed pointed out in her article on the subject for Forbes, “Even if it might seem that technology makes a DJ’s job easier, the musical know-how required to play what an audience wants to hear before they know they want to hear it is a talent difficult to teach.”
Many were upset by Deadmau5’s comment in Rolling Stone, but it is a textbook fallacy that any DJ who has spent serious time in the booth will attest to. Beatmatching is a foundational skill for DJing akin to the way serving is to tennis, but knowing how to beatmatch doesn’t make you a DJ any more than learning how to swing a racket at a tennis ball makes you a tennis player.
Before you can be a DJ, you must learn to DJ. Counting to four certainly helps, but the number of skills a good DJ brings to the booth is substantial.
From the technical side of things, additional skills include but are not limited to: cutting, fading, scratching, backspinning, EQing, looping and beat juggling. All of which are useful tools in a good DJs arsenal.
Skills which cannot be so easily taught, and are often acquired through years of experience, include: song selection, performing under pressure, reading the crowd, controlling the dancefloor, setting a mood, and improvising.
Additionally, as discussed in my article “Too Many Hats: There Is More To Being a DJ Than Playing Records”, there are a slew of skills that you must either develop or outsource to make it as a successful DJ. A few notables include: promoting, event planning, booking, maintaining a website, identity construction, social media management, and flyer design.
With that being said, here is my advice for those looking to get their feet wet.
- Skip the Equipment – Unlike tennis, or writing, or so many other activities, getting started as a DJ requires a whole lot of stuff. Worse than that is the wide array of options, each with their own advantages and disadvantages, that will allow you to rock a room. So, before stressing yourself out on the perfect rig, skip the equipment for now and revisit it later.
- Test It Out – While DJing may not be as difficult as playing piano, it is harder than most people think. It requires hand/eye coordination, quick thinking, and the ability to compartmentalize simultaneous sounds in your head. I recommend you find someone who already has a setup you can play around on before taking the plunge. This allows you to see if you have the mental stamina for the task, and let’s you bypass purchasing all that gear, mentioned above, up front.
- Find A Mentor – There was a time when the skills to DJ were closely guarded secrets, only spread to the select few from a master to a student, like Kung Fu. These days there are numerous opportunities for learning how to DJ, but the benefit of having a dedicated teacher can be immeasurable. Bug your local neighborhood DJ, or hit up Craigslist.org to find a willing participant in your development. There are plenty of DJs out there willing to take you under their wing.
- Watch A Youtube Video – Or two or three. Instructional videos are a good alternative if time and money are an issue. You can replay clips again and again until you have gleamed what you are trying to learn, not to mention 24-hour access.
- Read A Book – Frank Broughton & Bill Brewster have written the definitive guide to DJing entitled “How To DJ Right: The Art & Science of Playing Records”. They have taken their years of experience, as well as insight from numerous successful DJs, and packed their findings into an affordable paperback that should be on every DJ’s bookshelf. For those of you who don’t read, it’s available as an audiobook too!
- Practice – Jack Benny new how to get to Carnegie Hall…”practice”. Unless of course you are a prodigy, this is the only way to improve. Practice is the long winded process of learning how to DJ, but there really is no substitute. Only celebrity DJs have the luxury of “DJing” while not DJing.
- Learn On The Job – If you manage to get the basics down and can scrape together some friends for a dance party at your local watering hole, the only thing better than practicing in your bedroom is doing it in the booth at a real venue. This is really the litmus test of DJing. At home you are in a controlled environment where no one can fluster you, and obstacles are nil. Stepping into the booth is a whole new world where seasoned DJs begin their best training.
- Enroll In A DJ School – Nowadays, there is a class for everything. Even a degree! Most major cities have DJ schools where you can learn how to spin records alongside your aspiring peers taught by world renowned Disc Jockeys. This can be a pricey route, but their are plenty of success stories.
- Don’t Rely On Any One Method – As you can see, there are multiple options for learning how to DJ. I recommend exploring multiple options in your quest. Each route is not mutually exclusive, and the combination will help round out the learning process.
- Have Fun – This should go without saying, but you would be surprised. Learning something new is often frustrating and exhausting, but don’t keep on if you aren’t having any fun. There really is no point.
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