How to DJ – Complete Beginner’s Guide
Learn everything you need to know to get started DJing using your choice of hardware and specific set of skills.
Article Table of Contents
- 2 DJ Techniques and Skills
- 3 Basic DJ Equipment and Gear
- 6 Taking Your DJ Set to the Next Level
Welcome to the official beginner’s guide on how to DJ from FinalScratch.com.
In this guide you’ll learn about the equipment you’ll need, the fundamentals of what DJing is and how it’s done.
You’ll get a birds-eye view of everything involved. And we’ll also link to our more in-depth looks at each topic.
But this article is the best place for complete beginners to start, and get a solid understanding of what’s involved in DJing.
What Do DJs Do?
Most people have a general idea of what DJing is, but they may not have a good idea of the inner workings – the skills and the tasks that DJs use to achieve the main goal – keeping the party going and the people dancing.
That’s the fundamental goal of the DJ – to provide people with a steady stream of music.
Instead of just letting a phone hooked up to an aux cord shuffle through a playlist, a DJ makes sure that songs transition in a way that keeps the vibe going without jerky silences between tracks. And they choose songs that compliment each other – and the overall mood – of the party.
DJing is much more intricate that simply “playing music for people.” It’s all about keeping the vibe and energy of the party right throughout the night (or set) so everyone can have a great time without any interruptions to their enjoyment.
This is all accomplished using specific skills and some special equipment that helps people rock the party all night long.
Techniques and Skills Used By DJs
In order to keep the party going and keeping the music engaging there are a lot of things that DJs have to pay attention to. New DJs are quick to realize the nuances of a great DJ when they inadvertently clear the dance floor because of a poor song choice.
Here are some of the things you’ll need to learn and eventually master as a DJ.
Having music knowledge as a DJ comes in two ways – basic theory of how music works and a deep understanding of songs.
You need to know basic things like what bars/beats are, what different song sections are and even a bit about how “sound” works in general.
But as mentioned, you’ll also need to know a lot of different types of music. You need to have a knowledge of what people like – including things they know and love and things they may have never heard before.
That obviously means you need to listen to a lot of music. But beyond that, you need to know the music you do listen to (and the stuff you want to include in your DJ sets) inside and out. You should know the song sections, the overall feeling/vibe of the song, etc.
Basic Music Theory for DJs
Here’s a quick rundown of what you should know to start DJing properly.
How Music Works – Time, Tempo and Rhythm
Music is essentially just changes in sound across time. But they’re not random, they’re methodical. Those deliberate changes in sound create an emotional mood or vibe. And that’s why we resonate with those changes in sound.
Because it’s so based around time, you need to understand how time and rhythm in music works
If you’re listening to a song and nodding your head along with it, you’re nodding along with the rhythm or the “beat” of the song. You can count this out in your head. Since most popular music is based on a 4-beat bar (i.e. “common time or 4/4 time”) you should count in groups of 4. As you nod your head, count each nod “1-2-3-4,” “1-2-3-4”
Each set of 4 of those beats is one “bar” or “measure” of music.
How fast or slow you are counting will depend on the “tempo” of the song. The tempo is measured in “beats per minute” (or in other words, how many of those beats can you count out in 60 seconds).
The tempo of a song will impact it’s energy and emotion. Your job as a DJ is to match tempos of songs and transition between them seamlessly to keep the music consistent and constant for the party.
How Music Works – Song Structure
Now, every song is made up of several of these bars/measures of music. And every song has various sections that help it to build up energy and anticipation, to provide an engaging listen.
You’re probably already familiar with all the parts of a song – intros and outros, verses, pre-choruses, choruses/drops and bridges – but here’s a quick rundown of all of them:
- Intro/Outro – the beginning (the vibe is set and things begin to unfold) and ending (song starts to wind down) of the track
- Verse – the background/story/context of the song is laid out in verses. The energy in this section continues to build upwards. Often songs will have 2-3 verse sections in them.
- Pre-Chorus – this is a section that is sometimes used in songs (mostly in pop styles/genres) that continues to build up energy, but is a bit different lyrically/melodically/instrumentally than the verse
- Chorus – this is the big payoff of the song – usually the highest energy points of a song will be the choruses. This is the catchy, singable part that is a climax point within the song structure. There are often 3 choruses in songs, especially pop songs. In EDM this section is often called the “drop.” It’s the part everyone goes crazy to.
- Bridge – this is a “departure” from the rest of the song. It’s different melodically, harmonically, lyrically, and sometimes rhythmically. Nowadays, most songs don’t even contain a bridge/departure, but you as a DJ probably won’t be playing a song until the bridge comes in anyway.
Here’s a typical song structure you’ll find:
Intro -> Verse -> Pre-Chorus -> Chorus -> Verse -> Pre-Chorus -> Chorus -> Bridge -> Chorus -> Outro
In a lot of popular music, you’ll notice that each section of a song is often a multiple of 2. Intros are often 4 bars, Verses & Choruses are usually 8 bars of music. Pre-Choruses are often 4 or 8 bars and bridges are normally 8 bars.
Get used to counting music and recognizing different song sections – those are important fundamental skills you need to know as a DJ.
How Music Works – Frequencies
This is a pretty scientific area of sound and music so we won’t get too deep into this. But you need to know the basics of the frequency spectrum.
Humans can hear a certain amount of frequencies – from 20Hz to 20,000 Hz. Dogs on the other hand can hear a much wider spectrum of sounds. Sounds are essentially just vibrating waves at difference frequencies. The frequency is just a measurement of how man “cycles per second” a sound wave occurs in. Hertz or Hz (pronounced “hurts”) is the unit that is used to make the measures.
The lower end of the frequency spectrum represents what you hear as “bass.” The higher end of the spectrum is where you hear the “treble.” And there’s also the mid-range. Most instruments (including the human voice) is often most dense within the mid-range of the frequency spectrum.
Why’s that all important? Because sometimes when you’re mixing two songs, their bass lines for example may clash and sound bad when played together. With this knowledge, you can use an EQ (equalizer) to cut out the bass or low end of song 1, and let song 2’s low end play normally to help things gel better.
Music Selection + Understanding Crowds
There are a number of skills that DJs have to employ for a successful set or night, but the most fundamental of them all is that of music selection. Your ear as a DJ is just as important as your equipment or your other abilities, if not more.
You have to know your room and play the music that will resonate most with the people in the audience or the people listening. DJing an EDM festival vs a wedding or fundraiser requires different song selection.
And you should know the basic/general songs out there that always get a reaction (positive) from the crowd.
There are just some songs that always pack the dancefloor – your job as a DJ is to know them, and know when/how to deploy them.
So it’s good to have a wide musical vocabulary if you want to be able to DJ at a wide variety of events or a large number of outlets. But even a deep understanding of a specific genre and scene is important.
If you want to DJ a specific genre well, your knowledge of that specific genre should be immense. You should know all the classics, all the hits, all the legends and the up-and-comers – you need to be deeply embedded in that genre.
Beat Matching / Music Mixing
Another foundational skill of the DJ is beat matching and mixing. This is basically the process of matching the tempos – and vibe, if possible – of two different songs so they can seamlessly mix from one song to another without interrupting the underlying rhythm/beat/vibe too much.
What DJs do is cue up a second song while the first one is playing. Using speed controls, they match the second song’s speed/tempo to the first and find a way to transition from song to song while keeping the beat constant.
Remember, the idea is to keep the party going – so a seamless transition from one song to the next without the audience “feeling” an interruption during the transition is the best way to achieve that. And that’s what beat matching and beat mixing is, in the context of DJing.
This obviously ties into your musical knowledge. The more songs you know inside and out, the easier you can move from song to song on the fly without having a set list rigidly structured out.
When we talk about performance skills in the context of DJing, we’re referring to more advanced things that can be done that add novelty to a DJs performance.
This can be anything from scratching (the idea of rhythmically using a “scratching” sound to add to the song being played) to beat juggling (using two different songs to create (and perform) a new musical composition by looping and going back and forth between the songs.
But it also includes things like “mashups” that take the instrumental of one song and the vocal track of another to create a “remix” on the fly (which also involves beat matching!).
Some DJs (definitely not all) even take things a step further and create their own musical compositions to be played at live events. This is very common in the various EDM scenes and many DJs in them produce their own tracks to perform/mix live.
This is a much more involved skill and an entire area of focus in itself. So as a beginner, it’d be better to get a grasp on the other skills involved in DJing before jumping into the music production realm.
Basic DJ Equipment and Gear
There are a lot of different options available to you in terms of equipment. It used to be fairly limited in the early days – with most all DJs using actual vinyl turntables to perform. Soon that gave rise to CD turntables and eventually DJ controllers that use purely digital music sources.
Turntables and a Mixer (The Original DJ Setup)
The iconic DJ setup is a set of two vinyl turntables with a small mixer between them. This is what you’ll often see in pictures and is exactly what’s represented by even the newest forms of DJ controllers.
The turntables (whether CD or vinyl) would have controls to speed up or slow down a song a certain percentage to allow for beat matching. CD turntables would have “jog wheels” to allow the DJ to manipulate the song by hand while vinyl turntables use “slip mats” to allow the record to be held in place while the platter below keeps moving around.
The mixer often had 2 channels (one for each turntable input) with individual volume controls, a crossfader control (to switch the audio being played on the speakers from one turntable to the other turntable) and sometimes EQ (equalizer) controls to shape the tone of the song being output to the speakers.
Over time mixers and turntables became more and more advanced with more controls and bells & whistles. But their basic functionality has stayed the same throughout time.
Read our complete buyers guides on the best dj turntables and the best dj mixers to learn more!
DJ Software can be thought of in two different ways:
- Software on a laptop that completely mimics a hardware DJ setup – it allows you to load two or more songs, beatmatch, transition between them and more.
- Software that lets you use digital sources of music with traditional hardware DJ setups.
The first type of software is pretty self explanatory. You use your laptop to perform all the tasks a DJ would using hardware, without the hardware.
The second type came about out of necessity. Back in the day you were limited to music you had on physical vinyl records or CDs. Eventually you could use MP3 files on a CD, but this was still as inconvenient as having to lug around a crate of records or CDs.
Eventually through the innovations of the company Serato, a way to use MP3 files on your laptop’s hard drive (or external drive) with the same control as vinyl/CD came in the form of the product “Scratch Live.”
You could scratch, beat match and much more using completely digital sources of music (i.e. MP3 files). It was a game changer.
Check out our buyers guide on the best DJ software to learn more!
DJ controllers are the latest iteration of DJ hardware. They serve the same function as turntables and mixers combined with the concepts behind Serato Scratch.
Now you had small pieces of hardware that looked similar to turntables and a mixer that were self contained units. You didn’t need 2 turntables and a mixer anymore, all you needed was the controller and your music files.
This made everything involved with DJing much more convenient, obviously. But some people still choose to use other types of hardware – either because of comfort or nostalgia.
You can choose to use whatever type of equipment you’re most interested in as you’ll be able to do the same types of things despite what type of hardware you choose to use.
Check out our buyers guide on the best DJ controllers to learn more!
The Sound System
Of course, you’ll also need a way to listen to the music you’re trying to play. That means you’ll need a couple of pieces of playback equipment:
- Headphones (so you can cue up and hear your songs without having to play them through the main speakers)
- Loud Speakers (so the audience can hear the music being played)
- Amplifier (if necessary to help get a loud enough signal from the DJ gear to the loud speakers)
- Microphone (if you want to be able to interact with the crowd and give messages/shoutouts/etc)
This is often an overlooked part of the equipment you’ll need to get started DJing. When you’re starting out, these don’t need to be amazing quality or expensive options. But you should still allocate some of your budget to the playback sound system you’re using, along with the actual DJ equipment itself.
Check out our buyers guide on the best DJ headphones to learn more!
Where DJs Get Their Music
At this point you’re likely wondering exactly how DJs get their music? It must be expensive to have to purchase all of that music?
And in truth, it was – especially in the era of CDs and Vinyl. But there were many ways DJs could get the latest music without having to pay retail prices.
DJ Pools are membership services that DJs can subscribe to, to get the latest releases from a number of labels and other music sources. Back in the day, these companies would literally send out CDs or vinyl records full of music every month (or more often) with the latest hits or releases from labels. Nowadays, because everything is digital, you can simply subscribe and get access to downloads.
Specialty Sites + Streaming Services
Unfortunately professional DJs aren’t allowed to simply load up Spotify and use the streaming services to acquire and play music. But thankfully there are some specialty sites like BeatPort that allow users to either download tracks or use streaming to play them (for a fee, of course). Tidal and SoundCloud Go also integrate into some DJ software options for more mainstream music needs.
Or there’s always the old-school way of doing things – just buy your favorite CDs, Vinyl or MP3 albums and singles. Of course this does get pretty damn expensive after a while, but it’s the way things were done (and still is for some DJs).
How To DJ: Beat Matching and Mixing Step-By-Step
Now that you have a pretty solid understanding of what’s involved in DJing, let’s go through the steps you should take next to actually get started on your journey as a DJ.
Time needed: 1 hour and 30 minutes.
Here are the steps involved in beat matching and mixing two different songs during a DJ set
- Play your first song
The first step is to play your first song. Choose a good song that you think will set the party off right. If it’s the first song of the night, you usually don’t want to start off with a super high energy song. You want to work your way into it. If you following another DJ, make sure you match the energy of the songs he ended off on. You can adjust the energy throughout your set if you want to afterwards.
- Choose a second song to play next
Pay attention to the tempo, rhythm and beat of your first song and choose a song that you think would compliment it well. The tempos/BPMs do not need to match exactly, as you’ll be able to adjust the tempos (speed up or slow down) to match them. They should, however, be in the same ballpark (ex/ Don’t try to mix an 85bpm song to a 110bpm song). You should also pay attention to the vibe of the song – does it fit well with the first song, or is it a completely different mood/vibe? Choose songs that compliment each other.
- Ensure the mixer is only playing the first song
When you’re readying the second song to play, you’re doing the initial matching/mixing in your headphones. You don’t want to play it over the loudspeakers, so make sure your mixer’s crossfade is set ENTIRELY to the first song only.
- Cue up the second song in your headphones
You want to start the second song on the “down beat” (i.e. the “1” in your 1-2-3-4 counting). The easiest way to do this is to find the very first drum beat in the song and cue it up as the starting point. If there are no drums where you want to start the song, then you’ll need to count until you find the appropriate “1” or down beat to start on.
- Find the downbeat of the first song
Now that you have the right start point for the second song, start counting the beats of the first song already playing (“1-2-3-4”). You want to pay attention to the down beat – the “1” each time you’re counting. This is the first beat of that particular bar of music. Keep this counting going as you do the next step.
- Start the second song in your headphones
With the second song still cued up, and listening to both channels (the first and second song together) through your headphones, play the second song EXACTLY (or as close as possible) on the downbeat of the first song. The two songs will be playing over top of each other in your headphones. If they’re not the same tempo (which is probably the case), they’ll clash rhythmically – you won’t be able to count the beats clearly.
- Beat match the two songs
Now you can adjust the tempo/bpm/speed of the second song using controls on your turntables or DJ controller. If you notice the second song is slower than the first song, increase it’s tempo. If it’s faster, decrease it’s tempo. Both songs should start to come together as one rhythm. Re-start the second song from the same cue spot you found in Step 4 on the down beat of Song 1 again. Pay attention to the rhythm of both songs – do they match/sync up well? Repeat this step until both songs are perfectly in sync with each other rhythmically
- Start the live mix/blend
Now that both songs are tempo matched, you can start bringing the second song into the live mix. There are many creative ways to do this and you’ll find your own way to do it over time. For now, start the second song as the outro of song one begins to play and gradually move the crossfader control over the to side of the second song. You can let both songs play for a while together as a transition point if you’d like. It’s all a creative choice at this point, and you can get pretty crazy with how you transition between songs
- Fine tune the transition and mix
During the transition between both songs, you may need to make slight adjustments to the sound or speed of the songs to make things feel seamless. You may need to slightly speed up or slow down one of the songs, because the tempos may drift over time. You can also use EQ (equalizer) on the mixer/controller to take out certain frequencies of the first song to make the second song more prominent during the transition. This is another area you can get creative in to really give your DJing style a signature. Your transition needs to be balanced and in harmony.
- Fully move to the second song
Now that everything is mixing well and playing together in a balanced and harmonious way, you’ll eventually need to shift entirely to the second song. Obviously the first song will end on it’s own, but you shouldn’t necessarily wait for that to happen. You want to choose the right time for the second song to fully take over from the first. This could be as soon as the first verse of song 2 starts, or when a certain hook plays. Choose a good time to move it over entirely.
- Repeat steps 2-10 for the rest of your DJ set.
That’s basically the main process of DJing – just keep beat matching two different songs and transition between them smoothly.
Taking Your DJ Set to the Next Level
There are a lot of advanced things you can learn to really take you DJ set to the next level. Beat matching and mixing may be the foundation of it all, but the art of DJing has come such a long way with amazing innovations over the years.
Obviously the first thing you want to do is practice your beat matching and transitions. You’re able to get REALLY creative with transitions, especially with modern DJ controllers. Aside from the EQ controls, some mixers and controllers have loopers, samplers and even the ability to make your own beats to implement into your sets.
You can loop a certain couple of bars from song 1 to keep playing while you mix in song 2, for example. Or you can have a famous breakbeat sampled in your mixer to use as a transition element. You could also make your own beat to keep the rhythm going as you switch between songs.
Beat juggling is a DJ technique where the DJ manipulates two or more identical tracks simultaneously by cutting and manipulating the beats and rhythm of the music to create a new rhythm or pattern. This technique involves precise timing and coordination, as the DJ alternates between different sections of the same track to create a unique sound.
Beat juggling is often used to add variation and complexity to a DJ set and can be a highly impressive display of skill for both the DJ and the audience. It can be really interesting for an audience to watch, but is more of a performance based skill than something used in a normal DJ set.
Scratching is a technique that arose from Hip-Hop culture. It’s where a DJ will hold a vinyl record from spinning while the plate of the actual turntable skeeps spinning, and quickly move the record back and forth to create a “scratch” or “tear” type of sound.
DJ Kool Herc discovered the technique by accident when he was practicing DJing one day and someone was calling out to him. He held the record to try and hear what was being said and noticed the sound the record made when his hand moved back and forth.
Thus scratching was born.
A Dj will normally play this sound rhythmically (while utilizing the mixer’s crossfader) over top of a song that’s playing to add some additional unique and interesting elements to the music. It’s an advanced skill, but one that is versatile and amazing when pulled off correctly.
Remixing + Mashups
Another things lots of DJs do is create their own remixes and mashups to songs on the fly. Sometimes you’ll be able to find instrumental-only versions of songs or a song’s a capella vocal track.
With those in hand, you can create a live remix during your set by tempo matching one vocal track to an entirely different instrumental track. These are also called mashups.
If you don’t have any instrumentals or vocals, sometimes you’re able to get a good remix through the use of EQ. This is pretty difficult to achieve, though, and often never sounds all that great.
Light Shows + Video
A big part of any party is the lighting – it absolutely sets the vibe of the night. Some DJs will perform with their own lighting rigs and lighting controllers.
This way they’re able to control the lights and give listeners and dancers a cool light show that is in sync with the music they’re playing.
Beyond that, there are also video controllers that can be used to project video content in sync with your DJ set on a wall or projector screen. Both lights and video can bring another level to any DJ set.
Remember, as a DJ you’re here to rock the party. Whatever you can do to make sure party goers are enjoying themselves and engaged in the music is fair game.
Frequently Asked Questions About How to DJ
This depends on the DJ and the context. You will find instances where a DJ set may be pre-recorded, like for a radio show that is to air later, or one that is done live while streaming/recording on the internet.
If you want to really learn how to DJ with a hand-held approach, as opposed to teaching yourself with online videos, then yes some DJ courses can be worth the cost. It depends on how you learn best. If you want feedback and guidance then getting a DJ course may be worthwhile to you.
Basically what you’ll need is a few things – a way to play and control two songs at the same time via a turntable+mixer combo or a standalone DJ controller. You’ll also need headphones, loud speakers and potentially a microphone. And most important of all, you’ll need a really vast music collection.
DJs will use headphones to listen to and cue up a second song while there is already one playing through the loudspeakers. The headphones allow the DJ to ensure the song starts at the right time, on the right beat and will blend/mix seamlessly with the first song already playing.
Your Next Steps and Some Final Thoughts
Learning to DJ can be a fun and rewarding experience for music lovers. Whether you want to pursue DJing as a career or simply want to learn for your own personal enjoyment, there are a few key steps you should follow.
These include getting familiar with the equipment, choosing the right equipment and software, building your music library, practicing song selection and beat matching, improving your transitions, experimenting with effects/samplers/loops/lights/video, and finally getting gigs and performing live (either in person or online).
But for now, you as a beginner should focus on the following:
- Save up, buy some equipment and becoming totally familiar with it’s ins and outs
- Build a library of the type of music you want to DJ
- Listen to and analyze all those songs over and over until you know it inside and out
- Practice selecting songs that compliment each other
- Practice beat matching and transitions
The most important tasks are bolded above. Spend as much time as you can on those things and you’ll become a great DJ in no time.
Becoming a DJ takes time, practice, and dedication, but with the right tools and guidance, anyone can learn how to do it. By following the steps outlined in this guide, you can develop the fundamental skills necessary to create seamless and engaging DJ sets.
Remember, the key to success is to practice regularly, experiment with different techniques and styles, and stay open to learning and feedback. With hard work and perseverance, you can become a skilled and confident DJ and share your love of music with others.
Thanks for reading this guide on how to DJ! I hope it was helpful. If you think it was, please share it with others who might benefit from it.