The best way to learn the art of DJing is through a mentor.
If you know a professional DJ who is willing to teach you how to DJ, you may as well stop reading. Nothing I write here can help as much as time spent learning from an actual DJ.
Unfortunately, most of us do not have access to such a resource, unless we pay to attend a DJ school.
Since a good school is expensive and not available in most areas, the majority of aspiring DJs are left with one option: teach themselves.
Luckily, the internet is full of resources to help you become a DJ, ranging from simple tips to full-blown lessons.
Many of these resources are free and some of the free resources are even quite good, but you’ll generally have to pay for the better online lessons.
The fees are usually quite reasonable, though.
I’ll list some places to find free DJ lessons and other resources as well as paid lessons first. Then, I’ll go through the general steps most of us take when learning the basics.
Finding Online DJ Lessons
If you’re looking for full courses online, you’ll have to pay for them. Luckily, they don’t cost much and they usually have free sample lessons or they come with a money-back guarantee. This is important because we all learn differently and thus respond differently to different courses.
There are a lot of courses out there, but most are not very good. The only one I can wholeheartedly recommend is:
This is the best option for online DJ classes, with lessons on DJ techniques from basic to advanced. They also have courses covering all the major DJ software.
Access to all courses is $19 per month ($10 if you pay for a year in advance). You can cancel at any time, so if you’re a fast learner, you could get through all the videos for just $19. They also have a 30-day money back guarantee, in case you find the videos are not to your liking. Visit their site for a tour.
If you just want individual lessons and not a comprehensive course, you can generally find those for free. Youtube is a great place to start looking. Here’s a tutorial by Armin Van Buuren that has a couple of really great tips:
Here’s a good scratch tutorial video that teaches you the basic scratches:
Search around on Youtube and you’ll find hundreds of videos, some of them quite good and others pretty terrible. One nice thing is that you can find tutorials on how to use individual mixers, controllers, etc.
How To Learn The Basics Of DJing
You can certainly learn how to DJ on your own. The following steps will help you with the fundamentals.
1. Listen To Music
Listen to a lot of music. Listen especially to the type of music you want to mix and listen to other DJs who play that type of music.
As you are listening to music, count 8’s and 16’s and 32’s. Pay attention to the different parts of each track: the intro, the verses, the bridges, the choruses, the builds, the breakdowns and the outro.
When you listen to other DJs, practice differentiating between two tracks and pay attention to how they mix the two.
You can do all of this even before you get any of your own equipment, so what are you waiting for? Start listening!
2. Play With Your DJ Equipment
Get to know your mixer, your turntables, your controller, your software and any other piece of equipment you may have inside and out.
Learn how to set everything up and where to plug in every cable. Read the instruction manual if you like, but if you’re like most of us, you toss those things aside and just start fidgeting.
Try out every button, knob and slider and familiarize yourself with the tolerances of your jog wheels, turntables, cross-fader, channel fader and pitch adjust. Learn what the mixer, the controller and every other component actually does.
3. Learn To Beatmatch
Yes, I know the industry standard tools available today, like Ableton live, etc., make it possible to be a DJ without ever learning to beatmatch, but I still believe it’s an important skill to have. Unfortunately, it’s not an easy one to master and it will take time.
Similar to riding a bike, you will try and fail over and over again and then one day, you will just get it and wonder how it was ever possible that you couldn’t do it.
The best way to begin beatmatching is to use two copies of the same track. Use a track you are very familiar with and preferably one that has a simple and clear drum pattern.
Once you’ve got your music, it’s time to level up your skills with some live practice.
Step 1 — Practice Cueing Up And Starting The Record
For this step, you’ll only need one of the turntables and let’s go ahead and use the headphones. Put the record on the platter and start the turntable. Drop the needle just before the beginning of the track (forget the cueing lever and just do it by hand—no one uses that thing).
Next, stop the record by pressing down on the label or the ring surrounding it with your middle finger. Use your finger to rotate the record and ‘fast-forward’ it until you hear the first beat.
If you go to far you can ‘rewind’ the record; some DJs actually prefer to drop the needle past the first beat and rotate back to it.
Once you’ve got the first beat, quickly move your finger to the outer edge and hold the record from there. This position gives you more precision. Try moving the record back and forth over the first beat to get familiar with its position.
As you’re moving over the first beat of the song, try letting the record go just after you pass it. You actually want to give it a slight push, to ensure it starts rotating right away.
Practice this until you can start the record at the right speed, with no slow-downs 0r speed-ups.
Step 2 — Practice Synching The Beats
Now put the second copy of the track on the other deck and play it through the speakers. Make sure the pitch on both decks is set to zero.
Since both decks are playing the same track, all you need to do is start the track in the headphones in time with the one playing over the speakers, making sure the beats are aligned.
If you’ve managed to align the beats perfectly, congratulations! Now try again, until you get it right every time.
If you haven’t aligned the beats perfectly, one of the tracks will be lagging behind the other. In order to rectify this, you need to first determine whether the track in the headphones is lagging behind the other one or is ahead of it.
This is one of the most difficult aspects of beatmatching. You’ll just have to keep practicing until you can easily tell the difference.
If the track is lagging, you need to speed it up a bit by either giving it a small push using your finger on the edge of the label or by twirling the spindle between your index finger and your thumb. If the track is ahead, slow it down by gently touching the platter’s outer edge.
If you ended up overcorrecting or correcting in the wrong direction, simply adjust in the opposite direction until the beats are perfectly aligned.
Keep practicing until you can easily make the appropriate corrections and get the tracks to match perfectly.
Step 3 — Practice Catching Up And Slowing Down
Since two tracks rarely have the exact same tempo, the beats will grow further and further apart, even if you manage to start the second record on the exact same beat as the first.
You make up for this by continuously adjusting the track in the headphones.
To practice making these adjustments, set the pitch of the track playing through the speakers to 0.5%. It will now be playing slightly faster than the one in the headphones.
Start the track in the headphones in synch with the one in the speakers. You’ll notice that the beats quickly get out of synch and the difference between them continues to grow.
Adjust for this by giving the headphone record a tiny push to get it back in synch.
When the beats grow apart again, give it another push. Keep advancing it over and over again, keeping the beats of the two tracks in synch.
You’ll need to practice this a lot, until you can keep the beats perfectly in synch, even when the two tracks have different tempos.
Next, practice the opposite scenario. Set the speaker track’s pitch to -o.5% and continuously slow down the headphone track in order to keep in in synch. Once you’ve got it down, practice with different pitch positions, like 1.0%, 1.5%, -1.0% and -1.5%.
Step 4 — Practice Beatmatching
Move the pitch slider of the speaker track up a centimeter or so, but don’t look at the actual value. Now you’re going to try to match the pitch of the other track to the one playing over the speakers purely by ear.
If your equipment has a BPM indicator, I recommend taping a piece of paper over it for this exercise.
After you’ve started the second track, you’ll soon notice the same lag as in the previous exercise. Correct it as before, but this time also increase the pitch of the headphone track to make it play a bit faster.
If you still get a lag after the correction, increase the pitch some more, until the beats match perfectly or—and this is much more likely—the headphone track is now playing ahead of the other one. If it’s too fast, you now have a pitch value that is too high and you need to adjust it back down.
Keep adjusting down until the track is lagging again and note the pitch value. You now know that the correct value lies between the upper value you just had and the current lower value.
In this way, you can keep making adjustments until the beats match. Once you think you’ve got it, look at the pitch value for the speaker track. Since you are using the same track on both decks, the pitch values should match exactly.
Once you’ve managed to match the beats, reset and begin again. Keep practicing until you can get a match every time and then practice more until you can do it quickly.
It is not necessary to get an absolute perfect match, but the beats should play together for long enough to allow you to make the transition between decks.
The next step, of course, is to practice beatmatching different tracks.
Begin with tracks that have a similar BPM and use the techniques you’ve been practicing to adjust the pitch of the track in your headphones to the one playing over the speakers. When they are playing at the same speed, use the channel faders to slowly cross over from one track to the other.
Then replace the original record on the first deck with a new one and adjust the pitch to match its beat. Once the beats match, use the channel faders to cross back to that deck.
You’ve just played your first mix!
Step 5 — Practice Beatmatching With Only The Pitch Slider
Most professional DJs beatmatch using only the pitch slider, so that’s what we’ll do now.
If the headphone track is lagging behind, increase the pitch until it catches up. As soon as it does, decrease the pitch quickly until it matches the other record.
If the headphone track is ahead of the other one, you’ll obviously decrease the pitch slider.
Go through the previous steps again using only the pitch slider. Matching the beats in this manner is not easy and will take a lot of practice, but once you get it, it will greatly increase the speed of your beatmatching.
4. Learn To Mix
When you have two different records, you can be sure that they will have different volume levels, so the first thing you need to do is adjust the gain knobs for the channels to bring them to the same volume.
If your mixer has channel meters, it’s simple: just adjust the gain until the channel meter just touches the red during the loudest parts of the track. If you don’t have channel meters, you’ll have to adjust by ear. Or you could cheat and use the master volume meter.
Once you’ve matched the volume levels, you’re ready to mix.
The first decision you need to make is where to begin transitioning from one track to the other. Generally, you’ll do this in the outro of the first track and the intro of the second.
Make sure to start the new track so that the 4-bar phrases or—even better—the 8-bar phrases match. To do this, start the new track on the very first beat of the old track’s phrase.
When you start the second track for the transition, make sure you have both tracks playing through the headphones, to avoid being tricked by the delay you get with the speakers.
Once you’ve got the tracks synched and you are ready to make the transition, do so using the channel upfaders, not the crossfader.
Make any sharp changes at the beginning of 8-bar phrases.
For the first step, quickly move the fader for the new track up halfway, while taking down the old track a notch.
Next, continue moving up the new track and bringing down the old one. They should meet around the 75% mark.
From there, continue moving the faders until you are playing 100% of the new track and 0% of the old one. Use the 8-bar phase beginning to make a bigger shift and just make small changes the rest of the time.
Don’t forget to give the occasional listen through the headphones, to make sure the two tracks stay in synch during the transition. They will most likely begin to drift apart, so you’ll have to make adjustments while mixing the two records.
5. Learn To Use The EQ
Mixing two tracks by matching the beats and phrases is only the first step.
Often, the two tracks will have conflicting hi-hats, kick drums, etc. To avoid your mix sounding messy, you can use the EQ to dampen or completely remove a specific frequency range of one of the tracks.
You can also use it to suddenly switch the bass of one track for the bass of the other (at the beginning of a 8-bar phrase, of course). Practice using the EQ to take out certain parts of the tracks as you are transitioning.
That takes care of the basics and should keep you busy practicing for a few months at least. If you’re having trouble getting it and are not able to handle all the tasks in time to make a smooth transition, don’t fret.
Keep at it. Like I wrote before: it’s like riding a bike: eventually, it’ll just click.
Hopefully this page has helped get you started on learning the basics and you are currently busy practicing every day.
Once you’ve got the basics down, you’ll be ready to play your first live gig. Of course you should never stop practicing the basics and also add more advanced techniques to your arsenal. Eventually you will probably want to get into music production, too.