How to Become a DJ: The Ultimate Guide

In times gone by a DJ was the guy who played the records at your party, or the local discotheque. That’s about all he did, really. Popped on one seven single after another, saved the slow ones for the end of the evening, packed up his stack of records and went home. What a change from then till now! Obviously styles of music have changed drastically, and so have DJs. These days a DJ has to be ‘in the know’ about not only new and upcoming artists, but also supremely knowledgeable about how to get – and keep – people on the dance floor. These days, it is entirely possible to have a career as a DJ, something our parents would have violently objected to back then! But times change and so do tastes – and DJs!


The best thing about being a DJ is making people happy. There is nothing like seeing people get up from a table to dance or the expression on their face when they hear a song they love. I also love to educate people on music they have never heard. Chelsea Leyland

What is a DJ?

I’m a DJ. I get the party started. -Avicii

The word DJ means disc jockey, also abbreviated to D.J. or deejay. This is the name of the person who plays all that lovely music at parties, wedding, get togethers and discos. In the ‘olden days’ the DJ used to do this by means of records. Remember them? After records came cassettes, and then CD’s, followed soon after by digital audio files which are now on a laptop.

A good DJ can supply mixes of any type of music you want for whatever occasion you have in mind. With enough notice, he can create a special blend of tunes for any given event. Typically, a DJ will perform in front of a live audience. If he is very happy with the mix of music that he has compiled for that occasion, he may record the mix and sell it on afterwards.
Nowadays, a DJ will be familiar with multiple methods of recording and will normally have at least two sources of music working together. This will allow him to mix and match, so to speak. He will be able to record endless, uninterrupted music and thereby develop his own unique song mixes. You will often find that he does this by choosing music with the same type of beat so that they can transition smoothly from one song to the next. All DJ’s will have their own set of DJ headphones so that they can review their selections and make any adjustments before playing it live to an audience. Previewing the music will ensure that he is able to cue up the next track in time so that it all mixes in well.

Pros and cons

With any career there are pros and cons, and this is no different. There are advantages and disadvantages which you should consider before following this choice of career. Below we take a look at some of them, although there are possibly many more which you can add.

The truth is that being a DJ is in fact a very hard job, not only mentally but physically, because you will do most of your work at night and early mornings, and your preparation at other times. Mental-ly you will need to be ready to adjust and meet any problems that happen immediately, so you will need to be able to think on your feet at times, even when you may be tired.

The Pros:

  • Share the music: Sam Walker of Walker & Royce stated accurately that being a DJ meant that travelling and meeting people from around the world who had a common interest in music. A very true statement. Most DJ’s would agree with this statement, that everyone they met had the same common interest in music.
  • Share the party: Not only share the party, but you get paid for it! More than likely you would have gone out on a Friday night to party, except as a DJ you get to still enjoy the night, and return home with cash in your pockets. How much cash depends on the agreement you’ve made, but you get to have fun and earn at the same time. Nothing better than doing the job you love and making money from it!
  • Free stuff: If you’re nearby, then most likely you will find yourself the recipient of free t-shirts, drinks and various other party favours. A good DJ will place himself in a strategic position so as to be in line for these many handouts. While they don’t actually pay your rent, they do make nice touches for a DJ.
  • DJ’s are sexy: Everyone loves the DJ! You don’t even have to do the chasing here because girls will vie to catch the eye of the DJ. This is a true fact! Enjoy it!
  • Dress as you please: No dress code here! You get to wear whatever you want! People love to see how the DJ dresses, you may even get to dress up to add to a theme party. Often this will be expected so you get to let your hair down as well as supply the music Dress as you please: No dress code here! You get to wear whatever you want! People love to see how the DJ dresses, you may even get to dress up to add to a theme party. Often this will be expected so you get to let your hair down as well as supply the music.
  • You never need to dance: Many people who love music actually hate dancing! Who really wants to do the Mashed Potato? This way, you get to enjoy the music without having to join in the dance.
  • Being with your friends: It’s a great evening when you get to be with your friends. Even at an organised event, the people are mostly happy because of the music, and you get to be part of the kindred spirit. No matter what the occasion is, they are all together to have a good time, and you are included!
  • You call the shots: The crowd will respond to your groove, you are the pied piper who leads them a merry dance. International Tech House DJ Derek Marin says that the best part of being a DJ is “The moment you have the crowds’ full attention and trust. When you’re in the zone and they’ve fully committed – you can take them anywhere and it’s magical. During that time, I feel like I’m cheating death in the same way that Hemingway describes making love.”
  • Job for life: It’s there if you want it. There will always be a party who need a DJ, a wedding who wants live music, or friends who want to dance the night away. DJ’s are not in any danger of disappearing!

The Cons:
An article from Hive Society gives some graphic ideas of things that irritate DJs. We’ve added a few here.

  • Harms your health: there is a very definite chance that this may harm your health. Many hours spent breathing in dance floor dust, while staring at a computer screen until your eyes are red and sore, or even hurting your back while heaving equipment up and down steps, in and out of cars and then dismantling it all at the end. Not to mention driving many hours to get there and then driving back when you are over tired
  • Collecting is expensive: Collecting music can seriously take a toll on your finances. Not only that, but you may soon find that your once neat and tidy abode is now filled to the brim with collections of things that you never had before. Collecting is addictive – as you will find out, even when doing this job!
  • Odd requests: After all the time you spent researching the music for the night, compiling it and making it flow smoothly, you will invariably get someone who asks for a song you have never heard of!
  • High competition, low pay: Unfortunately, there are literally hundreds of DJ’s about, seems like every man and his brother wants to get in on the game here. Invariably, the wages will be lower with every bar taking their cut. The job of a DJ is to fill the bar, and should this not happen, then you are likely to be booted out so they can try the next DJ. It’s a tough world to be successful in
  • The big ego: A bit of fame will certainly go a long way here! Many DJ’s are very big headed, making them definitely not the humblest of people
  • Flying: Many a DJ hates the thought of airports. They conjure up thoughts of crowds, delayed flights and narrow seats. Booking cancelled because the DJ is late, no payment…and the list goes on
  • Keep smiling: Even though the DJ has spent hours and hours getting his special mix all ready, he will then be forced to pander to the people who still want the old stuff. Just when you thought that you could introduce some new stuff because it’s a great take on another style, there will be people who will want other stuff. No matter how many songs you have in your collection for the event, you will most certainly get someone who is just not happy with your collection. This is a part of the job, everyone has different tastes, even for the same songs
  • Holding attention: you will need to be on your toes every second of the time. As soon as the audience is bored with you, you are forgotten. You have to keep their attention all the time. The crowd is fickle and they will desert you in a heartbeat if you relax for one single minute Holding attention: you will need to be on your toes every second of the time. As soon as the audience is bored with you, you are forgotten. You have to keep their attention all the time. The crowd is fickle and they will desert you in a heartbeat if you relax for one single minute

Getting started

Seeing bored-looking fans staring at you while you DJ is about as horrible as it gets. Boy George
Getting started is really not difficult. What is difficult is how you get yourself to stand out and be noticed, and become an exceptional DJ. That’s the hard part! Learning how to become a DJ is not just about matching beats, but tailoring your own musical expression with those of the audience. A good DJ needs to be empathetic and observant.

Possibly the one quality that every good DJ has – and cannot do without out – is passion for music and a desire to learn. Being a successful DJ is more than just mixing one song into the next.

In an article from Martin Garrix he advises a new DJ to “spend as much time as he can in the studio working on trying to get better, trying to improve your sound, trying to find your own sound.”

You should be prepared to practice, practice and practice again. You will be training your brain to hear music in a different way and you will only manage to do this through practice and patience. When you feel you have practised enough, then do some more! With this job you should be 100% committed to learning otherwise you will fall behind other DJ’s who are constantly striving for bet-ter and more knowledge.

Even before you start this new career, you should be familiar with any equipment you plan to use. You can find out all you need to know by doing your research online. The internet is a wonderful source of information! If you know another professional DJ, then pick his brains! Ask as many ques-tions as you can and find out where he gets his equipment from, where he gets his leads and where you start. A good DJ will be ready to share a few tip with you.

Basic skills

  • Use a midi controller: Records – or vinyl as they used to be known – are things of the past. Possibly the best addition to your new equipment is a midi controller. Learn how to use it with your eyes closed. A good, versatile DJ needs the ability to create dynamic remixes for each occasion.
  • Learn networking online: Make use of Facebook, SoundCloud and Google to sell yourself. With all the technology available online, a clever DJ will take advantage of this to not only share his work, but also build up a fan base.
  • Learn to remix and mash up: A DJ today needs to know a whole lot more than DJs some years back. Now it is essential that you are well versed with mashing up and remixing. Any DJ can play a song right through, but if you are to stand out from the crowd, you need to be inventive and differ-ent. This is a job which, while it is fun, must also be taken seriously otherwise you will not do well at it
  • Learn about other types of equipment: It’s okay to be comfortable and familiar with your own equipment but you should always strive to learn about other pieces and diversify your knowledge. When you understand all about the different types out there you will have the knowledge to try new, and maybe better ideas. This is just what you will need to give your job a head start on others
  • Perform the music, don’t just play it: A good DJ plays music. An exceptional DJ performs the music. There is a difference. The exceptional DJ does not just stand there and play a song, he gets involved with the music. The fans will know the difference between the two DJs

In an article from the Huffington Post a good comment is made about the art of DJing mimicking the art of life.

The best way to learn the skills you are going to need is undoubtedly finding an experienced DJ who is prepared to take you under his wing and show you the ropes. There are also schools you can go to, but these tend to be on the expensive side. You will find that most professional DJs have learned on their own, from making mistakes and correcting them. Most of these DJs will tell you that this is the only way to learn the trade.

Now, you should know that there is nothing wrong with paying for classes. It is all a matter of finances and how much money you have available after you have set aside for your equipment. Les-sons do not come cheaply and you may decide to go for online lessons instead. These will still cost you money, but a whole lot less than going to classes. The added bonus is that you can take online classes in your own time instead of at set times, which may not work for you.
Should you choose to teach yourself, you will find that you are actually far better off than DJs who started years ago, simply because there is so much available knowledge online now. Back then they had to find things out the hard way. There is a huge amount of information and many good re-sources online that you can access for free if you look around.

What equipment do I need

Without proper equipment, you will never manage to be a DJ. I know that sounds pretty obvious, but it is sadly true that some DJ’s feel they can manage with inferior equipment. They then wonder why they are not in demand. Unfortunately, good equipment is expensive, so this is where you should spend a lot of time doing your research.

You can’t be a DJ without the proper equipment. Unfortunately, that equipment is expensive, which is why I recommend you hold off on purchasing anything until you absolutely have to. Before you actually set out, don’t buy anything at all. If you can borrow equipment to practice on, take ad-vantage of that.

Many aspiring DJs will run out and spend a ton of money on expensive equipment, only to find some weeks later that the job is really not for them. They usually end up selling this off for far more than they paid for it. Again, research this, ask other DJs for advice and check everything out online. Pay attention to reviews of the products you like. Be prepared to change things if you find bad re-views.

The very least you are going to need is two turntables or CD decks, a DJ mixer, a set of headphones along with a good sound system. These can run up as high as you can spend, or you can buy a good middle of the range set up. This depends on just how much ready cash you have and are prepared to part with. Quality and cost do not always go hand in hand, so it may not be essential to get the most expensive gear right at the beginning. Learn everything you can about the equipment you select. Basically, anything that allows you to mix two tracks together is what you need.

It is a really good idea to also look for used equipment as this will save you a decent amount of money. There are some good online forums that advertise equipment for sale and here you may be able to get your hands on stuff from retiring DJs selling off cheap.

There is a certain amount of free mixing software available, such as Virtual DJ, and you should take advantage of this if you can.

  • CD deck: You may want to invest – or certainly have a look at – a CD deck that has MP3 com-patibility. This will allow you to plug in your USB stick instead of carrying a pile of CDs with you. It’s a great way to travel light, and even if you are a person who swears by vinyl, it may be good to be familiar with these as many clubs use them in preference to turntables
  • DJ mixer: It is a well-known statement that a DJ is only as good as his mixer. Whether you pre-fer a compact DJ mixer with switchable inputs or an effects mixer with digital effects and matrix input system, you would do well to look online, read the reviews and try to listen to it before buying it. It is a vital piece of your equipment and you should be completely happy with it
  • Headphones: Whatever your style of DJ is, a decent pair of headphones is a vital addition to ensure that your mixes are all t the right volume and cued up at the right time. Headphones range in price from bargain bins (avoid these) to mid- range and ‘over the top’ expensive. Try to aim for a model that offers the best sound quality along with function ability for the best price
  • Sound system: If you are a mobile DJ then you will possibly want an all-inclusive package to make transporting easier. Not all speakers are built the same way. The speakers in your car – while they sound great inside – are just not suitable for other purposes. Buying DJ speakers can be tricky. You should take into consideration the gigs that you plan to play. For example, if you regularly play for groups between 70 and 500 people then you can work with a system of 1200 watts. You should also be very wary of those ‘no name’ brands which offer you ‘cheap deals’, in the end you really do get what you pay for. Better to pay more and not compromise your audience’s opinion and possibly your career

Setup suggestions

  • All in one controllers: These days if you buy a DJ controller, you will have everything you need to mix an entire set, and this will even include a built-in sound card. Many of the controllers available today, while being in the mid-range class, are almost as good as professional grade. Using this hardware is probably the easiest way to learn how to become a DJ. Some of them use jog wheels although others use touch strips instead. This is by far the cheapest and most affordable way to start your career, especially if you already have a laptop
  • Modular controllers: Geeky people seem to go for this type of gadgety controller. A modular control setup can be pieced together from a number of smaller versions. Having done that you need to make sure that you have a good sound card to handle all the audio signals. You can find modular controls which come with a sound card built in. While a modular setup is probably the most flexible, it is also one of the most complex
  • CD turntable and mixer: In order to get the same effect as a laptop with comprehensive DJ software, you really have to outlay a fairly hefty sum of money. Added to that, you need to then buy a decent DJ mixer. All of a sudden the price has gone up and you are spending more than you budgeted for. Make sure that you are actually going to use all those extra features. Pioneer is considered to be the industry standard and they have products which will not break your bank, so it is well worth looking into them
  • Vinyl and mixer: These days, vinyl is the most expensive way to buy music, so ask yourself why you want to follow this path? Records are harder to mix than any other option. For many peo-ple it’s still a lot of fun. They love the feel of moving a record and it is still the best way for the pure scratch DJ. It may be a fun way, but it is very expensive, and far more difficult to transport
  • Hybrid setup: some DJs are of the opinion that this type of setup gives you the best of both worlds. You have the feel of mixing records combined with the convenience of smaller sized equipment. Can however, be mildly annoying to have to set it up in a club, although it does feel like the best of both worlds. Do you really need to turn your turntable into an expensive controller?

Types of DJ

‘My musical influence is really from my father. He was a DJ in college. My parents met at New York University. So he listened to, you know, Motown, and he listened to Bob Dylan. He listened to Grate-ful Dead and Rolling Stones, but he also listened to reggae music. And he collected vinyl’ Talib Kweli

When you start on this new career, you should spend some time deciding which type of DJ you want to be. Each type is different and one type may suit your personality, while another may not work for you.

Possibly one trait that you will need for whichever style of DJ you choose, is that you must like people – or rather, you must like most people. A complete recluse will never make a DJ of any sort. You need to an outgoing, ‘do things by yourself’ personality. Most of the time you will be arranging gigs yourself, getting yourself there and back on your own, and generally doing things without much help. You need to be able to work to deadlines – no good showing up late. You should be flexible, and probably have a strong sense of humour to carry you through any awkward situations.

  • Resident DJ: A resident DJ has a regular gig at a local bar or night club. The job here is to keep people on the dance floor, dancing, for as long as possible. Clubs will vary in the clientele and also in their expectations of music choice. You may find yourself doing long blends of music to keep people dancing. The ideal situation here is where the DJ knows when to ramp the music up and down and keep a good balance between a dancing floor and a drinking bar
  • Performer DJ: As the name indicates, these DJs are popular because of their skills with cutting, scratching and other turntable tricks. People go to specifically see them and what they can come up with behind the decks. These DJs have built up their own reputations and normally a strong following of clientele
  • Wedding DJ:
    This type of DJ is completely different from any other. It is probably going to require more mobility due to different venues where wedding receptions take place. Typically, this is the type of DJ that makes the most money. You should be comfortable taking requests because that’s what happens at weddings. Speaking into a microphone must come naturally for you and you must have invested in your own sound equipment. The style of music here will be completely different from what you would record for the local disco so it is essential that you are well prepared for that. A point to re-member here is that this is a ‘once in a lifetime’ day for two people and you had better not be the one to ruin it because you are not prepared!
  • Radio DJ:
    This is where the original DJs made their reputations – on the radio. Their jobs were many and var-ied, ranging from reading weather forecasts between songs, to discussing events of the day at that time. Back then the DJ would have been able to select his own music for the show, although these days you might have to toe the line and work with a director on the choice

‘I’m of the opinion that as a DJ you must always play what you love and ignore what’s ‘trendy’ be-cause true passion always eclipses what’s fashionable. Quality is always fashionable.’ Boy George

Getting your gig

Well, so here you are with your new equipment and you have learned all about it. You’ve done the right thing and spent hours and hours practising, even played at your niece’s birthday party – apologies to the magician, but they loved you more! Well done, you!’

Now what? To date that is the highlight of your up and coming career, and this is the time to move on to bigger things, especially if you want to pay the rent at the end of the month!

Your next step is to start marketing yourself. There is really no other way to get the word out that you are the ‘new kid on the block’. You need to start some serious networking. A good way to advertise is to build – or have one built – your own personal website. Here you can showcase and sell yourself. In the long run you will probably spend more time marketing yourself then actually playing. That is the way it is. Not many DJs enjoy this part, but it is the way to get yourself out there and known.

Another way to get the word out is through social media. Make your presence known through Facebook and Twitter. These are easy things to do and maintain.

One thing is certain with this new job, you must be make yourself known if you want to make money!

Growing your new career

Right, so you’ve done your homework and accepted a first gig. You handled the nerves and they loved you! Just when you thought the hard work was over…well, it has only just begun! The key word here is market, market and market again.
This is the part that most DJs would prefer not to do, but it is vitally important to keep ahead of the game and get regular work. You need to sell yourself. You know you are a good DJ, others need to know this as well. This means advertising wherever you can. Any attention, in this case, is good attention. Anything (good) that will get people to look at what you do will come back and reward you with contacts for work.

A good tip is to always have some of your music readily available on a CD. You just never know when someone will ask for a demo. Be sure to always have one or two at hand and be sure that your contact details are included.
You should start in a small way at first – perhaps Djing for a neighbor’s party for free? Local pubs may want the odd evening at short notice and if they have your details, you could pick up some work there. People will talk and tell others about you.

Design a really good flyer, or ask a friend who is good at graphics. Drop it off at every pub you can get to, along with contact details on a business card, which can be referred to when the flyer gets wet, falls of the wall or is thrown away.
Taking out a small advert in something like the local business guide may well bring you some enquiries. Don’t opt for the smallest advert, neither do you need to pay for the largest one, a mid-sized one will do just fine, if you can keep it there for longer. Carry your business cards with you all the time. You may be able to leave some in a restaurant, or put one up on a noticeboard somewhere. They are good value for money as you normally get a lot for a relatively small amount of outlay.

Make sure you are always friendly and ready to talk about your job because you just never know who is listening. That person may be the one who offers you your next gig, so keep that in mind when you meet people. You just never know…


There is no doubt about it that Djing is a lot of work, especially when keeping up your knowledge of technology. Add to this the fact that you must market yourself all the time to get more work and constantly keep in touch with music trends. That being said, if you have decided that this is the job for you, and you put your time and effort into it, and have the right attitude – which is positive – this is a career which can change your life forever in the very best way!