6 challenges to boost your DJ skills

From mixing on “dumb DJ gear,” to playing a totally different genre, and taking gigs you’d usually turn down, these exercises should get you out of your comfort zone and sharpen your craft.

Even when we love doing something, it’s easy to get stuck in ruts. 

We are, after all, habitual creatures. If we believe that something works we tend to keep doing it—sometimes even when we’re presented with more effective methods. If a shortcut or a path of least resistance is available, we usually take it. It’s a complex topic but in essence evolution shaped us this way in order to conserve resources. However, when it comes to creativity, the downside is that this natural programming can limit us. 

How does this apply to DJing? It’s there in the way you swap the bass EQs in the same way each time. Or buy music from the same record labels. Or select tracks through the same thought processes. Even the most growth-orientated DJs among us will have stuff they learned early on and never deviated from. Put all of this together, and you might eventually find yourself feeling a little jaded by DJing generally, when the problem might actually be individual components of your practice.  

The exercises we’ll explore here were inspired by the world of music production. At least as far back as Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards in the 1970s, artists and producers have been using challenges and limitations to jumpstart creativity. At root is the idea that we grow or change when we’re out of our comfort zone and are forced to think differently.  

Feel free to modify our challenges to suit your needs and your situation, but we’d advise being both prescriptive and precise, like we have here, as these things usually work best when we follow strict rules. That said, don’t forget to have fun and play with it.

1. Mix with “dumb” DJ gear

This one is inspired by so-called “dumb phones,” the simple devices people are adopting to break the iron grip of smartphones on their lives. Smartphones and modern DJ gear aren’t necessarily equivalents. But in the same way that switching from an iPhone to a Nokia 3210 would undoubtedly impact your daily behaviours, stripping back (or returning to) a simple DJ setup would no doubt change the way you play. 

This exercise is about keeping your fundamentals sharp. A setup of two turntables and a very basic mixer would bring you into close contact with the core skills of close listening, volume control and beatmatching. You could argue that it doesn’t ultimately matter that most of us rely on the convenience of quantized loops, BPM counters, sync buttons etc. these days. But this challenge works on the assumption that we’ll be stronger DJs if we keep our core skill sharp. It also covers us in situations where the DJ setup is either basic or not working as we expected. 

It’s likely that not everyone will have access to older or simpler gear, but it’s easy to adapt your existing setup. Cover over your touchscreen for everything but track selection. Hide the BPM counters. Lower your laptop lid. In lieu of old-school turntables and a basic mixer, do whatever you need to to make your gear as “dumb” as possible. 

The challenge: Have a 60-minute mix using only volume, pitch faders and platter manipulations. Are you able to give a convincing performance under these limitations?

2. Deep dive on features

Here’s the flip side of the “dumb” DJ gear challenge: get to know the advanced features of your setup. 

The benefits of this are fairly obvious. Different modes of expression. New methods of organisation. A better understanding of your tools. But we also admit that this type of task can be put off for years. You notice features on your hardware and software, make a mental note to learn about them at a later stage—only for that day to never quite arrive.

Again, this is understandable. We’re sticking with what already works, and the value of learning the new information isn’t always clear. But perhaps the simplest way of looking at it is this: is the DJ who knows 100% of their gear’s features better equipped to do their job than the DJ who knows only 20%? 

The challenge: Whether it’s a simple menu option, a core performance tool, or an unexplored effect, learn a new feature of your equipment every day for a week.

3. Drills, drills, drills

OK, the word “drill” doesn’t exactly scream fun. But what serious discipline doesn’t require some graft? Consider the tennis player hitting thousands of serves, the pianist playing endless scales, or indeed the scratch DJ trying countless crabs. In reality, most skills benefit from being repeated until they’re second nature. You then get to reap the rewards many times over later on. 

The most persuasive example of this is the gig where instinct takes over and you’re basically on autopilot; the sets when you look back and have no conscious recollection of making those creative decisions. That doesn’t happen by accident. When we deeply learn a skill it’s gradually pushed into a different, “non-thinking” area of the brain. Then in the instinctual, heat-of-the-moment arena of a DJ gig, if learned properly these skills resurface—as if by magic.  

There’s some set up with this challenge, but designing the routine yourself means that the drills feed directly into the way you DJ. Picking four drills and performing each for five minutes is the template we’d suggest. For overall progress, little and often is best: 20 minutes three times per week is better for building muscle memory than one 60-minute session.  

The challenge: Build a 20-minute practice routine from the below starter drills, or design your own. With each drill we’re practising rhythm and timing, and aiming for clean, musical results. 

  • Using the volume fader or crossfader, take out a track for 1 beat, 2 beats and then 4 beats. And repeat.  
  • Identify a short musical section of a track and punch it in and out using the volume fader or crossfader 
  • Drill usage of FX like filters or reverbs across a range of timeframes beginning with one bar
  • Jump between your Hot Cues with an emphasis on timing and musically coherent moves 
  • Practise a basic scratch technique like the baby, tear or chirp

4. Play an unfamiliar situation

This is probably the most straightforward way of getting out of your comfort zone: volunteer to play a gig that you’d usually turn down—school dance, office warming party, bar mitzvah, whatever—or host a small event like a house party or a BBQ. Why would you intentionally put yourself in this position? It’s about using the unfamiliar situations to stimulate thinking differently. 

Let’s say you’re a DJ who only plays clubs. You have audiences who expect a type of music and you reliably know how to give it to them. While this is great in the respect that it works, it’s very possible that you become fixed in the way you play, closing down possibilities for developing and becoming a more distinctive DJ.  

Now think about playing an event like a family BBQ for the first time. You’d essentially need to rebuild from first principles. Who is the audience? What music do they like? How do I mix these tracks together? 

Like many of these challenges, the upshot is that you then take what you’ve learned over here, and then apply it over there. So the close crowd-reading required at the house party is applied to your club sets; or you play your curveball summer BBQ track at your regular bar gig, and so on.  

The challenge: DJ in an unfamiliar situation, or create a small event for a crowd you usually wouldn’t play to. See what you learn. Try applying some of it to your usual DJing. 

5. High quantity DJ mixes

Returning to the world of music production, it’s widely understood that the quantity of time spent on a project often doesn’t correlate with its quality. In other words, it’s better to produce lots of music and finesse the good ideas, rather than sweating for ages over a single track. If you’ve ever put together a DJ mix, that second approach might sound familiar. 

In fact, for some DJs, recording a mix turns into an ordeal, rather than an enjoyable arm of their creative practice. “It’s reasonable to see your mix as a personal statement, an encapsulation of who and what you are as a DJ,” we’ve said here before. “But as a framework for a mix, the grand personal statement is too broad, too high-pressure.” 

Instead, this challenge advocates for seeing DJ mixes as a quick-and-dirty jolly that you undertake regularly. Some parts of the mix will work, others won’t, but that doesn’t matter because your next mix will be just around the corner. Like the production example, this approach assumes that by playing the numbers game we’re much more likely to strike it lucky; stitch a few inspired sections together from your recent mixes and might wind up with results you’re extremely happy with—all without any creative torture. 

The challenge: Record a 45-minute mix every week for a month. Or two months. Keep going if you like the results you’re getting. 

6. Become a different type of DJ for a while

What does a pop version of you sound like? Or if you’re a pop DJ, what does a house version of you sound like? Most of us have broad taste in music, so it’s highly likely there’s at least one genre you enjoy but have never tried playing. 

If we’ve been in a musical lane for a while, it can be easy to forget that each style has its distinct demands. Take the hypothetical pop DJ we mentioned. Most aspects of what they do will stand in contrast to our imagined house DJ—little or no beatmatching, vocal tracks only, perhaps taking requests and using the mic. Discovering those differences first hand is the kind of mind-opening process that can lead to growth in your craft. 

This is about feeding the subconscious mind—as we explored in the drills challenge—to create the conditions for new spontaneous expressions. Spending time learning hip-hop mixing techniques, for example, could lead to surprising outcomes when you’re back in the groove of your usual techno sets. 

The act of selecting and sequencing tracks from a different genre can also shake things up. A challenge like mixing indie rock records could make supposedly tricky combinations in your own genre seem like a breeze. Conversely, open format DJs could find the narrow focus of trance or tech house a rewarding test.   

Challenge: Build a 60-minute set in a different style of music. Learn at least three mixing techniques that are specific to that genre. Bonus points for choosing a style that’s radically different from your own.