How to DJ at a wedding

We raise a toast to one of the most challenging and rewarding DJ gigs, where different generations and music tastes collide on a single dance floor.

I once DJ’d a wedding in a small seaside town where I knew no one except the groom. The setup was a laptop plugged into a two-speaker PA. The brief was to play as safe as possible. This was the age of Todd Terje’s “Inspector Norse,” one of the biggest dance tracks of that time, but the groom assured me that even this would be too edgy. 

To my surprise, it turned out to be an absolutely great gig. The crowd was loved up from the day’s ceremony in the presence of so many old friends. I’d assembled a playlist of pop hits I actually liked, and most of them landed. “Return Of The Mack” destroyed. With Donna Lewis’s “I Love You Always Forever” there were teary singalongs.

A few years later, I played a wedding in a villa on a Greek isle for a couple I knew well, mostly from going to clubs and festivals. It was a “friends-only” wedding, meaning no extended family, and basically everyone there was into dance music. All in all, a pretty ideal situation, not just for wedding gigs but for DJing in general. In one daydream, I pictured myself playing Mathew Jonson’s “Typerope” to a full dance floor as the sun peeked over a distant hillside. 

Naturally, the gig was nothing like that. It was too hot in the room where we’d set up the decks, so people ventured inside only for a song or two before returning to the cool air of the patio. Early on, as I played what I considered to be classy disco, I got a request for “something sillier.” It wasn’t long before someone asked if I had “WAP.” I badly wished I did, and to be honest, I really should have. 

My point here is that the wedding may be the most fickle of DJ gigs. For sure, it has potential to be as good as it gets. Crowd of old friends and family, with an open bar and love in the air—how could it go wrong?  

Very easily, in fact. Think about it. You’ve got multiple generations in one room, often with no common thread in musical taste. Conditions on the ground vary greatly. You might play for a euphoric crowd on a cozily lit dance floor with CDJs, a mixer and decent monitors. Or you might find yourself staring down a bunch of strangers in a vibeless hotel function room, armed with nothing but an iPhone and a bluetooth speaker. 

Either way, if the stars align, weddings can be the best DJ experience you’ll ever have, full of transcendent moments and meaningful communication through music. 

So if your friends and family know you as a music person, you may very well be asked to play one sooner or later. It’s absolutely worth the challenge. You just have to know what you’re getting yourself into.

Here’s a list of tips for this most ceremonial of DJ gigs.

Enter the mind of the wedding guest

It always helps to understand who you’re playing to, and what kind of night they’re having. So, let’s consider the experience of the typical wedding guest. 

By the time you get to the reception, or the party, you’ve already had a pretty big day. You got dressed up, ran into old friends and maybe family, made a fair amount of small talk, and took in a ceremony that may have made you emotional, or may have bored you slightly. 

Either way, by the time the tunes are playing, you’re most likely very ready to let your hair down, literally or figuratively. In some ways this is easy. The booze is flowing, everyone’s (hopefully) in a good mood. But you’ve also got families there, grandparents and children, close friends and relatives of the newlyweds, people you don’t know and on whom you probably want to make a decent impression. In other words, the opposite of a dark club where you can lose yourself. This tension can create what we’ll call the School Dance Effect: an empty dance floor surrounded by people who just need a little push. 

As a wedding DJ, a big part of your job is breaking the ice. Luckily, there is a category of music, as broad as it is specific, that will help you do just that.

Behold, The Wedding Banger

What makes a wedding banger? One aspect is easy familiarity. These are songs everybody knows, or if they don’t know them they kind of recognize them, and if they’ve literally never heard them before they’ll like them immediately. Keep the hooks coming. Every single track has that “awwww shiiiiit” effect in the opening bars. Play one that doesn’t and you’ll surely lose a few dancers. 

The other important part is feeling. These songs don’t all need to be romantic, but they do need to be emotional, fun and down-to-earth. This is not the time for subtlety. Do not explore the outer reaches of your USB. The goal is to use music to create a shared experience in what, especially in terms of taste and age, is probably a very diverse crowd. Even in the most secular setting, what you’re going for is a kind of spiritual communion through music. So keep the anthems coming. The more open-hearted, the better.

Play diverse, play multigenerational

There is no event more multigenerational than a wedding, where ages on the dance floor can range from single to triple digits. Every age group has their own frame of reference, and while their tastes overlap, each one needs special attention sooner or later. Make sure your musical selections shout out every age group over the course of the night, while giving special preference to your most reliable dancers.

Don’t linger too long on any one style or era. Feel around a bit, dipping your toes into as many styles and eras as you can. Ditch the ones that don’t work, and stick with the ones that do. Basic DJ skills apply. Think on your feet, keep an eye on the crowd, and adapt as you go. 

Know the setup and the setting 

In any DJ gig—club, festival, radio show, house party—there is the question of what the setup and the setting will be like, a fact that remains stubbornly elusive until you’re actually onsite. At a wedding, though, the technical variables go way beyond how big the room is or whether the turntables are properly calibrated. Outside the rarified world of club music culture, it’s by no means a given that a wedding DJ will be provided with monitors, a mixer, or any DJ-specific technology whatsoever—after all, many non-DJs get by just fine with bluetooth and aux cables. These are all things you need to verify specifically. 

Figure out what your personal standard is. Do you need decks and a mixer for the gig to be worthwhile? Or are you happy streaming music all night? Whatever setup you’re going for, make sure it’s possible at the event. Speak to the couple, the wedding planner if they have one, or whoever is taking care of the technical side of the event. Tell them what you want, and see what’s possible. 

This is also a good opportunity to get a feel for the environment in general. DJ technology aside, it makes a big difference if you’re playing a well-lit banquet hall or a dark room with lasers, strobe lights and smoke machines (and, in the case of the latter, find out who’s manning those bad boys). Maybe the idea is for the reception to be as raucous as a club night. Or maybe it’s a lavish dinner with musical accompaniment. Naturally, this affects what music you bring, how loud you play, and so on. The more you know ahead of the time, the better. 

Know the brief

Weddings are a ritual with a script, one everyone tweaks in their own way. As the wedding DJ, your job is to learn that script and follow it to a tee. 

One essential thing to know from the start: are you the DJ for the party, or are you running the music for the event overall? Are you the person who hits play on whatever song the couple are walking down the aisle to? Will there be ceremonial dances (newlyweds’ first dance, father/daughter, mother/son, etc.)? There will be a dinner, and usually a reception after the ceremony with drinks and hors d’oeuvres. Are you choosing tunes for these bits as well? 

These things need to be sorted out weeks or months in advance. In all cases, you want to meet the couple’s preferences as closely as possible. In the end, it’s them, not their guests, that you’re playing for, and not just because they hired you. This whole ritual is celebrating them personally. The goal is to make them happy. 

Now, about the party. Ask the couple well ahead of time what kind of music they have in mind. Maybe they’re happy for you to just let it rip. Or maybe there are particular genres or eras they want to focus on—or steer clear of. Whatever they want, give it to them. As you build your playlists, send them selections and see what they think. 

It’s possible, if somewhat unlikely, that the couple’s choices please no one but themselves, leaving you to play for a vibeless dance floor, taking requests you can’t fulfill without breaking your agreement with the newlyweds. How you handle that is up to you. But if you do try to steer a middle path, always aim to please the couple more than their guests.

Check your ego

You’re playing a supporting role here, not the lead. As performances go, yours is more in the category of a clown hired for a child’s birthday than an artist headlining a club. Personal style is essential to any DJ set—it will sound stale if you’re not playing music you really like. But don’t indulge yourself. Chances are you won’t have to play a pure pop set, but you should be prepared to do that if you need to. If you’re the kind of person who truly has no love for that kind of thing, you probably shouldn’t take the gig. 

Take Requests

The idea of taking requests may be anathema to most self-respecting DJs. But if there was ever a time and place to do it, this is it. Bring an aux cable to stream from your phone, or prepare some other way of playing stuff that’s not on your USB. For sure, you should do your thing and bring your own vibe. But the more you give the people what they want, the more fun they’ll have, and the better the whole thing will be. 

You don’t have to take every request, and you don’t have to play them right away. Gently pass on things that will clearly kill the vibe (someone once asked me for Rammstein’s “Du Hast”), but don’t be too precious, and definitely don’t let on if a request annoys you. 

Stay cheery

Things might get a little challenging. Someone might come over and tell you to play something dancier. The setup could suck. You could have a wasted cousin chewing your ear off while you play. Your set could drag on interminably. The dance floor might fill up and empty again over the course of the night, or start empty and stay that way. And yet, you must never appear bored, frustrated or generally unhappy. You are one of the most looked-at people in the room. Your vibe is contagious. And a scowling DJ is never a good look.  

Get on the mic

There is one aspect of the wedding gig you may or may not be prepared for. It’s possible that, more than just a DJ, you are expected to be what one might call a master of ceremonies. 

This means getting on the mic. If you’re a little on the shy side, that may seem simply beyond your remit. You may find, though, that MCing is easier and more rewarding than you think. For some reason, in a party situation, the sound of someone getting on the mic always revs things up a bit. It doesn’t even really matter what you say, so long as you say it with a saucy MC voice (part radio host, part auctioneer, maybe a hint of monster-truck-rally advert).  

Much of your job will be herding people from one phase of the ritual to the next. Tell everyone it’s time for dinner, time for toasts, time for the cutting of the cake, and so on. Once the party’s going you can freestyle a bit. Announce a slow song. Dedicate one to the bride, or one to the really old guy who’s been on the floor all night—that kind of thing. Just make sure to belt it out in the warmest, most charismatic voice you can muster. 

Prepare for anything

Perhaps more than any other DJ gig, you just don’t know what you’re going to get. Maybe you luck out with a crowd for whom you can DJ exactly as you would at home, or in a club. Maybe it’s incredibly dry, with no one but a couple aunties on the dance floor and everyone else glued to their assigned seats. I was once stunned to learn that, for one particular wedding, hip-hop classics were considered too spicy for the children and old folks in the room. Conversely, I’ve seen Jared Wilson’s “This Love” rock a wedding reception in a hotel dining room, and video evidence of a Nigerian wedding where System Of A Down’s “Toxicity” was a hands-in-the-air moment. 

You just can’t know until you’re there. So, as with many (or perhaps all) DJ scenarios, the key is to pack as many tracks in as many styles as possible, and not get too attached to any vision of what the gig will actually be like. The more flexible you are, the better. 

Words: Will Lynch