How To DJ – Play Your First DJ Set In Just 4 Hours!

Phil Morse | Read time: 9 mins
beginner DJ first dj set how to dj
Last updated 19 August, 2021

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Got an afternoon free this week? A bit of time at the weekend? Have you always wanted to DJ, rather than watch others do it? This is your chance!

I’m here to show you how to DJ in just four hours. No, this is not a joke. Half a day from now, you will have made big steps towards being a DJ, and know how to play a basic DJ set in front of other people.

Now of course, I can’t turn you into Jazzy Jeff or A-Trak – but equally, I CAN show you how to make real strides towards being a DJ, and how to set a clear path ahead for learning what you need to know.

Before we start, it’s important for you to know that I’m not some internet copywriter who’s researched this topic for about half an hour before churning out yet another lame “how to” article to go with the dozens already out there.

I am a professional DJ, who in his 30-year career has played in countless clubs, including the biggest club in the world, Privilege (in Ibiza). I am also the author of the Amazon best-selling book on DJing, Rock The Dancefloor!

Livestreaming a DJ set
Twice a month I livestream a “Balcony Beats” DJ set to our channels – check out the replays here.

Oh, and I founded Digital DJ Tips, the leading DJ technology website and the biggest online DJ school in the world, with nearly 30,000 students taught since 2010.

Read this next: How I Discovered The 5 Steps To DJing Success

So what I’m about to share with you on DJing is the real deal. It’s what I advise my students, and what I would teach you if you were face-to-face with me. It works for my students, and if you follow what I say, it will work for you too.

So, want to play your first DJ set just four hours from now? Let’s get started…

How To DJ In Just Four Hours

Hour 1: The gear

You’re going to need something to DJ on. You don’t need anything expensive. You may see people on YouTube with all kinds of expensive set-ups doing all kinds of tricks, but here are some home truths for you:

  • 90% of pro DJs use exactly the same geartwo Pioneer DJ media players and a pro DJ mixer
  • 70% of hobby DJs use “DJ controllers” – plastic boxes that plug into laptops to control DJ software
  • Today, it’s possible to DJ just fine on the phone in your pocket – DJ software on today’s smartphones actually blows away the very same pro gear I just mentioned, that 90% of pro DJs use!

So you see, today’s gear, whatever you use, is going to be fine. In fact, to DJ you only need four things:

  1. Two music sources, whose speed (or “tempo”) you can vary, which helps with “beatmixing” (lining up the beats of songs to blend them smoothly)
  2. A way of blending or “mixing” those music sources together
  3. A way of playing your finished blend, or mix, to your audience
  4. A way of listening to your music sources independently in headphones, to help you “cue up” or prepare the next song

Everything else is optional. So two old-fashioned turntables and an old DJ mixer will do fine. All the modern options I mentioned above will do fine. Any DJ gear you can get your hands on will almost certainly do fine.

Want more help deciding? Grab a free PDF copy of our latest Gear and Software Guide

Find something that gives you the four things I just outlined, and you can learn how to DJ.

Top down shot of Pioneer DJ DDJ-400 booth
Go for something like the Pioneer DJ DDJ-400 controller, which will serve you well for years to come.

That said, if you want to adopt this hobby, you’ll probably buy a DJ controller, as they’re relatively cheap, they pair with the laptop you already own, and they’re great fun. No need to spend too much – good basic controllers include the Pioneer DJ DDJ-400 and the Numark Mixtrack Pro FX.

Read this next: 5 Best DJ Controllers Under $500

Now, do it! Spend your hour figuring out what you will be DJing on, and if you need to order something, stop the clock until it arrives! Get a controller/laptop or other set-up, headphones (any will do for now), and speakers. You’ll need cables too – they’re probably in the box.

Hour 2: The music

Many DJs get stuck here, and I’ll tell you why.

As a wannabe DJ, you love music, right? And whether you download/buy music or not (and let’s face it, many people use Spotify etc nowadays instead of buying tunes), you already “have” a LOT of it – in your playlists, on your hard drive, on your shelves.

And it turns out that having a LOT of music is the complete opposite of what you need to do as a DJ!

Instead, as a DJ, you want just enough of the RIGHT music.

Think of it this way: Your tunes are your tools. A plumber or a carpenter wouldn’t collect and carry tens of thousands of tools to every job, would they? They have a relatively small number of tools that they know, guard well, and are able to complete the job with.

Your DJ music should be like that.

Controller DJ searches for music on laptop
Make it easy on yourself when you play a DJ set, and keep your music collection lean.

Sure over time it will grow, but if you don’t really “know” every track, as a DJ, in a very real sense you don’t own it at all.

So here are two ways of achieving that:

  1. Start a new “collection” ( a playlist in your streaming service, a folder on your hard drive, whatever) called “DJ music”. Only put into it tracks you want to DJ with. Less is more. For a half-hour DJ set, you may want a dozen tunes. That’ll do to start with
  2. Alternatively, take everything out of your current collection you know you WON’T want to DJ with. What’s left will be your “DJ music”

However you do it, adopt the “less is more” mindset. Don’t worry about how you’ll turn these tracks into a DJ set just yet. Instead, worry about how you’ll get them into your DJ gear.

To do that, you have two choices:

  1. If you prefer streaming music, and you use Tidal, SoundCloud Go+, Beatport LINK, or Beatsource LINK, most DJ software nowadays lets you DJ directly from those services, so set that up (unfortunately, nobody lets you DJ from Spotify or Apple Music, but a service like Soundiiz will help you switch your library to one of those services)
  2. If you want to buy your tracks, head to the iTunes store, Beatport, Beatsource, Amazon or wherever you buy MP3s from, and get them into a folder on your computer called “DJ Music” or similar, and import this folder into your software/add it to your DJ gear’s drive

Now, go get yourself a dozen or so tunes. If you want to spend longer organising your music, cool – stop the clock and take as long as you need! But finding 12 tunes for a half-hour DJ set should be easy enough in hour 2…

Hour 3: The skills

There is an awful lot you can learn about mixing music. You can learn scratching, cue juggling, harmonic mixing, quick mixing, finger drumming, manual beatmixing, live remixing, and on and on. As a DJ school, we of course have courses and work with tutors to teach all of these things.

But to play your first half-hour DJ set in four hours, you’re going to need to cut to the chase. At its essence, a DJ’s job is to play the right music, in the right order, for the people in front of them, right now.

Note: Play.

Not mix.

Not scratch.

Play.

If you play great music, in a good order, you’re 80% of the way there.

And the good news is: You already know how to do that! You know the music you want to play in your DJ sets. You probably want to be a DJ because listening to other DJs often frustrates you. You have spent half your life listening to, dancing to, sharing, talking about and enjoying music.

Young guy sitting on couch mixing
With your first set, stick to the basics. Pick good music, cut out the gaps, and keep your volumes level.

Now when it comes to playing music for people to dance to, apart from getting some good tunes in roughly a good order, there are just two additional things you need to be able to do:

  1. Cut out the gaps
  2. Keep everything at a similar volume

That’s all I want you to do for your first DJ set.

To cut out the gaps, learn how to “cue” the next track in your headphones, and have it ready so that when you hit “play”, it starts immediately. Learn how to switch from one track to the next quickly and cleanly.

Five minutes with the instructions that came with your DJ gear will get you there. Have-a-dozen attempts, and you’ll figure it out. (If you’d like more help here, check out from here in Rock The Dancefloor! where I explain what DJs actually do.)

Six goes and you’ll get this.

To keep everything at a similar volume, make sure your master volume meter on your DJ gear is set so it is as loud as possible without ever going into the “red”, and keep a close eye on it especially when switching from one tune to the next.

Make sure the controls for both tunes (level, hi, mid, low, main fader) are roughly in the same place. Really, that’ll do for now.

DJ adjusts volume on mixer
Properly setting volumes can be the difference between sounding great or sounding like a novice.

Now here’s a final important point: Figure out right now how to record your practice sessions.

The reason for this is that there is only one person in the whole world who doesn’t hear your DJing how it really is: You!

Why? Because you are too busy actually doing it to hear the results properly. You may think you’re doing great, or terrible, but until you listen back to a recording, you’ll never truly know.

So find that “record” button in your software, and record yourself, listening back later on – this is the second fastest way to learn (we’ll move onto the fastest way to learn next).

Optional extra work, and a bonus

“But I want to beatmix!” you are probably saying. That’s natural, and so if you want to stop the “four hour” clock and learn a bit about counting, timing and beatmixing, now’s the time. It’s optional for now, but it IS fun!

In the book “Rock The Dancefloor!”, I link to a handful of short videos where I show you some simple DJ mixes that you can use right now in your DJ sets.

I have made the whole book available online for free, so click here to go straight to the videos – or better still, click here to go to the Techniques section and read it all. It’ll give you all you need to know to be performing beatmixing in no time.

Hour 4: Play your DJ set

So you’ve got your gear, grabbed a dozen or so tunes, and figured out how to cut out the gaps, keeping the volume steady. You’ve recorded your efforts, listened back, and learned a couple of things.

Now you need to play your DJ set in front of others.

The truth about DJing is that it is done for, and with, other people. You sharpen your skills on the steel of the public.

Now, your public may be just your partner, or kids, or best friend, or whatever, but other people have to come into the equation. You’ve got to play DJ sets to learn how to DJ. Otherwise:

  • How will you know what order to play your songs, without watching your “crowd” and letting them influence your decision? (No planned DJ set ever ends up exactly as planned, the DJ always alters things depending upon the crowd)
  • How will you know how long to play each song for, without watching you crowd and gauging how much they’re enjoying the current one?
  • How will you learn how to deal with the inevitable hiccups, with the desire to “go and try that again because it wasn’t how I wanted it”, if you’re not forced to?

One of the biggest mistakes I see DJs making is spending weeks or months choosing, saving for and buying complicated gear, months or even years practising complex techniques (thinking that’s what’s needed to be able to do that stuff to play out)… and then getting angry the local club won’t book them when they finally try to launch themselves onto the world!

Watch this next: The BEST Way To Book More DJ Gigs (And Play Music You Love)

But these DJs aren’t DJs at all, because they’ve not learned the real lessons of DJing – lessons that you only learn in public. As a new DJ, you should have played loads of DJ sets in public by that point!

Again, “in public” doesn’t mean anything more than producing an end result – playing a set for your family, DJing a short set at your friend’s barbecue in between the usual Spotify playlists, even figuring out how to livestream (it isn’t hard nowadays, and we have an ultimate guide to doing it).

The point is that you learn more from playing real DJ sets, in front of real people, than from anything else.

Whether it’s DJing to a few friends or opening up for a bigger act, playing in public is absolutely crucial.

If nothing else, knowing you will be playing a DJ set in front of someone else will force you to practise, just so you don’t make a fool of yourself!

So here’s how you are going to spend the fourth hour of your four-hour rapid job learning how to DJ:

  1. Spend a few minutes “booking a gig” – as I say, getting your family to listen to your “first” 30-minute set counts! Or hijack a party with friends, whatever. If you can’t DJ to someone today, find sometime soon when you can
  2. Play the gig! Set your gear up, and play start-to-finish, mistakes and all

Conquer the nerves, smile even though you’re nervous. Halfway through your set, they’ll all melt away, I promise you.

I can guarantee you two things if you can get yourself to this stage:

  1. You’ll have done more than the vast majority people who dream of learning this
  2. You’ll want to learn more

Well done – you’ve figure out the basics, and it’s taken you four hours!

Where To Go From Here…

So you’ve got the bug, and want to learn more.

You want to know about all the types of gear, you want to get better DJ-oriented music, you want to build your collection properly, you want to learn mixing skills, you want to know how to get paying gigs or bigger bookings… the lot!

Read this next: The Playlist Pyramid: How To Build A DJ Music Collection To Be Proud Of

There are three things that, as the world’s biggest DJ school, we can give you to make your journey fun, fast and fulfilling – and two of them are totally free. Here they are:

  1. Get a free membership to Digital DJ Tips – We have 150,000 members, DJs just like you. They receive our weekly newsletter, which from now on will be your guide to all you need to know in the world of DJing. Click here to join Digital DJ Tips
  2. Get your free copy of my book, “Rock The Dancefloor!” – What I have just shared with you in this article is an extremely truncated version of our “five steps to DJing success”, which the book goes into in full detail. It is the best book currently available on how to DJ, with hundreds of five-star reviews. It’s online here, but you get a free downloadable PDF when you join Digital DJ Tips for free. Click here to join Digital DJ Tips
  3. Let me teach you the skills – Our flagship course at Digital DJ Tips is designed for people just like you, who want to learn to DJ from the start, properly. It’s called The Complete DJ Course, is taught by me personally, and has helped thousands of people to learn. Click here to learn more about The Complete DJ Course

Finally…

Learning this is within your capabilities, for sure. You now know how to play your first set in less than four hours.

I hope this is just the start of your DJing journey, and I hope you choose to continue that journey with us by your side. Thanks for reading!

Click here for your free DJ Gear and software guide