What Makes a Great DJ: An In-Depth Look at Skilled DJ Traits

photo by @doctorvictorsound

That compact box of illusions is trying to tempt you with fame and wealth while trying to sell you a concept of someone you don’t even know you want to be.

Social networks make us think that those who appear on that screen are the only successful ones.

We are given the red carpet, the sparkling lights, the money, the fame,  and it’s all displayed as something you must have!

While I’m not going to shake a stick at a million dollars, I do want to add some aspect to all of this more so regarding the perceived success of a DJ.

Track selection, pacing, crafting a set/mix that is a journey, the energy they radiate, creativity, beatmatching ability, and a burning love for the music they perform are only some of the things that make a great DJ.

Let’s get started.

They Are Always Prepared

There are different ways of approaching this – some DJs thoroughly prepare for a set beforehand, but some (almost) never do. On rare occasions, they do, but most of the prep has gone out of the window before the second song is played.

Instead, good DJs try to put the effort in when adding tunes to their music collection – they listen to songs a lot, record the BPM (speed), imagine dancing to them, and look all the way through.

So they discover (for example) a 30-second undanceable drum solo at the end, or the guitarist taking a rhythmically weird chord solo, which makes the rhythm section collapse (and leaves the dancers scratching their heads).

If they can make it work, and the song is worth salvaging, they consider editing these moments out of the song.

Preparation Yes; Pre-Planned Sets – No!

This is a highly subjective point. My friend, who’s an established DJ, played completely pre-planned sets before. And they’ve worked.

With years of experience, he says that he probably had more than an 80% chance of knowing beforehand what was expected from his set for the party he was playing at.

As a rule, though, good DJs don’t play a pre-planned set. They arrive armed with a playlist – which is equivalent to carrying one’s crate of records before a gig in the old days.

If you expect just to stand up there and press play on 25 tunes already placed out in sequence and shake the floor every time, it’s not going to happen.

You could also miss out on the enthusiasm of the ‘in-the-moment’ decision-making that is needed to decide there and then what the crowd needs next.

This way, you will learn a lot more about yourself, your music, and the people you play to.

Good Club DJs

For them, the best way to figure out this craft was to get out on the dancefloor. What makes them move, their friends bounce, and when does the whole floor go nuts?

Good DJs are learning by observation and participation.

In my experience, a club crowd cares more about good music than the DJ doing gnarly mixes. Plan a primary direction you want to take the night, then build a limited ‘playlist’ (around 30 songs/hour of playing time) that can lead the crowd in that direction.

If you’re a standard social dance club DJ, warm them up with some tech-house and play a couple of mashups to fill the floor.

Then drop some dirty Dutch to get the people movin’, a couple of crazy electro tracks for people to party to.

And then drop a few anthems so people can go nuts and cap it off with an insane remix of a pop song. Of course, it depends on the crowd you’re playing to.

Excellent Musical Culture and a Vast Collection of Tunes

Behind every great DJ is a history of clubbing, crate-digging, mix-swapping, and overall music-loving. DJs develop taste as they develop skills.

Private gigs, club residencies, and even entire scenes come and go, but the good DJs have music libraries they spend a lifetime gradually building up.

Behind all that, lies a pure and naive belief that all of this is to please their love of music.

On too many occasions, I’ve heard people starting DJing because it’s “easy,” that you get all those perks along with a series of girls throwing themselves into your bed.

I want to see guys or girls behind the decks who are so involved in the tracks that I’m pretty sure they forgot they are working.

These “behind the scenes” tasks aren’t glamorous, but exceptional music is the base of your career. When you eventually surface as a polished, professional DJ with a box full of magic, only you will understand how you collected those tunes over the years – and no one will be able to reverse-engineer your route.

When we took turns on the deck, my friend hit me with information that he was listening and reading about the music from big band swing recordings made 1935-1942 and swing recordings from the late ’20s and early ’30s. He also mentioned some tracks by the better modern swing bands, such as Gordon Webster, Naomi & Her Handsome Devils. I was impressed.

He’s just that type of guy who wants to learn everything in the field he’s dealing with, in this case, music.

They Don’t Fake Doing Things to Fill the Space

For example, when DJs pose to turn EQ knobs in the heart of the tune for no reason.

Because of that, I love underground house/techno. In both genres, you see DJs playing live surrounded by their friends.

If you just completed mixing a tune and already have the next track queued up, there’s a substantial 1-2 minute gap where there isn’t much the DJ needs to be arranging.

I’d preferably see them turn around, chat with their buddies, have a beer or glass of wine, smoke a blunt, or whatever, especially if we’re talking about a back-to-back set.

Another thing I fancy is when a DJ screws up. Not like a significant derailment, but perhaps a transition that wasn’t wholly seamless or maybe a song that doesn’t really flow with the one before it. Then I know they’re DJing for real and not working with sync or an entirely pre-planned mix.

Good DJs Know Their Music

There’s a reason practice is essential. Someone who’s practiced with one genre and played that many tracks from that one style probably knows many things about that specific genre – and that’s a pretty helpful skill for a DJ.

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It’s not a fact, but it’s a pretty reliable indicator that their mixing is backed by a complete reference to music in their mind. That experience is irreplaceable.

Established DJs don’t just pick up tunes at random from an extensive collection of songs that were not self-selected. Sadly, I have seen this happen too often.

Not every transition between tracks has to be fluid, but what comes next should make sense. It shouldn’t just be accidental. And that’s precisely what they accomplish with knowing their music to the core.

The skilled DJ comprehends music better than you, better than his mates, better than everyone in the club or the record shop. Some DJs recognize their preferred style better than anyone else on the planet.

They Are Professionals

If you show up late and scruffy, the impression you leave is, “I don’t give a damn.” It’s crucial to be both reliable and well played out.

By looking and behaving like “somebody,” and I don’t mean being cocky and diva, you say: “I’m the person in charge of this gig, I’m someone to manage tonight’s fun, trust me – and let’s go!”

It’s partially what you wear and how you appear, but also your professionalism. Be the pro. People recognize that and favor working with pros.

And They Know How to Control Their Nerves

All DJs get worried. If you don’t, you’re doing it wrong. The skill is to be professional enough to cover it.

Admittedly, things can go wrong, but your role as a DJ is to suppress that side of things from the public as much as you can. They don’t care. It’s not their problem!

Good DJs recognize that and fix stuff low-key and neatly. Of course, the experience gets you more skilled at this, but remember that being somewhat anxious is fine. It keeps you on your toes, which is good.

They Are Passionate About Equipment

You probably have your DJ controllers, speakers, mic, etc. but that is not sufficient if you want to move past the horizon.

Established DJs know what is new out there in the store. And what the DJ in the club next door has.

They expanded their understanding of other instruments and obtained various uses from the ones they knew to the core. Remember, the more information you have, the higher the possibilities of progression!

A typical mistake that new DJs make is spending a full DJ set only staring at the gear. Whatever equipment you use (MIDI controller, media players, turntables), you need to improve your capacity to pay equal attention to the gear and dance floor.

Top DJs had studied their gear, and they looked at it as little as possible. That means they:

  • Understand where each button/knob is, and they’re able to find controls by touch
  • Understand how much pressure it takes to activate this or that control
  • Are capable of putting the needle on a record in the dark, from the edge of their vision
  • Have playlists well-prepared, so they can swiftly locate the next tune in seconds

Skilled DJ bases almost every interaction with setup on muscle memory. That clears up eyes to spend as much time as possible looking at the crowd and their behavior.

Beyond being capable of learning more from following their dance floor, DJs who only stare at their equipment create a feeling of detachment and disaffection in an audience.

This can swiftly lead to an empty club and cold feelings about the DJ – and people will remember that.

A Great DJ Can Fit in Any Situation

A skilled DJ can use any setup. They can make the crowd go crazy, pounding two needles of vinyl together if it comes to it.

Surely, they have their desires and requests, but if push comes to shove, it’s about them and them only.

Their method starts in their brains, not their hands. If you take experienced established DJs and put them in any situation with nothing but the hat on their head, they don’t just survive, they shine.

A good DJ can perform with other people’s tracks and sound nicer than their owner. 

I once saw Sven Vath play Richie Hawtins’ records after he got lost by the airline, and afterward, Richie was blown away. Like, “I didn’t even know that B side was there.”

Once I was at the party right next to the old experienced DJ who was playing, we talked, and I saw the CDJ playing was rolling down with 20 seconds to spare. The guy caught my look, quickly put the next CD in, cued it, and mixed it perfectly, mid-sentence.

That’s the kind of calm that’s only possible after decades in the game. Live stress is no stress at all. This confidence creates an exceptional foundation for taking musical gambles. A dull, soft selector is afraid of standing out. A skilled DJ stands out as a policy.

They Invent and Reinvent Their Style

This is vital if DJs want to be successful in the long run.

Something none of them wants is to come across as a one-dimensional DJ with poor musical range. Instead, they want to confirm that they can adjust their style to match the ever-changing music scene.

I’ll mention Armin van Buuren as an example. He began as a progressive house and vocal trance DJ, but over time his style has evolved to such a level that he’s lately headlining top EDM festivals such as UMF in Miami and Tomorrowland in Belgium.

Another example is Carl Cox. As his career progressed, his music incorporated a wide range of genres, like funky techno, tech-house, and funk soul.

You get the idea. If you want to be an established DJ, it’s essential to have several aces up your sleeve regarding the range of genres you play. 

That being said, you shouldn’t compromise on your individuality and what makes you different. It would be best if you played mixes that people can recognize as ‘you,’ that you like and care about.

They Enjoy Being on the Decks

And demonstrating the love for DJing (and music in general).

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What upsets me with DJs is a lack of enthusiasm (which I find inexcusable) and a lack of appreciation of the fortunate situation in which they’re in.

A great DJ is happily playing to a room of five or five thousand as long as they can play, does it for the music, not the fame, and shares his enthusiasm for this craft.

Whether that’s obsessively record shopping all week or doing individual edits of specific tunes or producing their own tracks, they make sure to give people everything they can for a great night out.

It’s an all-consuming love to perform the very best they can, on any given night.

For instance, watch Fatboy Slim in his Brighton Beach performance. He’s not just playing music. He’s also delighted and keeps the energy moving, dancing, waving, and communicating with the audience. He was actually writing messages for the crowd on record sleeves, can you believe that?

Most DJs these days are too monotone when performing, too concentrated on making everything precise. They should lighten up, and be comfortable, and then that joy transfers to the crowd. After all, people are there to have a good time!

When you’re watching a live DJ set, you assume a decent performance. You don’t want to see someone with his head buried in a laptop or mixer the whole gig. 

The best live DJs are continually looking at the crowd, making eye contact, laughing, fist-pumping, and head nodding, it’s always nice to see a DJ growing into the tracks he is playing. 

If it looks like the guy behind the decks is having a good time, you know he’s enjoying what he’s doing, and he’s more likely to be in tune with the music and the people and give an excellent, exciting performance. 

With this comes the skill of reading the audience, it’s not hard to look up at the people often, and if you see not many folks are dancing, then you’re not doing everything right.

Good DJs change it up, raise the beats per minute, or drop something beautiful like a tune you know is an absolute banger that will get the dance floor moving.

A Willingness to Go With the Flow

The “must-have” trait of good DJs is the ability to know how a club’s energy is generated and flows, and not get trapped in the net of wanting to be a musical genius that you can teach an audience to share your thinking of what “good music” is. 

Their job is to entertain, not teach. If you are a DJ and you’d like to educate, you should have become a teacher. 

But if you’re a striving DJ in the crowd like I am sometimes you like to learn from DJ sets. Meaning, if I don’t know any of the songs in the set, it’s been an outstanding set. With tracks being so easy to discover and listen, the value I get from a DJ is truly hearing songs I otherwise wouldn’t come across. 

And that’s what great DJs do every day. They go to online record pools to gather unique music, which is what eventually sets them apart.

They have enthusiasm for the tunes they love and play the tracks they love. Their goal usually isn’t to educate. Because in the crowd there’s maybe 2% of those who actually want to DJ.

A great DJ is someone who mixes great tunes and sets the mood of the night, who is a slave to the situation and the event, and, most of all, to the audience. 

However, it’s not a passive role – probably the contrary. I view it as a strange conflicting position. 

You need to satisfy and entertain the masses in some way, make them hear and dance to your mixes, but without losing your substance, drive, and aesthetics, and do it with creativity, and vision. This distinct character comes individually with each personality.

They Know How to Maintain a Flow

They use the effect of holding a functional diversity of speeds and styles but also try to maintain a good flow of songs.

A good DJ avoids bouncing too abruptly between styles and speeds, and any crushing form or tempo leaps.

Except when he feels it’s a chance to do something dramatic like adding a lot of energy into the room or taking everything down after something utterly insane – but he keeps these moments as exceptions.

What I’m about to say could sound like overkill or OCD, but I even like to control precisely how long I leave it between one track finishing and beginning the next – I never drop this on automatically when DJing full-on. There’s virtually always a sweet spot that seems like just the right moment to start the following song.

Track Selection!

The tune selection is king nine times out of ten. A good DJ can make people get down to like what he does, even if his mixing isn’t entirely on point. A good tune’s a good tune, no?

Excellent technique means nothing if your music choice isn’t on point, or at least unique. 

Bests in this game, play the music they love and feel, or it’s a hard, short journey. If the DJ loves it, the crowd will feel that love in his set. 

When it comes to underground genres, you should be engaged in what you play, not in what the people desire to hear. It’s like being given beef because you like it and never tasting salmon to compare.

I love nothing more than hearing a dope song begin as a transition, maybe an edit I’m unfamiliar with, and then listening to it get layered with a synth from the second song or a twisted acapella. If it makes me go, “What the hell is this,” that’s a win.

Unidentifiable Tunes… but Not When It Comes to Social Dance Music!

Those recommendations are specifically for psytrance, house, techno, etc. DJs, because then your audience will want the latest tracks they’ve never heard before. 

When it comes to social dance music listeners, everyone has their favorite songs that make them happy. And those people love having a chance to dance to popular songs they’ve heard. 

Good social dance music DJs add stylistic waves and footwork changes to match the musical changes. The more experienced dancers have a sharp preference for familiar songs precisely for those reasons.

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New music is always exciting for most characters, including the experienced dancers, so add those to your set.

Some DJs more often fail on the side of not enough common favorites (or worse, none). Those are usually the ones who are grandstanding, giving off their extensive music resources.

That’s their version of “Look at me! Look what I have!” rather than selflessly providing the crowd with what they want. Then they question why people don’t come back. 

But misjudging the side of only classic favorites isn’t much better. Give them lots of both. That’s what good DJs do.

Conversely, some parties have period themes, like all-fifties, disco, or all-seventies. 

Mixing/Technical Skill

About 40 years ago, the heart of a DJ’s job was to perform recorded tunes for the people on the dance floor. 

A good club DJ today is required to possess specific technical skills to perform.

We call those abilities “technical” because they can be described in great detail and are globally relevant. 

Examples of such skills include mixing (mashups, sampling, clean and unique transitions, layering) or its prerequisite, beatmatching.

I would add volume and EQ management. It isn’t enjoyable when the EQ isn’t tended to at all. Not enough bass (no rhythm), too much bass (thump thump), not enough treble (no harmony), too much treble (hurts my eardrums).

Great DJs possess the ability to effortlessly switch between genres, BPMs, moods, and beatmatching by ear. 

There’s no hard boundary between the art – where the DJ’s creativity rules – and the technique.

Creativity also depends on how you use those technical skills of yours. In any case, the technique needs to be learned first.

The skilled DJs can even play the sound system itself working with volume and frequency controllers, as well as special effects (echo and reverb), to highlight specific bits or even individual instruments in a track.

When you get in front of the people, you need to be in charge of the equipment you are using, be confident, and be determined to segue a mix of music collectively as seamlessly and thoughtfully as you possibly can.

The Issue With Sync Buttons

My problem with sync buttons – which are accessible both on media players and DJ controllers/software, so this has nothing to do with laptop DJs – is that I crossed ways with too many DJs who have relied on the software to mix the tracks for them.

So they never heard the music, by extension layer music elegantly and efficiently.

There are young DJs out there using laptops and controllers and still not even beat-mixing four-to-the-floor music – mixing only in the breaks and not on the kicks!

That, I’m afraid, is a jukebox and you can’t become a great DJ!

If I downloaded a hip-hop mix, for example, from a technical POV, ideally, I want to listen to some variety in technique when it comes to transitions.

I want to hear some scratching, some trick mixing, a bit of juggling, and the use of effects and loops, but it’s about knowing where the limits are.

I’ve heard beginner mixes where the DJ has done a really awful scratch solo that goes on for too long or constantly twiddles knobs or triggers effects like they’ve got some form of DJ OCD and can’t leave the mixer alone for more than a few seconds.

In the worst cases, it ends up being less than the sum of its parts, and I’d prefer to listen to a playlist of the songs rather than the mix.

The Technical Standard of DJing is Lower Than Ever

I believe DJing’s technical standard is lower and that this has happened due to advances in technology.

It’s always going to be more challenging to mix two records on a rotary mixer and floating turntables than to control the mouse over two synced tracks in Traktor.

That’s not a judgment, that’s just a fact.

We can’t know for sure if it’s easier or harder to be a great DJ now, but I believe that a lot of crowds who go to listen to DJs, may have less awareness of what makes a good DJ than people 15 years ago did, so perhaps it’s easier to impress today than it was in the past?

They Respect and Trust Their Fans

This is the complete opposite of ego and comes from being thankful for finding something you’re enthusiastic about and skilled at, and having a fine audience to share your music with.

Good DJs understand they’re fortunate and feel incredibly humbled by the characters who make it all achievable for them.

Some DJs are seen as extremely arrogant, but in my experience, it just happens through insecurity. Or an inability to associate with their fans and accept that listeners can and hopefully enjoy and recognize the hard work they’re putting in.

Once you’re modestly confident that you’re doing something valuable, you become incredibly grateful for the support and generosity of the people who like your work.

You want to be friendly, not detached from them.

DJs who:

  • Engage their fans, talk to them
  • Try to gather their contact details then stay in touch with listeners
  • Take time to engage with them on YouTube, Instagram or any other platform
  • Bother to set up websites and Soundcloud pages where they can share and discuss their craft

gain a force that can lead to a huge fanbase. And all by staying humble enough to understand that without their fans, they are nothing. Be humble and appreciative to take responsibility for your supporters, and your career may very well take care of itself.

In the end, people are smart. They know when they are getting a great deal and when they are getting ripped off. Either with drinks at a club or with entertainment – the DJ music.

Established club DJ trusts their audience, and they follow him for music. They will check out different places for a week or two and come right back to the real deal.

So if you are a good DJ, you have nothing to worry about. And a good DJ doesn’t have to have a gazillion years of experience. Some skills are acquired over the years, but some vital musical genes are naturally built in you. And that cannot be purchased.

Tray Fiddy

Tray has come to terms with the fact he will probably never be a famous DJ.... but that hasn't stopped him from mixing and researching audio equipment. Tray has over 12 years of experience DJing at home and events.

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