The Best Instruments To Learn As A DJ, Controllerist, and Producer

Electronic music is a curious medium, in that it does not require you know any traditional instruments but instead to be a generalist in everything. Tools like sequencers and drum machines have allowed creative individuals to express themselves using their ears alone to create music, without requiring years of training in a particular form of musical generation. However, many successful producers and DJs do often have backgrounds in music, and we can’t help but wonder – does it help? Today we look at some of the most popular musical instruments and how much of a benefit they might provide DJs, producers and controllerists.

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Instrument: Drums

Learn Online: Drumeo’s YouTube channel has a ton of great, free video content for learning. 
Cost Of Instrument: Drums take a significant initial investment if you want a traditional set. Expect to spend $500 at least.
Time to Develop Talent: It’s going to take months before you can play patterns that will compete with good automation so unless you’re truly committed to the skins, this might not be a good instrument to “try out”.

The root of all rhythm, the drums are a powerful instrument to master. Not only do they require independent control over each limb, a mental feat in and of itself, but the drums also demand incredible musical focus – all clutch for great stage performances. Drummers naturally find ways to fit all of the drum sounds, creating space for each hit as they speak together as a group. This can be critical for arranging music or mixing songs.

Benefit for DJs: Drums are all about phrasing and keeping a close eye on how the music is structured by parts. The drummer is keeping careful track of where the breakdowns come up and how the long the chorus goes on for. This is a critical skill for DJs, so drummers certainly have an edge here. The meticulous timing that drummers require does not provide as much benefit to DJs alone and for that reason, it’s a medium that might not be great if DJing is your main goal.

Benefits for Producers: Dance tracks are all about the rhythm and what can separate the really good ones from the pack is how intelligent and energetic that rhythm can be. This is where being a drummer can really shine, as it allows drummers to hand-program beats that provide a human swing and understand the intricate delicacies of a complicated groove. It’s a big commitment, but basic drumming could provide a much-needed edge for the young producer.

Benefits for Controllerists: We have seen a number of drummers-turned-controllerists, but they tend to be rare. One of the main things you learn to leverage is the power of the stick. By changing the angle of the stick, drummers can create very fast, reliable hits all the way up to rapid fire hats. This can be very challenging for fingers because a finger and button paired just do not benefit from the same laws of physics. For that reason we find that controllerists benefit the most from…

keyboard-player

Instrument: Piano

Learn Online: Reddit’s r/Piano has a great list of free resources here
Cost Of Instrument:
Anywhere from <$100 for a basic MIDI keyboard to $3,000+ for a good piano
Time to develop Talent: 3-6 Piano lessons that teach basic chords combined with a little music theory can go a long way. This is a great pond to gently dip your toes.

The piano is a remarkably powerful instrument and there is a good reason it’s the primary tool for writing music. A good pianist literally has the entire song at his finger tips.

First, the piano is a fantastic rhythmic instrument with a great ability to describe and create compelling rhyme. With the bass on the left hand, chord structure in the right and melody available in the fingers – all of the key elements of a song can be played at once by a single person. This makes it ideal for composing. Many song writers flesh out the song structure on a piano and them move it into the studio to record individual parts. In the following tutorial you can see how Avicii takes a simple chord/bass pattern and moves all of the notes into various parts that create a full song.

Benefits for DJs: Knowing keys and tone is a clutch skill for more advanced DJing. It’s not required at first, and tools like Mixed In Key help a lot, but really understanding music theory will provide a moderate boost over the average DJ. At the very least anyone can take music theory on a piano and only invest 20-40 hours.

Benefits for Producers: Basic piano chops are basically required for modern production. Sure you can invite in session players but the keyboard remains as one of the most efficient ways to record in chords and melody lines. Really knowing the piano well, and being able to play it efficiently provides a huge musical benefit for the new producer, turning you into the song writer as well. I have personally been taking piano lessons and after just a few months, you start to see big results.

Benefits for Controllerists: Did you know our own Riccardo Betti, winner of various contests and all around finger drumming badass is actually a pianist? Well of course that makes sense! What other instrument forces you to train each finger to play perfectly in time and with great dexterity? For the budding controllerist, daily metronome skills with the piano should pay huge dividends.

playing-guitar

Instrument: Guitar

Learn Online: There are loads of lessons online, but check out Soundslice, which syncs guitar tabs with YouTube videos – awesome practice tool.
Cost Of Instrument: Like the piano, there’s a range. $200 – $2000 depending on quality.
Time to Develop Talent: Expect basic chords in a few months, which are good for playing arrangements and song writing. Really getting good at the guitar can take years and will leave your fingers sore for months.

A guitar is one of the more versatile instruments, and has been around since (roughly) the 12th century. It’s fundamental to a lot of the early forms of modern music, but has recently seen somewhat of a decline with the increase in electronic pop music.

Improvisation (and the dreaded “noodling”) is easy once you’ve learned basic scales and chords – making the guitar a handy instrument for coming up with new musical ideas. Besides the piano, a guitar is great for writing songs with bass and chords being easy to play together.

Benefits for DJs: As a lifetime guitarist, I am struggling to find how this skill benefited my DJing. Playing the guitar can provide a general knowledge of music, but that’s true of any instrument, so we can’t count it. The problem with learning a guitar is that the sound can be so specific to rock, folk, and country styles – making it less flexible in a DJ context. I have heard a few quality DJ sets with guitar accompaniment and if you can offer both in one person, that might be an easy sell.

Benefits for Producers: There is a reason guitar solos are so popular (with guitarists anyway) – it’s just so tun and easy to play around thanks to the standard tuning of most western guitars. Learn a few pentatonic scales and you can easily write catchy melodies for days with this approachable instrument. One side effect of the guitar is that you also are essentially learning to play a bass. Dance is music is firmly rooted in a good bassline, so having the ability to whip out the Fender and lay down a smooth base line can bring some real dimension to your songs.

Benefits for Controllerists: The main thing controllerists might benefit from is that this instrument forces your non-dominant hand to be very active and engaged. Most right-handed controllerists will find their left side really lags behind in the timing and agility department, but a few guitar lessons could really help.

vocals

Instrument: Voice

Learn Online: Reddit (again) has a great article on getting started learning the basics of singing.
Cost Of Instrument: 
The instrument is free, but good voice lessons often run $20-40 an hour.
Time to Develop Talent: This is the territory where a few good classes can pay off big. It may take a long time to beat Mariah Carey, but just about anyone can fix standard pitch issues quickly.

I recently had the opportunity to ask the world-famous tabla player Zakir Hussain how he practices – his answer was surprising, but typical of most masters.

I don’t practice with my hands – I practice with my voice. Anything I can vocalize, my hands will follow.

As the universally available instrument, you voice can be the easiest instrument around for getting ideas on paper. Now with Ableton’s Audio to MIDI feature – sing a line into Ableton and convert it to a synth with a single click.

Think you are a terrible singer? Two facts:

Some of the most popular dance tracks out there feature small lines delivered by totally non-experienced producers. With a little auto tune and some basic processing almost anyone can sing a decent hook. With vocal’s it’s not about how perfect the line is but how it makes you feel. Often a little raw honesty can work in a great way.

Even if you never record a single vocal track, being able to express musical ideas vocally will translate into all other mediums and almost everyone can benefit from even a few voice lessons. They teach good breathing techniques, increase confidence, and even deepen the natural speaking voice. Who knows – you might even love it and become a full-blown singer after all!

Benefits for DJs: There are several great examples of DJs that also throw vocals into their set. I think it’s a simple and very powerful way to turn a standard mix into a special performance. Collete, a popular house DJ is one of many women whose DJ set and production style is built around their voice.

Benefits for Producers: The easiest way to convey musical ideas in the studio to other musicians is by singing out the idea your imagining. Even if you don’t learn a single instrument, having some very basic vocal chops can really go a long way in being expressive and letting your audience hear what you are feeling.

Benefits for Controllerists: We have to defer to Zakir, arguably the greatest finger drummer alive in that quote above. If he say’s using your voice is great for drumming then chances are stretching those vocal chords is a great way to expand your rhythmic voice.

Related: Mad Zach’s Tutorial on starting a track by beatboxing 

music-theory

FORGET INSTRUMENTS, LEARN MUSIC THEORY

We asked our Twitter followers what instruments they thought were the best to learn, and one response is absolutely worth sharing:

For a lot of the benefits that come with learning an instrument, you don’t need to choose any of the most popular instruments above to gain an understanding of the rules behind music. Learning music theory not only will make songwriting, producing, and remixing easier, but it also means that on the decks you’re much more likely to be able to smartly select a mix that works harmonically without relying on sometimes-accurate key detection software.

Learn now: the best thing about just focusing on theory is there are loads of free resources out there to get started with. We can recommend the cheap phone apps and free lessons available on Musictheory.net as a great place to start.

  • psb

    Nicee, Learn to play the piano requires your desire to do it.
    I really believe is worth investing your time to get these things
    If you can not do what you love so what it all worth?
    I wrote about a great way to learn piano
    http://psb-1.blogspot.com/2015/11/keyboard-notes-for-beginners.html

  • Pingback: Learn To Dj And Producer | Computer DJ Software()

  • Ezra

    totally agree with DJ alt.rock—–also, my first drum kit was $200 and I only recently upgraded to a nice gretsch for 500. yes its true some kits are thousands of dollars, but a good 3 piece is quite cheap, (especially if you are buying used )

  • Markos Polydorou

    Great article!

  • Producerdude

    the most difficult thing for producers is the sounddesign, there’s nothing harder to learn that create a specific snare, a specific synth or whatever. I play drums since 10 years now and I’d say i play them pretty good but I still struggle with these drums while producing, not because of the lack of ideas for patterns but of the sound-design.

  • corneilius

    I play piano, saxophone and percussion. Piano is great for theory, learning to read music and visualising the layout of notes. Because the saxophone is never really seen by the player as it is played, it bridges the theory and reading of music to the sound expression without the visual reference of the notes. This was stage 1. Stage 2 was connecting the music and creativity directly without conscious processing to be involved. After the initial epiphany, which happened for me about 4 years after mastering the instrument, the music can be channelled directly to the instrument without the cumbersome thought process getting in the way. Creativity can then flow without blockage. Stage 3. Percussion was important for me to learn and feel rhythm. Rhythm takes the whole body. It is only once the rhythm is felt with the entire body that it can be adequately understood. Move your whole body with the rhythm as you write your beats. Closed eyes and pursed lips helps me.
    My name on this site is a pseudonym but be assured that I am an authority on these issues. I have recorded studio albums with 4 successful bands. Having these musical realisations for myself was a magical experience but it took way too long for me to achieve ‘musical sentience’. If I was given a push in this direction earlier, I would not have gotten bogged down or disappointed wondering if there actually was more to it. Spread your wings and fly!

  • halfasemitone

    It’s easy to see who the dj’s are and who the musicians are in this thread.

    • corneilius

      All of a sudden, wannabe musicians started calling listening to music and playing records/cds/tapes/mp3s DJing. Real musicians know the difference. 😉

  • allstar720

    um… bass??? hello!

  • Dios Gnosis

    In my experience, I have found that producing and performing electronic music has conjured a desire to get to the root of music in general.

    Today, keyboard and guitar practice receive dedicated time in the structure of my days.

    Remixing created works is cute and safe, especially when mixing for mixed crowds, but to me, creating an original piece that would then have the potential to be remixed offers a much more rewarding perspective.

    To each their own always, but in one’s walk down the path of the DJ, if no pull toward original creation manifests, if no desire to continue to learn pervades, it will be reflected in one’s works.

  • Mr. Meoff

    Ummm… Learn the instruments that inspire you. Sorry, kind of silly article. Just read the title of the article again, silly… If you are asking yourself “what instruments should I learn”…, you prob shouldnt play one.

  • DJRITM

    Great article!! As a guitarist/bass guitarist and drummer for 15 years and in various bands, i totally agree with the content of this article. Learning at least one of the instruments mentioned is gonna put you miles ahead as far as producing, Dj’ing, and controllerism. This especially true if you write original music by yourself or with a band youll learn what works and what is disposable. Music theory is a must, and i think alot of new and some old dj’s, producers, etc need to know this. Being in a band playing one either one of the instruments mentioned has put me, at least i feel, way ahead of the curve of some my contemporarys in my dj’ing and producing. Its a fact most of the top producers come from some sort of traditional instrument/ music theory background.

  • Ryan Mackey

    I agree with the article. I find teaching college courses on music technology and electronic music production can be easier if the students have a grasp of how to play an instrument and at lest the basics of music theory.

  • Jim

    This got me thinking about voice lessons. As a producer, being able to put down some decent scratch vocal tracks would be great for when it comes time to work with a real singer.

  • æ

    an friend has tells me, to teach your ears, you have to play the guitar with the sound of the radio – this friend has the “Absolute pitch”

    btw
    pavarotti doesn’t have knowledge about notes

  • pumpthebreaks

    this is a great article for up and coming producers… but if any “controllerist” (as you guys are so fond of saying) were to actually take the time to learn any of these, by the end of it they probably wouldn’t feel proud to call them selves a controllerist. they would probably say, im a drummer/ vocalist/ guitarist/ musician etc. im sorry but people who just straight up “dj”, and dont take the time to learn how to produce, or play an actual instrument or even scratch and/or beatjuggle with real tables and a fader… are a fucking joke to me and i cant believe they get paid anymore than minimum wage. ill put my word on the line and assume 9 of 10 real musicians that understand “controllerism” would think its a joke. REAL TALK, if you don’t take risks and haven’t put real grown-up effort into music, you shouldn’t be playing live, smh. what a joke it is to even use the made up word controllerist. you should really just say im an overpaid bedroom “dj” you should even make the quotations with your fingers when you say that bud. im sorry but this article just got to me when i read the words dj and controllerist and you undermine real musical skill as something that would “help” your dj game. like “yo bruh, i think ima help my dj game and pick up the piano next week so i can really (somehow) WOW the crowd next time im balls deep in my serato itch, because piano is one of those things you can learn in an afternoon or 2 right?” do what you want and have fun, but expect to get back what you put in. just take the words, dj and controllerist out of this article DJTT… just do it

    • tetrix

      Controllerism isnt djing with a controller, its using production software and DJing software live, IE, stringing together loops of drums and sounds of a track and building it up piece by piece in a dj set and combining music as it comes together instead of your standard beatmatching , three EQ stuff. Their is a massive difference between djing and controllerism, just try and go from using a basic DJ set up for scratching and start using an X2 an F1 and some machine gear to play music (piece by piece) and you’ll maybe kinda notice their not alike at all in their style of use but equally difficuilt to master.

      So everything you just said makes no sense.

    • Hillary Bloch

      As an amateur pianist I’m sympathetic with what pumpthebreaks has expressed. But I’m reminded of what I’ve been taught about performance; there are at least three kinds that are completely different experiences: performing for yourself, performing for a general audience and performing for professional judges. The third kind is the most difficult in my opinion because it is the most demanding. it is the kind of performance one has for professional lessons, for auditions for a music program, for a contest, e.g., van Cliburn piano competition, or for a public performance that will be reviewed by professional music journalists. I don’t believe Ean Golden’s article speaks to this third kind of performance, only the first two. Encouraging DJs and producers at all levels, but especially beginners and those at the start of their musical careers, to broaden their musical training to include traditional instrumental performance appears to be Mr. Golden’s primary intention. i believe this should be lauded, not demeaned, especially given the history of the origins of turntablism, which “controllerism”, as coined by Matthew Moldover, sought to emulate. Turntablism has roots in the urban, hip-hop context, among many artists who had little access to the rigorous, exclusive and expensive musical training of traditional instrumental performance. But music does not belong to only the privileged or fortunate. Especially when expressing oneself musically in private or for a general audience, we should celebrate the opportunities. The most important music, I believe, has little to do with individual pride and technical brilliance and everything to do with sharing and communicating with others. Yo-Yo-Ma performed regularly for Sesame Street. Kiri Te Kanawa recorded with otherwise unknown Mauri musicians from her native New Zealand. How many of us can be boastful when compared to Lang-Lang or Miles Davis or Ella Fitzgerald? But we should all celebrate our individual musicality.

  • VoiceofSky

    Thank you for this , i just started getting into the Producing bizz .. needed sort of a Guide to set me on my way , or at least show me a general Direction in which to go.. Mucho awesomeness 🙂

  • skycaptain

    Definitely agree with this article. being a drummer for almost a decade now, i can say that it has really helped with rhythm theory. If I have a rhythmic idea, I can sit on my kit for 60 seconds and make it come to life, before i go in and put in midi notes. Sure you don’t NEED to drum to make great rhythms, but it sure is a lot more enjoyable that way for me, and as someone who makes progressive house, I find myself making rhythm patterns that are a lot more gratifying than your typical 4 on the floor kick. Playing keys is also HUGE. I’ve written my best chord progressions on my beat up upright piano in my garage, and I’m not talking the typical four chord stuff you hear in every song ever, Its the chords that can really create emotion in a track. Although I’m by no means a singer, I often have to hum to get melodic ideas, so vocalizing really helps too. Then again, I don’t necessarily need to do all this to make great music, but it certainly makes it feel more like music than a bunch of programmed midi and samples. it makes it feel like real music that i wrote on real instruments.

  • Tim

    Great Article!

  • My ears are bleeding

    Edm is boring as whatching paint dry …. Chords on chord on chords … Lots of layers of turds … Shinny shinny turds . That vid of Tim in the studio shows how soulless the commercial shinny turd of edm really is .

    • Oddie O’Phyle

      you are welcome to your opinion, but obviously you haven’t heard decent electronic music. in a market that is flooded by bedroom producers that have no theory, you will find a lot of sub-par music. the ability to play an instrument is an advantage. if your problem is that you like to generalize music and create a personal stereotype of a genre, you may want to open your eyes a little and realize that people like danzig have made experimental ambient (edm) and mick harris is responsible for overloadlady (DnB).

    • horray4peepee!

      Show us how it’s done then Mozart.

  • FUNK SINATRA

    I don’t want to sound like an old fart – but I started djing after drumming for almost a decade and collecting music on vinyl for a little bit more.
    I feel that most new dj’s buy an S4 and then look for what to play
    I feel that most new dj’s just play what works and don’t try to find their own voice

    and i’m cool with that
    But learning an istrument is a bit more serious.Most people over a ceratin age has more problems learning things’ let alone an instrument

    what am I trying to say? START YOUNG!!!!!
    Teach your children well. give them a a musical instrument.Le them hear all the music you listen too
    maybe then your child could grow to be this guy
    http://banter.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/questlove.jpg

  • Wuce Brayne (the Bitman)

    As someone who is a composer first, producer second, and DJ third, this really resonates with me. I play a good bit of jazz on trombone and piano, I’m learning guitar. Knowing music theory helps me understand the greater context of my role in ensembles or when I spin sets. My sense of relative pitch helps me to determine which songs mix well together – I can typically cue a track up and tell the distance between the tonics of two keys and the mode of the cued track versus the playing one. No need for mixed in key or Camelot. Especially if you know your circle of fifths.

    That being said, it’s important to have some sort of grasp on the process of making music – be it composing or playing or recording (in some interesting cases) – to be able to play it back for a crowd.

    I think this article missed a lot of sweet spots, as far as pointing benefits out can go. Pacing is one of the hardest parts of being a composer and a DJ. Determining what licks or bits of songs work within a certain chord progression in jazz solos can be likened to making mashups in the style of Madeon or Girl Talk (stretching this example a bit, but you get the point). Playing guitar has many benefits relevant to DJing. Chord voicing options and even amp and effects usage can be related to things like choosing a very altered chord (remix) to replace a normal chord (track) as well as use of DJ effects for transitions and to enhance a track.

    Use your strengths to your advantage, try to compensate for your weakness. This article is probably aimed at DJs who many not be instrumentalists but are curious about a sort of crossfit training that will pay off for both talents. It’s not the most eloquent or top-tier DJ centered article, but probably good for younger folks who may not have done high school band or had music lessons growing up. This article could have been a ton better, but it isn’t a bad start.

  • Erik Airrik Dale

    This article was honestly really boring and meaningless. It’s one of those “no duh” things. I miss when these articles were actually about meaningful things and things that weren’t so obvious. Industry advice, technical advice, advanced techniques and concepts. I miss that.

    • drummer dude

      No.

      There are plenty of people out there that needed this article to set them on a right path. Or maybe just inspire a bit of creativity.

      I think that this article is somewhat of a return to form for the DJTT that I started following years ago.
      Sure, industry, technical, and advanced advice is great. But I’m sure when you started out you automatically knew everything about basic things like chords and compression and pan laws etc.

      Everyone starts out somewhere and somethings might not be as clear to some people. No need to comment with such a condescending tone.

      • VoiceofSky

        i,for one,needed this article ..so suck it @erikairrikdale:disqus
        Great info , great article and great ideas.
        Don’t hate , appreciate 🙂

  • tool

    I am also keyboard player, Pianist and drummer and having musical theory does come in handy when Djing and producing.

  • Talon Michael Steinhauer

    I agree with this article. I come from a very vocal oriented family and because of that I didn’t ever want to sing. But I do feel that I have a better understanding of music theory and how to express myself while djing.

  • Ewan Collins

    Saxophone for me.

    Good because you focus on the melodies, not chords. It’s the melody that makes the song.

    • Yerp

      That is like saying the throttle makes the car move, so fuck the brakes. Chords are just as important in songs as melodies are. The is no winner, each are essentially vital.

      • William Wilson

        All instruments are great if you use them with passion and heart that you can create beautiful notes/chords and melodies 🙂 Don’t fight or debate just for this.

        Thanks,
        William
        Owner
        wwww.bestguitarcourseonline.net

  • Aken

    Next week, DJTT will explain to you how it is important to hike on a regular basis, since when you are a dj/producer/controllerist you have to move between rooms, carry stuff from places to places and stand while playing. Emphasis will be put on another crucial activity : climbing. Climbing is a very good way to muscle your fingers and keep the balance. 10 hours a week of climbing also helps to remove vertigo while on stage. Combined to the 20h/week of hiking, that is going to make you a way better dj/controllerist/producer than people spending all this time doing so ineficient and unaware djaying/controllerism/producing.