Techno Tools: Jammin’ with DJs

DJs are starting to be recognized by traditional musicians as artists in their own right. After all, being a DJ does require musical skills. The DJ has to match beats precisely to create seamless transitions between tunes, be a wizard at crossfading between songs and loops, read a crowd’s mood to program the right grooves and songs, and, of course, do that scratching thing. But where does all this leave guitar players? With a nice hole to fill, that’s where!

I recently performed at the Battery Park Festival in Cologne, Germany, playing guitar over sequenced loops. I’ve found that E-Bow, distortion, and feedback work particularly well over dance beats, and I’ve also discovered a few other ways to get the most out of guitar/dance music collaborations.

Let the DJ control your level. Typically, the guitarist will play more or less continuously, and the DJ will bring the guitar in and out of the mix as needed. A direct setup is optimum–given the intense noise levels at the average dance club, miking your amp isn’t really an option.

Voice your EQ properly. Dance music has lots of low end (kick drum and bass) and high end (hi-hat, shaker, etc.). Boosting 1kHz by 6dB to 8dB lets the guitar “speak” and cut through the mix without cranking up the volume.

Be sensitive to transitions. A sustained, distorted chord that swells in and out–or a singing high note with lots of whammy action–can help smooth transitions between songs and loops. As DJs use headphones to cue up one turntable while another turntable is playing, you may want to use a “Y” connector to tap your phones into the DJ’s headphone output. Hearing what the DJ hears will alert you to upcoming key or style changes.

Sync delays to the tempo. Dance music typically hovers in the 120 bpm to 145 bpm zone. This translates to quarter-note echo times of 500ms to 413ms, respectively. If you’re not sure of a song’s bpm, start with a 450ms delay and add just enough feedback for a couple of repeats. (The more feedback you use, the more important it is to nail a precise delay time, otherwise each successive echo will sound more off the beat.)

There’s a whole world of dance music out there, and guitar has only begun to be integrated with it. Check out a dance club, get to know some DJs, and play a few jam sessions to see if you click. You might have a lot of fun–as well as open up a new live-performance option.

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