Given that DJ decks play music and create sound makes “Are DJ decks an instrument?” a very valid question. It is often asked in partnership with the classic “Are DJs musicians?” question (which is a topic for another article). Although this seems fairly simple inquiry, it is not quite as clear cut some might think.
The purpose of DJ decks (see our recommended decks here) is to play music and allow tracks to be mixed into each other. Being largely built for this purpose their features include things such as speed control as well as a platter that the DJ can manipulate to keep tracks in time. So under this definition no, DJ decks are not instruments. However, certain DJs have taken the features available and developed techniques to such a level that they can be considered an instrument. But only in the right hands.
Let’s dive in and find out who these DJs are and how they do it.
Turntablists… the Musicians of the DJ World
The most obvious example of DJs that used decks as an instrument would be turntablists. Sometimes known also known as scratch DJs.
I would argue that they use them as an instrument as they are not using the decks simply as a media player. In this context, I say media player to refer to something that simply plays music. Even if it does allow you to adjust speed.
What turntablists often do, and what their skill set is based on, is taking tracks or sound effects and then manipulating the platter in such a way as to create new, rhythmic sounds.
In this way, turntablists can take for example a basic drum beat on one deck and then, on the other, they can cut and scratch a sound sample to create a new melody line. Essentially creating a new track on the fly.
And this is all any instrument does. A guitar, for example, when manipulated or played in certain ways creates melodies that can be used to compose new songs.
An example of a musician DJ would be the DJ woody video below. From this, you can see that he is taking existing tracks and then using his skills and the decks he creates a brand new track. I would consider DJ Woody to be one of the best examples of turntablists that use decks as instruments.
A great example of using decks as an instrument during production would be DJ Shadow’s Rocket Fuel. If you listen from around 13 seconds in, you can clearly hear that the drum pattern is being created through scratching.
Turntablists Aren’t the Only DJs However…
I use turntablists as the primary example due to how well-known they are to push the boundaries of their decks (see our recommended decks for scratching). But they’re not the only ones.
There are plenty of other DJs that, although would not necessarily be considered turntablists, have developed their mixing skills to such a level that I would argue that they too are using the decks as an instrument.
One of the first DJs to do this specifically with CDJs was James Zabiela. He gained wide recognition by creating complex mixes that went way beyond simply beatmatching and blending tracks.
Another example would be DJ EZ. In this video, you can see him loop and adjust speeds of the tracks to such an extent that he is creating an entirely new layer of music. He then uses this to switch from one track to the other.
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This section of DJing fits back within the turntablist realm. And further supports the notion that a DJ deck can be used as an instrument. When you have DJs working as a team then it becomes much easier for each to create certain sections of a track.
So, for example, you can have one DJ whose sole job is to scratch out a beat. Then another can create a melody line while a third chops vocals over the top. In this sense, they are truly acting as a band. In that, each member is adding another layer to the mix to create a brand new track.
DJ crews are nothing new and have been around virtually since the dawn of DJing itself. One of the most famous DJ bands currently would be C2C. In this video, you can see how the member works together to create a new tune, unique to them.
Are DJ Decks an Instrument If They Don’t Make Any Sound?
One argument where people may say that a DJ deck is not an instrument is because it cannot create sounds by itself. By this, I mean that you need to play tracks or samples running through it for the DJ to have audio to manipulate.
And this is a valid argument. Even an electric guitar that isn’t plugged into an amp will still make sound and be playable.
However, DJ decks can make sounds by themselves.
Developed by the Scratch Perverts and labeled Wire Tones they devised a way to feed a deck back to create tones. They could then play with these to create new melody lines. (sorry about the poor video quality, it’s an old one).
While basic this goes some way to counter the argument that a DJ deck cannot be an instrument as it cannot make sounds by itself.
Conclusion Are DJ Decks An Instrument
It is easy to understand why people may consider a deck not to be an instrument. 99% of the time that you see a DJ using decks they will be using them as a media player. They will be using it only to play music and adjust its speed to match the tempos then blend the tracks together.
However, you’ll see decks taken to entirely new levels and abilities… under the control of certain DJs. And it’s these that show what a DJ deck is truly capable of.
This is in part because of how far DJ equipment has come since vinyl turntables first existed. The introduction of direct-drive turntables made it much easier and reliable to scratch. And then the introduction and subsequent development of CDJs blew the DJing options wide open.
It is this technological progression that DJs have taken and pushed to ever-increasing levels. DJs do this to make themselves stand out but along with that, they have proven the “Are DJ decks an instrument?” question beyond a doubt.
Yes, DJ decks absolutely ARE an instrument.