Scratching is the DJ’s equivalent of the slam dunk. Strictly speaking, it’s not necessary, but it’s that little bit of stardust that really gets the crowd on their feet. Something about the moment just connects the DJ with their audience. The flair. The showmanship. The mastery of the art.
It just looks- and sounds- pretty damn cool.
History of DJ Scratching
The scratching sound comes from the vinyl record being moved back and forward on the turntable. Conventional wisdom has its origins with the birth of hip-hop in the 1970’s but the practice actually began back in the 40’s, when radio DJ’s would cue up the next song in their headphones to minimise dead air on their shows.
When turntables integrated direct-drive motors in the 1970’s what started off as a purely practical tool began to be applied more creatively. Hip-hop DJ’s like Grand Wizzard Theodore and Kool Herc initially used it as a bit of party-piece but soon saw this new sounds potential and it became a staple of the genre. Fast-forward to the present day and it’s found its way into rock, pop and even dance music!
But you didn’t come here to learn history, you came to learn how to scratch…
Is scratching hard to learn? How do you scratch easily?
It wouldn’t be so special if it was as easy as spinning a yo-yo. It takes practice, patience and dedication to learn scratching. This article will set you up with the basic scratches. The practice, patience and dedication we leave up to you!
How do DJ’s start scratching?
First off, every workman needs his tools: a pair of turntables, a mixer and your vinyl records. There are some awesome CDJ’s on the market right now but we are going to concentrate on the classic (purists say the only) option.
The question over which decks to go for is a whole other article but we would offer a little bit of advice with the mixer: try to find one with curve adjustment on the cross-fader. They give you more control over the sound switching back and forth between the turntables. The best mixers have cross-faders that don’t have to be slap-bang in the middle before the sound crosses into the new channel. Not essential at the start but they’ll make your life a lot easier as you develop your skills.
Now find a sample or sound on your record that you want to practice scratching on. Break-beats, horn stabs, spoken word samples and lyrics are the popular and obvious places to start. You’ll soon find that you have your ear out for these every time you hear a new tune!
Selecting a single word is probably the easiest way to start off with your first scratch.
Three DJ Scratching Techniques
We are going to begin with the three most basic scratch techniques: the baby scratch, the scribble and the drag. Then follow with a few examples of more advanced scratching with the cross-fader. With these tools in your box you’ll be well on your way in your scratch journey.
The Baby Scratch
The baby scratch is the foundation on which all the other scratches are built so that’s where we’ll start.
And the motion is quite simple: we push the record forward (to get the first part of the sound) then pull it back (to get the second part).
We’ll break it down for you here:
- First, on your vinyl mark the start of where your sample is. This is usually done with a sticker. (Some other djs put their marker at end. It’s just personal preference, but we think this is simpler, for beginners anyway)
- Align the sticker up with the needle on the turntable.
- For your starting position, place your record hand at the ‘nine o’clock’ position.
- Press down lightly with your fingertips while lifting up your hand slightly (so it’s not flat on top of the record). Use your middle three fingers and let your wrists do the work, taking care to use the same force and pace as you move forward and back.
- Hit the start button to get the platter going, ensuring it’s moving freely beneath the vinyl.
- Now we have control of the record we are going to push from the 9 o’clock position to about 11 o’clock (the first part of the sound).
- Then pull back to 9 o’clock (second part of the sound). When we pull we need to make sure that the sticker is re-aligned again with the needle, back where it started. So that’s the motion, now to add this to the beat…
- Pull up the other track you want to mix with and find your count. So count “1,2,3,4”, “1,2,3,4”. Keep doing this until you are nicely in sync (this will be essential for your beat-matching as you develop).
- Now come in with your scratches, when you are ready, in-time with the beat. So “1” will be the length of time it takes for one full baby scratch, forward and back. “2”, another baby scratch, forward and back. “3”, another. “4”, another. “1,2,3,4”. Four scratches, alongside the track you are mixing with.
- You hear that famous sound? That the sound of your first scratch! So what next?
- Practice! In fact: practice, practice, practice!
Practice the rhythm. Practice the weight of your hand. Practice and watch how the speed at which you scratch changes the pitch. Even practice without music to drill the technique into your record hands muscle memory. And when you are feeling comfortable and confident with your baby scratch technique it’s time for your next step…
The Scribble Scratch
The next scratch is the scribble. The simplest way to describe the scribble is a baby scratch done in double-time. You are squeezing two smaller scratches into the same time it took for one scratch before. So if you go through the first 5 steps above, hit that Start button, warm-up with some baby scratching to get your count right- “1,2,3,4”- then…
- You go from 9 o’clock to just before 10 o’clock this time (as opposed to all the way up to 11, as in the baby scratch). It’s a much shorter, sharper movement this time. Notice how much less movement your sticker does around the needle.
- You will be doing two of these shorter scratches for each number you count this time: so whereas with a baby you “1” count had one full movement, forward and back, here you are doing two little scribble scratches in that same time. By the time your “1,2,3,4” count is over you will have done 8 scribble scratches in the same time you would have done four babies. The effect being the scribbly sound that gives the scratch it’s name.
- And that’s your first Scribble Scratch! Allow yourself a small pat on the back and you wanna guess the next step? You got it….PRACTICE!
The Drag Scratch
If the scribble scratch is the baby done in double-time speed, the drag is the baby done in half-time. It’s exactly what it sounds like- you are dragging the scratches out with this one.
Again, go through the first five steps: marking the sample, lining up your sticker, hands at 9 o’clock, fingertips down, hands up and start the platter.
This time we want a half-time count: so instead of the “1,2,3,4” more like “1 (and) 2 (and) 3 (and) 4”. Roughly half the speed of the ones we have done before. And this time:
- To this slower count of “1 (and) 2” drag the record even further up, to about 12 o’clock. Being careful not to go any further or you could disturb the needle.
- Then on “(and) 3 (and) 4” pull the record back to 9 o’clock.
So “1 (and) 2” pushing up to 12; “3 (and) 4” pulling it back down to 9:
“1 (and) 2 (and) 3 (and) 4”. And that’s a drag scratch.
This a scratch that you will incorporate in many of your scratch combos as you develop your skills and start to bring in the cross-fader.
And that’s your three foundation scratches. After you have practiced these basic techniques so much you are scribbling in your sleep, you can move on to start learning the next two more advanced scratching techniques.
Intermediate DJ Scratching Techniques
The chirp scratch is similar to the baby but a little more advanced:
Here you move the record forward just like you did with the baby scratch but as you do you use the cross-fader to chop off the end of the sound. Then you pull back just like the baby (but don’t do anything to the second part of the sound).
So if the baby was two sounds, made up of the forward movement then the back movement, this one has that forward movements sound abruptly cut-off followed by the normal, full sound of the back movement.
Forward sound, cut: back sound, full.
So, our usual start: mark your sample, lining up the sticker, hands at 9 o’clock, fingertips down, hands up and start the platter. Then…
- Starting with your fader in the middle, as you move your left hand forward on the record you close the fader, sliding it to the right with your right hand, cutting the sound off.
2. Then open the fader (sliding it back to the middle) as you pull the record back again, so you can hear the whole of the second half of the scratch.
And that’s your chirp scratch. Because you are incorporating the mixer and have both your hands moving at the same time this one takes more co-ordination (and more practice!) Try to think of your hands as moving together, moving them away from each other in the same movement. As you move the record forward, the fader closes; moving it back, opening it again. Practise the symmetry of the hand movements to synchronise them together. Start off slow and move up to full speed as it becomes more natural.
Whereas the chirp had a shortened forward sound and full sound on the way back, the forward scratches have a full sound going forward and cut all the sound on the way back.
So first things first: mark your sample, lining up the sticker, hands at 9 o’clock, fingertips down, hands up and start the platter. Then…
- With the crossfader in the middle while you do your forward scratch, when you reach the top of that forward motion you quickly slide the fader all the way to the right to cut off the sound.
- Then pull the record back, leaving the fader where it is. As it’s cut the channel off you won’t hear any sound on the way back
As you repeat this motion you will only hear the first (forward) half of the sound each time. And now you see where it gets its name from.
And that’s two intermediate techniques to add to the three basic ones. Practice these five till you have them nailed down then you can start bringing in your more advanced techniques: your flare scratches and tear scratches, your crabs and your tweaks.
How to Improve DJ Scratching
Never mind scratched records, I’m gonna sound like broken one here but PRACTICE! Rome wasn’t built in a day but they got there in the end and if you put in the practice, you will too.
And don’t forget to have fun! It’s hard to persevere with any new skill if you aren’t getting some pleasure along with the challenge and learning to scratch is no different. Experiment with your samples, keep your ear out for those funky beats and vocals, put the time in and you’ll soon progress from that first simple baby scratch to a scratch combo that has the crowd in the palm of your hand!
Then come back here when you are done and we will get to work on those slam-dunks…