Nebraska Engineering Fall, 2006
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After Hours: Behind the Music: Herb Detloff

Herb's first band
Herb Detloff’s first band, Odyssey, in 1969.

Detloff’s band Mitre Peakins outside a rehearsal shed in Worchester, Mass., in 1976. Pictured from left to right are Felix, Marsha, Dennis and Detloff.
Detloff’s band Mitre Peakins outside a rehearsal shed in Worchester, Mass., in 1976. Pictured from left to right are Felix, Marsha, Dennis and Detloff.

Detloff working up a sweat with Happy Jack in 1981.
Detloff working up a sweat with Happy Jack in 1981.

It was 1964 and Beatlemania was sweeping the world. The British group set foot on American soil for the first time on Feb. 7, 1964, and performed two days later on the Ed Sullivan Show. The Beatles’ impact on America and the world was profound—everyone wanted to see them, to hear them, to touch them. Some even wanted to be like them, including Herb Detloff, a 12-year-old from Nebraska City.

“When I saw them on the Ed Sullivan Show, I thought ‘That’s really cool,’ ” said Detloff, a senior lecturer in computer and electronics engineering. Shortly after that first Beatles sighting, he began playing acoustic guitar. At first he imitated folk artists like Pete Seger, Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary. His real journey into rock-and-roll began when he picked up the bass guitar at age 15. Detloff joined Odyssey, a band of high school kids who just wanted to have fun. “It was a great way to get out of the house, make noise … meet girls,” Detloff said. “Hey, come on, it was the ’60s.”

He’s been playing in bands, recording in studios and even doing a little songwriting ever since. “Once, I wasn’t in a band for six weeks and I went a little stir-crazy.”

After high school, Detloff attended college at Worcester Tech in Massachusetts and joined another band. He moved from band to band (he estimates at least 20), touring the country and doing studio work. He lived in Massachusetts for 10 years and loved what he was doing.

But by 1979, the bar scene in Boston was changing. People on the East Coast wanted video and light shows, Detloff said, but things were more laid-back in the Midwest. “When we hit Iowa, we found people who still knew how to have fun in a bar, so I figured it was time to come home.” He settled in Omaha, and before his furniture arrived, he had joined a band.

For the past 15 years he’s been with Herbie and the Hotheads. (He is not Herbie, he said emphatically. “Herbie is a no-good lowlife who owes us money.”) Detloff plays the bass and sometimes sings. “Actually, I yell. Hey, we all have our fortes; mine is yelling—just ask my students.” Detloff teaches electric circuits and microprocessor applications. It’s a subject that someone with a traditional music production background could take issue with, but Detloff contends that music actually led him to computers. Because of his fascination with electronics, Detloff did audio system design while rockin’ and rollin’ his way around the country. Then in 1985, the CD debuted. “It was all digital, and suddenly I didn’t have a good handle on how music was produced anymore. So I came back to school.”

Computer engineering was a natural fit because he had a background in testing microprocessors and programming. Detloff received a bachelor’s degree in electronics engineering technology from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and a master’s degree in computer science from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He began teaching digital signal processing for CEEN in 1994. “I obviously like what I do because I’ve been here ever since.”

And Detloff obviously loves music because he still plays—somewhat sporadically these days—with the Hotheads. He also plays his acoustic guitar to clear his mind when he’s working on a big project. Although he doesn’t play for audiences often, Herb and the other Hotheads play a few gigs now and then. “The guitarist books the gig, then calls me. I show up, plug in and make noise.”

Detloff said the Hotheads play mostly in small bars, but “we play any place that will have us.” “Hey, we’re getting older. If the music isn’t 30 years old, we probably don’t know it. Well, that might be an exaggeration—we play some that’s 20 years old.” The band has been together so long, the guys don’t bother practicing anymore. “We’re old guys. We’ve all been doing this for 40 years or more. If we don’t know the words, we just make them up.” As long as Detloff can hold his guitar, he intends to keep strumming. “They’re gonna have to put me in a box to get me to quit,” he said, laughing.

—Constance Walter