Inside the Hype of Klon
Updated: Jul 13, 2022
KLON! Simply speaking this simple four-letter word, or writing it online, can cause instant debates amongst passionate guitarists about the boutique, small batch overdrive pedal. You’ll undoubtedly hear a lot about “is the hype worth it”? “These things cost way too much to be worth it”, “There are other pedals that do the same thing”, and “Klons have magical super-secret diodes and components that sound better than anything you’ve ever heard and you’ll never get one!” It seems as though the myth of the pedal has infiltrated every aspect of the guitar community and finding real opinions about the pedal seem to be as rare as the pedals themselves are. It doesn’t help that seemingly every major guitarist from Jeff Beck, to John Mayer, to Brett Daniels from Spoon, Mike McCready from Pearl Jam, and Nels Cline from Wilco have used and endorsed the Klon in their live guitar rigs. The difference in all of their guitar tones is extremely varied. None of which actually help you know what the hell the pedal actually sounds like, how they work, and why are they so sought after, and in some cases, hated. I’d like to share my thoughts about Klon, it’s reclusive builder Bill Finnegan, and how I use my Klon in the studio with my playing!
The birth of Klon started in 1990. You have to remember that effects pedals weren’t as hip as they are now. There was a transition happening where guitarists were changing from 1980’s rack gear, with some rack pieces with literally thousands of digitally processed guitar sounds stored inside, and kind of rediscovering how cool their guitars could sound through the simple circuitry of a good old-fashioned stomp box again. Guitarists were beginning to try and relook at pedals like vintage Ibanez Tube Screamers, vintage Fuzz Faces, and vintage Big Muffs again and worrying about tonal purity. It was a thought process that would shape our discussion on great guitar tone today. So, in the middle of this changing of the tonal guard so to speak was Bill Finnegan looking for something new.
Bill Finnegan was a local musician in Boston, Massachusetts who spent time playing clubs and music venues around the area. Bill loved to play a combination of a Fender Telecaster plugged directly into a Twin Reverb at this time. For those not in the know, Twin Reverbs are very loud, clean amplifiers that you have to turn up to get them to sound full. For a very long time I used a Fender Stratocaster into a vintage Fender Twin with JBL’s cranked up live so I understand what Bill was chasing. Even though a Fender Twin on 7 or 8 is insanely loud, it sounds
AMAZINGLY FULL and SONICALLY RICH
Unfortunately, when you don’t have the space to really turn up a Fender Twin, and let’s face it that is more often than not, then they can start to sound anemic. Bill was only able to turn his Fender Twin up to like 3 or 4 sometimes in smaller clubs in Boston, and he immediately noticed the difference in tonal quality and responsiveness and feel under his fingers. It took him a while to start thinking about maybe using pedals to get his amp to have the same tonal responsiveness at a lower volume.
About 1990, one of the pedals that guitarists began chasing in droves were original Ibanez Tube Screamers and Bill decided to look into them, thinking that they might help his Twin get to sounding more like it was at higher volumes. It immediately became clear that the original green Ibanez Tube Screamers were not what Bill was looking for. What Bill heard as an obvious amount of compression, over characterized mid-range, and loss of bass signal from a guitar tone was not the sound he was chasing. He wanted a large, open sound with a subtle hint of clipping and as natural to an amplifier, like his clean Twin Reverb, as he could get as opposed to the overly dramatic changes found with old Tube Screamers.
So, Bill Finnegan enlisted the help of a few of his friends with electrical engineering degrees from MIT, and they set out to design a unique circuit design that would take Bill’s guitar signal with his favorite amp and give it more girth and responsiveness. I want to stress that they completely built an overdrive circuit from scratch. This isn’t a copy of another pedal like most designers throw at guitarists. The building and refining process took years, with Bill constantly reaching out to his designer friends to talk about improvements. I always thought the unique thing about Bill’s process was enlisting highly talented engineers who were not musicians to build a new overdrive circuit design. This entire design process took four and a half years. Bill’s new design the KLON Centaur debuted in the tail end of 1994. From then on, the demand for Klon’s skyrocketed and the dedicated tone purist Bill Finnegan became incredibly busy building, testing, and shipping out each unit by himself.
Klon KTR Centaur Overdrive
The Beginning of the Myth:
From the beginning it was clear that everything about the Klon Centaur was different. First of all, every aspect of the construction of the pedal from the enclosure, to the knobs, to the pots, and metal sheet casing for the bottom were custom fabricated. This is truly unique in the world of boutique, or custom pedals, because most builders use some form of pre-made parts to help bring costs down. Whether or not Bill knew this I’m not sure, but I like to believe that part of the magic of a Klon is that all the parts are as unique as the original circuit design. However, using custom fabricated parts did make the Klon Centaur more expensive than most pedals on the market at the time. The circuit was also time consuming to build, and being a literal one-man operation, Bill could only put so many units out at a time resulting in a wait list. In late 1994, a $225 overdrive pedal was a lofty priced item, but that never seemed to stop the demand from in the know guitarists. Bill Finnegan managed to build roughly 8,000 Klon Centaurs over a fifteen-year spread from 1994-2009. For the last few years prior to him shutting down original Centaur production, the price was raised to $329 for a single pedal. Despite the high prices for a single overdrive pedal, the Klon Centaur was given rave reviews and found its way onto many professional players guitar rigs. I like to think that so many people love to hate on the pedal because they view it as an overpriced hype machine, without accepting that it was a great sounding original circuit that does exactly what it was designed to do:
Make your electric guitar sound bigger, uncompressed, and have the same tonal response as when your amplifier is turned up naturally.
Why the Hype??
Part of the hype surrounding the Klon Centaur is due to the fact that not many were made and the high praise through word of mouth associated with it. Bill moved around a lot which also made it difficult to get in touch with him to purchase units when he was making them. It didn’t help that when Bill Finnegan discontinued the Klon Centaur there were slews of photographs with artists from Jeff Beck, John Mayer, Keith Urban, Brett Daniels from Spoon, Mike McCready from Pearl Jam, to Warren Haynes using it. We tend to use players like this as benchmarks for great tone, and when a unifying factor on all of their gear is a Klon Centaur, the guitar community tends to take notice. We as players tend to lust after hard to obtain gear purchases that seem like holy grails i.e. vintage amplifiers, old tubes, vintage 1959 Les Pauls, Dumble amplifiers, old Fuzz Faces etc. and I like to think that guitarists were waiting for a relatively new piece of gear to lust after from this generation. The Klon seemed to slide right into place at the right time.
It didn’t help when Bill stopped Klon production in 2009. It placed a set number of units in the world, and with anything with hype and law of supply and demand, the prices on original Klon Centaurs skyrocketed. Now as of writing this blog, a Klon Centaur can go for $2500! That’s ten times the original asking price of a new hand built Klon in less that 10 years of them being out of production! Players went on to debate the sonic advantages of different colored Klon’s (there are Silver ones, Gold ones, and Bronze ones, and some have Centaur graphics on them and some do not).
Gold Klon Centaur