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
This fueled much of the original price increases, with Gold “Horsie” models going for the most money. Ironically, Bill Finnegan has stated that he just made different colored models for visual aesthetics, and that there were no differences in circuit designs.
Still the myth persists, with many guitarists thinking different models sound different. Let’s be real. Any and all differences are more than likely due to the slight differences in electrical components, not in circuit design.
The other thing that fueled the Klon myth was that the circuit inside the pedal was coated in a black epoxy.Coating a circuit in epoxy prevents anyone from copying the design, and also fueled insane amounts of hype because no one could figure out what made a Klon circuit design so special. It led comparisons to the most elusive amp designer of all time: Alexander Dumble, who’s used amplifiers go for hundreds of thousands of dollars on the used market. In the myth of Dumble amplifiers, Dumble used dark epoxy to hide his original circuit designs which lead to all kinds of urban legends around his amplifiers. While I do think Bill doesn’t appreciate the fact that his circuit design has been demystified online, I like to think he used epoxy for shielding purposes and durability instead of nefariously trying to hide what parts he used in his design.
What’s Under the Hood of the Klon Centaur?
Now that I’ve spend some time explaining the insane amount of hype surrounding the legendary Klon Centaur, I’d like to explain what makes this unit so special as an overdrive pedal. Taking the Klon at face value, it looks like a typical overdrive pedal with Gain/amount of Overdrive, Tone, and Level controls. But when you open one up that’s where the magic lies.
First off, Klon Centaurs have an IC MAX1044 voltage converter installed in the pedal.
This takes the nine volts from a typical battery and doubles the voltage to eighteen volts. This is a very unique electrical engineering feature in the design of the Centaur, and asides from allowing the pedal to run on a single battery as opposed to two, it increases the overall headroom of the pedal.
The increased headroom also gives the Centaur less compression with it’s overdrive gain compared to other pedals like a Tube Screamer, and also more volume to push an amplifier. The harmonic content of the distortion on tap is also sweeter with more high order harmonics giving the Centaur more of a tube-like distortion..
Secondly, the Klon Centaur also runs on a special pair of germanium clipping diodes, as opposed to the LED or silicon diodes used in more pedals. LED and silicon diodes are much cheaper, more consistent alternatives, which is why more pedal makers prefer using them, but...
the germanium diodes allow the unit to clean up with your guitar volume much like a traditional guitar tube amplifier.
These germanium diodes are carefully selected and matched by Bill Finnegan to produce the best tonal response in Klon Centaurs, and are part of why the building the pedal is so time consuming because you have to take the time to match the best components.
Bill also included a dual ganged pot (two pots connected to a single knob) attached to the gain knob on the front of the Centaur. This allows for a bass-mid shift in the pedal as you turn the gain knob up which in turns leads to a more natural sounding distortion.
Lastly, the Klon Centaur uses- a high-quality signal buffer to help prevent signal loss when the pedal is turned off.This was one of the first major pedals made with a high-quality buffer for the purpose of keeping your bypassed tone as pure as the affected tone when the pedal is turned on. Interestingly enough, it was part of the initial design from the very beginning. Bill Finnegan is a major proponent for a high-quality buffer to help your guitar tone, and isn’t on the true-bypass band wagon. Go Bill!
Real World Options:
So, you can’t shell out the $2500 for an original Klon Centaur? No worries, Bill Finnegan has resumed production on the next iteration of Klon called the KTR as of 2012, and has made sure it’s relatively affordable at $299.The KTR is Bill Finnegan’s answer to his long hours, one-man production team of original Klon production. The KTR build process was contracted by sourced labor so Bill Finnegan could meet demand of the pedal. Asides from the procurement of the parts that went into the originals, all the labor is now in the hands of professionals. The pedal also addressed several complaints from many Centaur owners like the size of the unit (the original Klon Centaur is a rather large pedal), including a nine-volt power supply (the original Klon Centaur was powered by a nine-volt battery only), and including a switch to change the pedal from buffered to true bypass (the original Centaur is a buffered only unit). Bill also put a very funny quote on the front of the pedal: “Kindly remember: the ridiculous hype that offends so many is not of my making.” Clearly, a nod to the aforementioned hype surrounding this pedal.
The best way to get one of these is contact a dealer and get on a waiting list. I waited on mine for about a year but bought it directly from Bill for $250. When I originally bought the unit, there was an issue with it not working right out of the box. When I reached out to Bill for help, he immediately made every available option to help me. He offered to fix the one I bought, pay for the shipping, and worse case scenario send me a hand wired one made by him personally if he couldn’t fix the outsourced KTR. He was mortified that I had waited so long for his pedal and he really wanted me to get to play it. I have never received such great, personal customer service from any pedal maker before and after we resolved the issue, I still play my original “repaired” KTR today. While I have the option of playing other Klon’s, I still use my red KTR just because of how out of his way Bill went to help me. Thank you, Bill! You are the real deal!
Some players argue that the KTR isn’t faithful to the original version. Speaking as someone who has played original Klon Centaurs, and owns several of them, I think the KTR is exactly the same as the Centaur. I love that the unit is smaller, and more pedalboard friendly with a nine-volt jack. It delivers the tone for me again and again. While there have been other manufacturers who have made clones of the Centaur, otherwise known in the guitar community as “Klones”, some are more accurate than others. I prefer to use the real thing, made and approved by the man himself.
Ways I Like to Use the Klon in my Guitar Rig:
One of the most popular ways to use the Klon is strictly as a clean boost for your amplifier. If you set the gain knob all the way at zero, set the treble knob at noon, and set the volume knob just past unity gain the Klon will take whatever amp sound you are using and simply make it bigger. What’s so legendary about this is you’ll be hard pressed to detect any difference between your actual amp tone and then with the Centaur engaged. It’s a really cool trick because it seems to work with any combinations of guitars and amplifiers. If I’m using a clean amplifier like a Fender Twin, I do like this concept a lot. It really helps me get the feeling of a louder cranked Twin Reverb under my fingers without changing the tone of my amplifier I love so much. This is great for playing in relatively small rooms as well. If you’re running an already slightly dirty amplifier, then using this setting can also help push your amplifier over the edge into a more natural sounding breakup.
What I use with most other amplifiers is more of an overdrive tone dedicated to this pedal. I like to set the Klon with the gain at 2:00, treble at 11:00, and volume to taste depending on if I’m using the pedal solo, or in a pedalboard scenario. The tone is very thick and saturated, but still warm and sweet. I particularly like this setting with a Fender Telecaster and a Fender Deluxe Reverb and also a 1959 Bassman. With the flat pole piece bridge pickup on my 52’ blackguard Telecaster it sounds huge and very 70’s California. I love it! While I will use this setting with any amplifier including my vintage Marshall Plexi Super Bass, Mesa Boogie combo, and my Fuchs ODS, the Klon paired with a breaking up Fender amplifier is my favorite. I feel like using the Klon strictly as an overdrive really feels like the Klon is a true amp in a box. It works seemingly well with every style of amplifier.
Another great use is if you’re running a large pedal board just having the Klon in line with your other pedals. The high-quality buffer will help your tone run through the large signal chain more effectively and help everything sound better!
In end, really what makes a Klon pedal so great is its seemingly endless versatility. The pedal works very well in just about every guitar and amplifier combination, and suits just about every style of guitar playing judging by the famous users. The fact that it excels at pushing an amp into overdrive, while also being able to produce its own unique overdriven tone with a wealth of musical styles and players has been why it’s achieved legendary status in such a relatively short time. I really think the hype in this case is justified, and if you have the means to get one take the shot. You’ll enjoy it for a very long time!