The Klon Centaur ‘Professional Overdrive’ is unquestionably one of the most famous guitar pedals of all time. In fact, in recent years it has achieved an almost mythical status that befits its name.
The Klon Centaur was first released in 1994, and production of the pedal continued until 2009. Original models of the Klon have now become some of the most sought after guitar pedals ever made. They are both rare and very expensive, selling for upwards of $3100/£2500 on sites like Reverb.
Whilst it is fairly common for vintage guitars and amps to sell for an amount exponentially greater than their original value, the same is not true for guitar pedals. There are very few pedals that demand such a high price, and those that do are normally vintage pedals from the 1960s or ’70s. These are pedals like the Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face and the Dallas Treble Rangemaster. Pedals that were used on some of the most famous blues and rock songs ever recorded.
Yet the Klon Centaur has driven the same demand as these pedals, even though it was built very recently and as a result, has played a much smaller role in the history of blues and blues rock.
I wanted to gain a better understanding of the hype that surrounds the Klon Centaur. Partly for intellectual curiosity, but largely as part of my continued quest for better blues tones.
What is it that makes this pedal so special? Is it really one of the best overdrive pedals out there for producing beautiful blues tones? Or is the hype merely a creation of clever marketing? And crucially, is an original Klon Centaur worth the hefty price tag?
These are the questions that I am going to answer today.
So without further ado, here are 8 of the main reasons that the Klon Centaur overdrive pedal has become so famous:
In recent years, the guitar pedal market has exploded. There are now quite literally thousands of different guitar pedals to choose from. These range from mass produced budget pedals that you can pick up for a few dollars/pounds, all the way through to expensive, hand-wired, boutique pedals.
We have become accustomed to having a lot of choice in guitar pedals. We have also become accustomed to using guitar pedals that are built to a very high quality. But when Bill Finnegan first released the Klon Centaur in 1994, there wasn’t really a boutique pedal market.
So when it first came out, everything about the Klon was different. The pedal was hand-wired and built using high quality components. It was also housed inside a very large and very robust metal enclosure. All of this generated interest, and played a considerable part in the early success of the Klon.
Finnegan spotted a gap in the market and in producing the Klon, had a profound influence on the guitar pedal market. Boutique guitar pedals might now be commonplace, but the Klon Centaur was really one of the first boutique pedals ever made.
Just like early Gibson Les Pauls and Fender Stratocasters – which now also sell for huge sums of money – the revolutionary nature of the Klon certainly enhanced its status when it first appeared in 1994.
A big part of what made the Klon so revolutionary when it was released was its circuitry. There are 4 elements of the circuitry that are unusual. And these are as follows:
- The pedal has an internal voltage converter, which doubles the voltage. So it runs off an 18V power supply, rather than the typical 9V power supply. This increases the headroom of the pedal and produces ‘higher-order harmonic content’.
- Bill Finnegan fitted the pedal with NOS Germanium clipping diodes. Most pedals made prior to the Klon used LED or Silicon diodes. So the pedal was quite unusual in this regard when it first came out.
- The Klon has a ‘dual-ganged’ gain pot. This means that the EQ of the signal shifts when the gain on the pedal is increased. It cuts out some of the bass frequencies in the signal and pronounces more of the mid-range frequencies.
- The Klon uses a high quality signal buffer. This means that there is very little signal loss when the pedal is disengaged.
Some of these elements – like the signal buffer and the ‘charge pump’ circuit that increase the voltage – might not seem particularly special now. In fact, they are quite commonplace in a lot of boutique guitar pedals. But when the Klon was released in 1994, Finnegan was really exploring new territory.
3. Tonal Transparency
The risks that Finnegan took in building the original Klon certainly paid off. For although it is easy to get wrapped up in the debate and controversy that surrounds the price of used Klons, the general consensus – even amongst the most skeptical of internet forum users – is that the Klon Centaur is a great sounding overdrive pedal. After all, had it not sounded good, it would long since have been forgotten.
The Klon is particularly celebrated for the ‘transparent’ nature of its overdrive. In essence, this means that the pedal causes your signal to overdrive, without ‘colouring’ your tone in any way. It adds warmth and gain to your tone, whilst preserving the natural sound of your guitar and amp. This sets it aside from a lot of overdrive pedals – the majority of which alter your tone more significantly.
One of the best examples of a pedal that colours your tone is the Ibanez Tube Screamer. The Tube Screamer – which is amongst the most popular overdrive pedals of all time – has a distinctive ‘mid-hump’. This means that it disproportionately boosts the middle portion of your guitar’s signal. Reportedly, Finnegan had experimented with Tube Screamers prior to building the Klon, but wanted a pedal that didn’t alter his signal in the same way.
A lot of guitarists actually look for overdrive pedals that colour their signal. They want to alter their tone significantly – perhaps for a certain part of a song, to achieve a specific tone, or simply because they don’t like the natural sound of their guitar and amp.
A lot of players however, love the natural sound of their guitar and amp, and they just want to enhance that sound. This is a big part of what the Klon Centaur does, and it is one of the reasons that the pedal is so famous.
The transparent nature of the Klon Centaur’s overdrive also makes it very versatile. In fact one of the reasons that the Klon is so beloved is because you can pair it up with any guitar or amp, and it still sounds great.
This is actually pretty unusual.
Again if you compare the Klon with the Tube Screamer, you can see that the 2 pedals differ greatly in this regard. You get the classic Tube Screamer sound when you pair a Fender Stratocaster with a Fender amp. Both Fender amps and Fender Strats are lacking in the mid range of the signal. The Tube Screamer puts all of those mids back into the mix. It is an amazing pedal within this context, and this is partly how Stevie Ray Vaughan achieved his beautiful tones.
Outside of this context though, the Tube Screamer doesn’t work quite so well. Of course, you can pair it up with other amps to great effect (Gary Moore used it with a Gibson Les Paul and a Marshall stack!) but you might not want an overdrive pedal that colours your tone quite so much.
And this is where the Klon Centaur comes in. The Klon preserves the natural sound of your guitar and amp. So you can use it with different guitars and different amps, and it will still sound great. It will just add warmth and a bit of drive to your tone. This will enhance your sound and make it harmonically richer.
In addition, the Klon can either be used as a boost, or – as you might expect from the name – as an overdrive pedal. Most guitarists use a Klon in the way I have outlined above. They use the pedal as a ‘clean boost’ to enhance the natural sound of their guitar and amp. But other players really crank the Klon. And it works very well in this way too. The pedal can produce a lot of gain, so it makes a great option for guitarists who want to dial in a more overdriven tone.
When the Klon Centaur was released in the mid ’90s, it was quickly picked up and used by a wide variety of different guitarists. This included Warren Haynes, Phillip Sayce and John Mayer, amongst countless others.
Again, this is quite unusual.
It is very common to see blues and rock guitarists using the same guitars and amps. Since the birth of rock and roll and electric blues – bluesmen have typically relied on amps and guitars from Fender, Gibson and Marshall. Most famous electric blues songs were recorded with some combination of a Fender or Gibson guitar, plugged into a Fender or Marshall amp. And even to this day, most modern blues guitarists don’t stray too far from this set up.
The same can’t be said for guitar pedals. The pedals that guitarists have on their board vary greatly from one another.
There are of course some exceptions that spring to mind. The Ibanez Tube Screamer, Echoplex and Vox Wah are some of the most obvious pedals you see used by a lot of players. But generally speaking, guitarists experiment more with the pedals in their rig, than they do with their guitars and amps.
That so many prominent blues guitarists started using the Klon Centaur when it was released really is testament to its quality. This initial popularity also played a huge part in the legendary status of the Klon. It is unquestionably one of the reasons that the original pedals are now so expensive.
One of the other key factors that has increased the status of the Klon Centaur is the comparative scarcity of the pedal. Between 1994 and 2009, Bill Finnegan made roughly 8000 Klon pedals. When he was still making the pedals, there were long wait times. Finnegan personally handmade every Klon. So at that time, the lengthy wait for the pedal generated excitement amongst the guitar community. It also encouraged guitarists to buy the pedal for fear of missing out or of being at the bottom of a long waiting list.
Then in 2009 when Finnegan stopped builidng the Klon, the 8000 pedals that he had made didn’t even come close to meeting demand.
This only served to increase the hype around the pedal. And in a rush to get their hands on the overdrive pedal that was used by players like Jeff Beck, Joe Perry and Joe Bonamassa, guitarists were happy to pay a bit more.
This quickly drove the price of the pedal up. And this bidding game has not slowed down. The price of original Klons continue to increase, which has further fuelled the hype surrounding the pedal.
When Bill Finnegan built the Klon Centaur, he dipped the components on the circuit board in black epoxy resin in a technique known as ‘gooping’. This technique both protected the components, and made it impossible to ‘clone’ the circuit.
So although many pedal manufacturers tried to copy the Klon, for many years they were not able to do so with total confidence. Specifically, they were unsure of the NOS Germanium clipping diodes that Finnegan used in the original pedals. In this way, Finnegan was able to protect his business and ensure that he was the only pedal maker that could manufacture an authentic Klon.
This was until 2014 when he released the Klon KTR pedal. The KTR is a faithful reproduction of the original Klon Centaur. It was made using the same circuit design and diodes, but with ‘surface mount technology’, making the KTR smaller in size.
Unlike in the original Klon, the components used in the KTR are not gooped. So since 2014, other manufacturers have been able to clone the circuit with total accuracy. However in the 20 years prior to the release of the KTR, there was a huge amount of speculation surrounding the circuitry in the Klon Centaur. This increased the hype around the pedal and greatly enhanced its status.
In my opinion, the Klon Centaur remains one of the best looking guitar pedals ever made. Housed in a very large and sturdy metal enclosure, it instantly makes an impression on a pedalboard.
Its design is simple but very effective, and I suspect that this had an impact on sales when the pedal was first released.
Aesthetics don’t play quite the same role with guitar pedals as they do with guitars and amps. But they do make a difference. From the sturdy metal enclosure, to the size of the pedal, to the oxblood red control knobs, the design of the Klon Centaur is unusual and captivating.
And even now, with all of the different boutique guitar pedals in the market, the design of the Klon Centaur still stands out.
Some closing thoughts…
So there we have it – the 8 main reasons that the Klon Centaur has become such a famous guitar pedal. As you can see, there are a whole number of factors at play here.
The Klon was innovative and revolutionary when it was released. Bill Finnegan produced the pedal at a time when guitar pedals and large pedalboards were not in vogue. A lot of players wanted multi-FX pedals and digital rack units; not boost or overdrive pedals.
In creating the Klon Centaur, Finnegan was at the forefront of the movement back towards guitar pedals. Thus a huge part of the hype that surrounds the Klon is because the pedal was so revolutionary. It was unlike almost anything that had come before it. And this, combined with the pedal’s popularity amongst famous musicians, the limited number that were produced, and the initial mystery that surrounded its production have all enhanced its reputation and inflated its price tag.
Of course, the Klon would never have risen to popularity if it didn’t sound brilliant. But it would also appear that the price of used Klons has less to do with the tone of the pedal, and instead with some of the other factors outlined here.
And so the question then becomes – how can we capture the sound of the Klon, without paying the inflated prices on the second hand market?
Fortunately – various pedal manufacturers have created brilliant clones of the Klon (wittily referred to as ‘Klones’). And you will be glad to know that these are much more budget friendly than the original.
I will be running through some of the most popular Klones in one of my next articles, so keep an eye out for that. And in the meantime, if you have any questions or comments, please do pop them in the box below, or send me an email on [email protected]
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