KLON! Utter this four letter word in an online gear forum and you can be guaranteed a multi-page thread with dozens of all caps shouting matches, numerous mentions of “magical diodes” and the toneful properties “unobtanium,” and the solid chance of at least one commenter being banned from said forum. What you’re less likely to come away with is an understanding of what the KLON sounds like and what makes it tick.
So what is the KLON Centaur and why does it generate such extreme opinions from guitarists?
Originally priced at $225 (which 20 years later still seems pretty high for an OD pedal) and discontinued in 2009, the KLON Centaur now sells for $1,500 and upwards on the used market.
The KLON was one of the first “boutique” overdrive pedals. Introduced in 1994, it was designed and hand-built by Bill Finnegan. Originally priced at $225 (which 20 years later still seems pretty high for an OD pedal) and discontinued in 2009, the KLON Centaur now sells for $1,500 and up on the used market.
In 1994, a $225 overdrive pedal was a pretty bold idea. Many guitarists were either happily using digital rack units or just starting to realize that maybe those old “stomp boxes” that we replaced in favor of our rack units were actually pretty awesome. In any case, the KLON Centaur slowly built a following and landed on many a pro board over the years. According to the KLON website, 5,400 KLON Centaurs were built between 1994 and 2009. The final selling price before the Centaur was discontinued was $329.
When Bill Finnegan discontinued the KLON Centaur in 2009, it opened the door for original units to skyrocket in value and for other builders to create clones or “Klones” of the Centaur. However, since the original KLON Centaur had a “gooped” circuit board, meaning it was coated in epoxy to keep others from reverse-engineering it, it took a while for the circuit to be analyzed. Eventually, numerous builders offered their own versions of the Centaur – some apparently more accurate than others.
Fast forward to 2012 when Finnegan released a new, contract-made version of the Centaur called the Klon KTR Overdrive. Priced at $269, the KTR had a long waiting list and the initial run quickly sold out. To try to distance himself from the hype of the original, Finnegan had the following phrase emblazoned on the front of the KTR “Kindly remember the ridiculous hype that offends so many is not of my making.” Clever phrases aside, the KTR suffered from poor quality control and Bill Finnegan soon pulled it from the market to find a new builder to work with. As of this writing, the next batch of KTRs has yet to be released.
Now that we’ve covered the history and the hype, let’s get under the hood of the KLON Centaur and find out what it does. At face value, the KLON Centaur seems like your average overdrive. It has three controls – gain, treble, and output. Open up the Centaur and you can see one item that sets it apart from other overdrives. Aside from the epoxy covering a large portion of the circuit board, it uses a dual-ganged pot for distortion generating part of the circuit. According to Finnegan, the second pot “optimizes the circuit’s overall tonal response for whatever the main gain stage is generating in the way of level and distortion.”
To get a better handle on the technical aspects of the Centaur, I decided to talk to “Analog Mike” Piera. He has this to say about the Centaur, “It differs from most overdrives in the way the gain pot is also used to mix in more clean signal, and it was one of the first pedals to use a charge pump to run chips at higher voltages for more internal headroom.”
Many players swear by the Centaur as a clean boost. With the gain dialed all of the way back and the Treble at noon, the Centaur does function as an entirely transparent boost. Find unity gain on the Volume knob and it’s hard to detect a difference between the engaged and bypassed tones. Now crank the Volume and get the tone of your guitar and amp combination – only bigger.
It’s a very cool trick and it sounds great. But there are plenty of cheaper clean boost alternatives that can do it.
Still other players love the dirt created by the Centaur. Here’s what Nels Cline had to say about his KLON Centaur, “I've written about it before. It's an amp in a box. No more worries in the world of AMP DU JOUR about overdrive tone. It will always be OK. The Centaur will take care of it. Consumers: It's worth the wait to get one. I've had this thing for years now. What did I ever do without it?"
So while some players use the Centaur as a boost, others enjoy it for its tube-like distortion. And when you look at the long list of players who have used or currently use the KLON Centaur, it doesn’t help us to narrow down the tone. Along with Cline, other famous users include: Stone Gossard and Mike McCready from Pearl Jam, Warren Haynes, Britt Daniel from Spoon, David Grissom, Chris Walla from Death Cab for Cutie, and John Mayer. Sure, all of these guitarists have what I would consider to be great tone. But Cline, to Mayer, to Daniel is a pretty wide sea.
Analog Mike likes the Centaur because it’s “well tuned to add slight warm overdrive to a tube amp.” That’s as good of a reason as any.
In the end, the magic of the KLON Centaur might just be that it excels at both pushing a tube amp into sweet overdrive and creating its own natural sounding distortion. The fact that it manages to work well for so many different players and so many rigs is the reason it has achieved legend status.