What do John Mayer, Mark Tremonti, Peter Frampton, Jeff Beck, and Noel Gallagher all have in common?
We’ve discussed it before, and we plan on discussing it often; because overdrives are probably THE quintessential dead horse in the guitar universe- so much so, there’s even an overdrive CALLED “The Dead Horse.” We certainly don’t mind a dead horse however, as overdrives are strangely addictive (we’re sure you understand). They don’t do ‘much’ but they also do a ton. They are not cheap, but not expensive. They are easy to come by, yet at times, near impossible to find. And speaking of horses, there happens to be a certain overdrive that seems to take the proverbial cake from the rest. Named after another certain four-legged beast that has captivated players for years, that pedal is the Klon Centaur Professional Overdrive, and its reputation certainly precedes it!
This rare, boutique pedal (like many great musical innovations) grew out of frustrations with the tools of the trade currently available at the time. If you’ve ever played in a band, and that band has played on a stage, you may be all too familiar with FOH engineers coming up to you and asking you something along the lines of: “turn down your amp, this isn’t Madison Square Garden.” Begrudgingly, many players comply, and then suffer through a set filled with mediocre, often uninspiring tone that can even cause mistakes and frustration. C’mon, we thought playing a live show is supposed to be fun!
In modern times, we are blessed to live in a world with power soaks, multi-watt switching, and digital modelers to help us achieve that ideal sweet spot of tone at reasonable volumes. In a day when these now-commonplace solutions were just a fantasy, a pedal was clearly needed to help player’s tones sing at any volume, ideally not coloring the tone of the amp, and without destroying the entire first few rows of people’s ears in the audience.
Overdrives first began to invade pedalboards with the advent of the Ibanez Tubescreamer, aptly named because it was created to simulate the clipping sounds that occur when your amp’s tubes are really screaming. This pedal, like so many others, has many variants, and often the OG ones are the most sought-after. The first Tubescreamers were built in the late 70s with a JRC-4558 chip, which many players found to have a smooth, warm tone that just sounded “right.” This ended up being ‘the tone’ that many players sought out. As years passed, more iterations of the Tubescreamer were released with new features and changes, but none had that original sound.
Fast forward a few decades, and guitarists in the 90s were hunting down these old-school effects (similar to how guitarists in the late 60s found themselves hunting those elusive original pieces of OG gear at Cliff Cooper’s store ). Due to their rarity, guitarist and pedal designer/builder Bill Finnegan bought some TS9 Ibanez pedals to reverse-engineer, and in the process found out that he could replicate the old sounds, as well as improve the design as a whole. What if you could have ‘everything you love about your rig’ but with more of it? This was the conceptual thought that can best sum up the tone ethos of the Centaur.
In his quest to bring his vision to life, Bill Finnegan recruited a graduate of MIT named Fred Fenning, who despite having no background in audio circuitry, or even having a musical background; possessed the very unique ability to translate Finnegan’s audio desires into circuit board reality. The pair began work on prototyping the ideal circuit, with Finnegan giving Fenning much of the credit for the final circuitry that makes the Klon Centaur so magical.
Due to expensive Boston real estate, labor, and the high cost of using such quality components, he was never able to expand the operation beyond his own two hands. So, these original units were indeed: one man, one pedal, and as a result- all tone. There’s something special about a piece of gear that is built this way. While it certainly helps justify the original price tag of a few hundred bucks (about 400 bucks in today’s dollars in the 90s); that ‘handmade sound’ becomes clear as soon as you hear it and play it. This is also why the original Klon Centaurs can fetch up to $5k on the used market. Also of note, is how this original (now-legendary) design was dreamt up and created in an era before YouTube, internet forums, and the ease of email communication. Parts were researched and sourced the painstaking way, via endless manual labor- a true labor of love in the quest of tone.
This all led to tone enthusiasts and professional musicians the world over adding these sacred stompboxes to their pedalboards:
Now there is a LOT more in the story and design lineage of this fabled overdrive, including how Finnegan himself created the KTR Overdrive once demand persisted for his discontinued original Centaur. Demand has not only never stopped, it has steadily increased. While it is not uncommon to see an original Klon fetching four figures on the used market, on January 14th, Lord of Stompboxes himself Josh Scott (of JHS pedals) appears to not only possess the very FIRST Klon Centaur, but has placed it up for sale. The price? $500,000!
But enough about crazy prices, and tonal purity. Click the video below to hear even more in-depth tales about this mythical beast along with some sonically-delightful tone demos by Jeff McErlain, putting this magical “golden horse” through its paces via a stunning PRS McCarty 594 Charcoal into a ‘72 Marshall Super Lead.
Remember, to get the most out of one of these pedals, designer and builder Finnegan recommends playing it through an amp that is just on the edge of breakup.
“Right now [I can’t be without] the Klon Centaur. It's the kindest, most satisfying distortion - it's the best 'loud' I've heard.” - John Mayer