This is Centaur #001, built by Bill Finnegan in January 1995 and kept (never sold) by him. “This was actually the 19th unit I built—I had orders for 18 and I needed the money to pay a Klon invoice or two, so I numbered those eighteen 002-019 and built this one a week or so later.” Klon LLC, Photo by Nolan Yee.
If you’ve spent any amount of time on guitar-gear forums, you know they can often devolve into pretty abrasive battles of opinion. Even when a thread starts out with the best of intentions, it’s not uncommon for it to morph into the online equivalent of a mythical Hydra. Forum administrators attempt to clean things up and lock out the more abusive commenters, but once they cut off one of the creature’s heads, two more appear.
Of all the forum topics that can inspire such heated debate, few inspire more passion, awe, and vitriol than a guitar pedal named after a different sort of mythological creature. Launched in 1994 at the front end of the modern-day boutique-pedal boom, the Klon Centaur overdrive was immediately met with critical acclaim. So much so that it’s ironic how much the pedal named after the half-human, half-horse creatures from Greek legend has since developed such a complex mythology of its own. And the fact that this seemingly mundane, 3-knob stompbox is used by such high-profile players as Jeff Beck, John Mayer, Joe Perry, Nels Cline, and Matt Schofield only compounds matters. Never mind the fact that the majority of the circuit comes encased in epoxy.
We recently spoke to Klon’s Bill Finnegan about the origins of the Centaur, his new KTR design—which made a (naturally) limited debut in October of 2012—and how an overdrive pedal can fetch more than $1,000 on the used market and inspire such emotionally charged reactions.
Birth of a Centaur
In the 1980s, Bill Finnegan played in a band where he plugged his Telecaster straight into a Twin Reverb turned up as loud as the soundman would permit. In bigger Boston-area clubs, the Twin’s volume would be at 6 or sometimes even 7, but in smaller places Finnegan could usually turn it up to only 3 1/2 or 4. The latter still sounded good, but not as harmonically rich as when the amp was working harder. Although it didn’t occur to him at the time, a pedal that would give him the sound of a cranked amp is exactly what he needed.
Finnegan recalls that, in 1990, guitarists began chasing after out-of-production Ibanez Tube Screamers in droves. He’d heard about a guy who was selling two TS9s, and—hoping one of the little green pedals would help make his Twin sound like it was at 6 when it was only at 4—he went to check them out. It immediately became clear that Tube Screamers were not for him.
“[The TS9] compressed the transient response of the original signal a lot, had a midrange character I didn’t like, and subtracted a noticeable amount of bass response from the signal as well,” he explains. The same seller also had a TS808 that he wasn’t selling. And, though Finnegan thought it sounded a little better than the TS9s, he still felt it had the aforementioned shortcomings. What he really wanted was a big, open sound, with a hint of tube clipping—a sound that would make you unaware a pedal was involved.
That’s when Finnegan starting looking into creating a new design that would meet those criteria. He recruited a friend who’d just graduated from MIT with an electrical engineering degree. Though both had day jobs, for the next couple of years they got together once a week and tried to push the ball down the field. Within the first year, they’d developed prototypes that were much closer to what Finnegan wanted than a Tube Screamer, and various guitarists in the Boston area encouraged them to go into production so they could buy their own. But Finnegan felt the circuit could still be improved, so he and his partner kept working.
Eventually, the MIT friend bought a house in the suburbs and the distance made it harder to work together. Finnegan later partnered with the late Fred Fenning (who tragically passed away in a plane crash in the mid ’90s)—another MIT grad whom Finnegan says was brilliant and very determined. Although Fenning had never designed an audio circuit and had no real interest in music, he was exceptionally good at finding ways to give the circuit what Finnegan thought it needed at any given time. Finnegan says Fenning deserves a lot of credit for the circuit in both the Centaur and its successor, the KTR.
Photo by Sarah Pollman.
The entire design process took four and a half years, and when the pedal debuted at the end of ’94 Finnegan was soon very busy trying to keep up with the demand—building, testing, and shipping the pedals as a single-man outfit.
Evolution of the Legend
From that point on, demand for Centaur pedals grew. Finnegan says he typically worked 55–60 hours per week in effort to keep turnaround times as short as possible, though he was hindered by the fact that the circuit was very labor intensive and time consuming. He also says it was more expensive to build than most other pedals due to the fact that everything from its cast enclosure to its knobs, pots, and sheet-metal bottom were custom crafted. Finnegan estimates the aggregate cost of a Centaur as seven to eight times that of a pedal built with off-the-shelf parts.
“For the last seven years or so of Centaur production, the retail price was $329,” says Finnegan, “and to be honest, my profit margin was not very sensible—no real business person would have considered, for more than a moment, doing what I was doing for the return I was receiving. Also, given that I live in Boston, it was impossible for me to hire people and expand: Real estate here is in short supply and very expensive, so there was no possibility of my renting commercial space to set up an actual shop.”
Finnegan built Centaurs—around 8,000 in total—by hand, on a cheap folding card table in a succession of small apartments for 15 years. In addition to the modest returns from his efforts, Finnegan says he felt immense stress as he tried to oblige those who wanted a Centaur but didn’t want to pay the inflated price used specimens were fetching because of the 12- to 14-week turnaround time for a new one. It gradually became clear to Finnegan that the situation was unsustainable.