Step-Max Tremolo

Proof as to how tough it is to improve on the old Stratocaster vibrato is evident in how few modern systems have answered the call for a direct replacement for the original unit that provides more bending range and better overall stability. The latest to take on the challenge is the Step-Max ($339 retail/street price N/A), a drop-in substitute designed to out-perform the original by providing greater up and down range, straight string pull, and flush-to-body zeroing for improved sustain and tuning stability. The unit even has two adjustable trem-arm positions.
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How does the Step-Max’s non-floating system allow for upward bends? The answer lies in its dual-action design, which uses a cam-driven mechanism to pull the six, fully adjustable graphite saddles straight back when you pull up on the bar. Pressing down on the bar rocks the bridge forward in standard fashion, but, thanks to the Max’s thinner inertia block, you get enough range to fully slacken the strings. Located on the rear of the housing is a knurled step-adjustment screw that lets you preset exactly how much upward bend you get before the action hits a stop. You turn it clockwise for milder bends, or counter-clockwise for more extreme settings.

A high-quality unit that incorporates 6061 aircraft-grade aluminum for the upper housing, denser 7075 aluminum for the base and trem block, and hardened tool steel for the cam and cam followers, the Step-Max is designed to work on American and import Strats that have a 2s" string width at the bridge. I had no trouble installing the Step-Max on a Japanese-made Fender ’50s Reissue Strat using the stock springs and claw, but I wasn’t able to get the device’s six screw holes to line up with the bores of a new Fender Mexican-made Strat. (The company says it is now using elongated holes to accommodate guitars with different hole patterns. Also, a model designed for Fender two-point installations is now available.) Adjusted as per the easy-to-follow instructions, the Step-Max allowed for upward bends of a minor third or more—the low strings could even climb to a b5—without any problem other than some tuning issues caused by string binding at the nut (a graphite or roller nut is a smart upgrade for any non-locking trem system). The pull was smooth and precise—albeit with a more detached, mechanical feel owing to the cam drive. In the opposite direction, the Step-Max feels much like a standard Strat trem, except that you can keep diving until the strings go limp.

It’s difficult to quantify exactly how the sound was affected by the Step-Max other than to say the guitar’s tonal richness and sustain certainly didn’t suffer with the unit installed. However, you do have to contend with the fact the action feels very different when you’re pulling back on the bar than it does when you’re pushing down on it, and also that there’s a very noticeable “clack” as the bottom plate slaps against the body when you’re wrangling the bar forcefully up and down. (Step-Max says it has solved the clacking issue by installing a piece of self-adhesive felt under the base plate. Also, a “hard” cam is available to mitigate the difference in up/down feel.) Assuming you don’t mind a very non-stock-looking trem on your prized Strat, the Step-Max does give you the ability to do bends and dive-bomb stunts that aren’t possible with the stock unit. Considering the Step-Max’s ease of installation, and the equally simple ability to reverse back to the original system, you’ve got a win-win situation with this savvy new trem.