You’re probably already aware that the type of wood used determines the tonal characteristics of the guitar.
A common tonewood is mahogany, used by nearly every guitar maker in at least a few of their guitars. You might have also heard of or seen a tonewood called sapele.
Sapele and mahogany are similar in some ways, causing many people to refer to sapele as ‘sapele mahogany’, which can confuse people, especially beginners.
The truth is that there are similarities, but also differences between these two woods. Let’s look at the characteristics of each and how they differ.
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Mahogany – Overview
A very popular wood for both the body and neck of guitars, mahogany is actually the name of a variety of different types of wood.
There are generally speaking, two types of mahogany:
- Honduran Mahogany – considered genuine mahogany, this consists of Tropical, American, Brazilian and Big Leaf mahogany.
- African Mahogany – originating from Africa, as the name implies, it is also referred to as Khaya.
Mahogany is fairly dark with a reddish-brown color.
Tonally, Honduran and African mahogany are very similar, but African mahogany is harder than Honduran.
Honduran mahogany is considered the higher quality mahogany and is preferred as a top wood.
Tone of Mahogany
As I mentioned, the tone produced by the different types of mahogany is going to be nearly identical.
Mahogany is generally characterized as having a warm tone with strong mids, with soft and subtle treble and bass.
Mahogany is often used combined with brighter top woods to add warmth to the overall tone and to strengthen the mids.
Sapele – Overview
Sapele wood is very similar to mahogany, especially African mahogany, due to its hardness. But, it is harder than African mahogany. Despite being harder, sapele is actually easier to work with than both Honduran and African mahogany.
The two woods are also very close in color, however, sapele is slightly more on the reddish side than mahogany.
Sapele is sometimes referred to as ‘African mahogany’ for this reason, but they are different species.
Sapele is more abundant than mahogany, making it more affordable while still having the same level of quality.
Just like mahogany, sapele can also be used as both a body and a neck tonewood.
Tone of Sapele
The similarities between sapele and mahogany also stretch to their tonal characteristics.
The only real difference between the two is that sapele has a stronger high-end, making it a bit brighter. The overtones of sapele are also a bit more complex, making the tone less compact than mahogany.
These differences are very subtle though, and you’ll likely only notice them if sapele is used as a top wood.
Sapele vs Mahogany – Which Tonewood is Better?
Because sapele and mahogany are so similar, it’s hard to say which one better.
I’d say that neither wood is better or worse, especially considering that their differences in tone might be hard to notice for many people.
If you want a warmer tone, mahogany might be the better choice, and for a bit more sparkle, sapele.
Sapele might also be more suitable for lead playing, while mahogany might be a better wood for rhythm and clean playing.
I think the real difference will be in the feel. Because sapele is harder than mahogany, it might be too rough or heavy for you, which can affect the comfort of playing the guitar.
Sapele is also more affordable than mahogany, meaning that it’s a better option for more budget guitars. So, you can get a cheaper instrument without sacrificing much in terms of the build and tone quality.
The differences between sapele and mahogany are probably too subtle to notice or make much of an impact on your playing or sound.
With all this in mind, you won’t really be losing out if you decide to go with a guitar made with sapele wood. As mahogany becomes more scarce and protected, sapele might even replace it as a tonewood.