Sapele vs Mahogany- Which is the Better Tonewood?
If you are a Guitar enthusiast and love playing the instrument, you probably know how important guitar wood is to its tone and sound quality. Each type of wood brings out a unique tone, and it’s important to choose the guitar body that gives out a tone that you like. The most common and popular woods used for making guitars are Rosewood, Cedar, Maple, and Mahogany. Very recently, Sapele has also been added as a type of wood used to make guitars.
The tricky part is that though Mahogany has a distinct identity from Rosewood, Maple, and Cedar, it is very difficult to differentiate between Mahogany and Sapele. In our article, we will try to explain the difference between Mahogany and Sapele and help you understand which the better wood for making Guitars is.
Going Back to the Roots- Origin of Mahogany and Sapele
Mahogany wood is native to Tropical places and the two common varieties of Mahogany used as a tonewood for guitars is:
a) Honduran Mahogany- the Honduran Mahogany is also called as Tropical Mahogany, American Mahogany, and Brazilian Mahogany. It is sometimes thought to be the original Mahogany.
b) African Mahogany–African Mahogany, also known as Khaya is a stronger and a harder version of the Honduran Mahogany.
From the above two versions of Mahogany, the Honduran Mahogany is the more widely used wood for guitars as it has better tonal qualities. It is not as hard as the African Mahogany and it is easier to bend. This wood is great for guitars tops, body, and backs. An interesting point to note is that it is quite difficult to make out the difference in tone between these two versions of Mahogany wood. You need to have a keen sense of sound to understand the slight difference in sound and tone. Moreover, the difference in tone can only be understood when the Honduran or African Mahogany is used as top woods in a guitar. When they are used as side or back wood, the difference is highly indistinguishable.
Sapele wood, for quite some time, has been known as just another version of Mahogany and is found predominantly in the African region. Sapele wood guitars are even sold as Mahogany guitars. This is possible because there is little difference in the look and feel between Sapele and Mahogany. Even in tone, Sapele is not very distinguishable from Mahogany. Sapele wood is harder than both Honduran and African Mahogany but what makes it special is that it is easy to carve. It’s a popular choice nowadays for building guitar necks, back and sides. Still, there is a long way to go before Sapele wood is as well-known and popular as Mahogany, Rosewood or Cedar.
Difference between a Sapele and Mahogany Guitars
The wood used in a guitar dictates the kind of tone that will be produced while playing. It is also responsible for sound resonance and durability. Most often, different kinds of wood are used for the Fretboard, Neck, as a top wood, back wood and for the sides. This is because each wood has a different quality and guitar manufacturers try to use the most suitable wood for the kind of guitar, they are manufacturing. For example, an Acoustic guitar, which requires greater resonance, would typically use Mahogany for its top wood and Rosewood for the neck.
Now, let’s look at some areas where Sapele wood differs from Mahogany as this will help us understand which makes a better tonewood.
Sound and Tone
Realistically, the sound produced from two guitars both of which use mahogany will be different from each other. This is because the tone of the guitar depends not only on the wood but also the manufacturing process, other materials used and the placement of wood. That said, Mahogany wood tends to produce a warm bass-like tone. Its mid-range notes are strong while the high notes tend to be soft. Sapele wood tone, on the other hand, is not very different from Mahogany but tends to have a stronger treble than mahogany and subtle complex overtones. For musicians who prefer warm tones, Mahogany is the best choice. If you like some treble in your tone, then consider buying a sapele wood guitar.
This is where things get confusing. Sapele looks very much like Mahogany. An untrained eye will be difficult to tell one apart from the other. Some manufacturers even sell their Sapele wood guitars as Mahogany. People buy sampele wood guitars thinking they have a Mahogany guitar. There is a difference albeit very slight. Sapele wood usually has wide straight lines spread apart while Mahogany wood has lines which are close set. Also, Sapele has a more rich and dark reddish color as compared to Mahogany. This difference is very hard to tell and only professionals who have been studying wood can probably tell them apart.
Mahogany is a very strong wood but Sapele is, even more, stronger and harder. Sapele is easy to carve and work with as well. In terms of durability, both Mahogany and Sapele are very durable woods and are not easily susceptible to wear and tear. The average hardness of a piece of Honduran Mahogany would be around 900lb while a Sapele wood piece would be around 1,410lb. The hardness of the Sapele wood makes it better than the Mahogany but as noted earlier, there is not much difference in the sound due to this.
The major difference between Sapele and Mahogany is the price. Sapele wood is easily available and is grown in abundance while Mahogany is not readily accessible. This leads to Sapele wood guitars being sold at a cheaper price than Mahogany guitars. In fact, many guitar manufacturers use Sapele wood in their low-end guitars and use Mahogany only for their high-end guitars. For beginners, it is practical to buy a Sapele wood guitar at a cheaper price than to go for an expensive Mahogany guitar. Their sound is almost similar. With Sapele wood becoming more popular, many guitar manufacturers and guitar players are opting for Sapele wood as against Mahogany.
So, these were the broad differences (or not!) between Sapele and Mahogany wood. It all comes down to the fact that they both look and feel the same. The only difference that we see is in the tone. Mahogany has a deeper and warm tone. Sapele has a bright tone with treble. You can choose the guitar tone that appeals to you. Another major difference is in the price of the guitar. If budget is an issue, opting for a Sapele guitar is more feasible. Hope this article helps you in deciding what the right tonewood for your guitar is and you make the correct choice.
Popular Sapele and Mahogany Guitars
The brands ‘Taylor’ and ‘Martin’ use Sapele frequently in their low-end guitars. The guitars play very well and have had no issues. The two popular guitars which use Sapele in the back and sides are the Martin Dreadnought Junior and Taylor Academy Series 12e. Some well-known ‘All-Mahogany-Body’ guitars are the Gibson Les Paul Junior and PRS SE Custom 24. Mahogany will remain the preferred tonewood for some time to come until Sapele becomes more popular and people realize the similarities between Mahogany and Sapele. Until then go ahead and get the perfect guitar for yourself. All should matter is that the guirtar plays well and sound good!