Electric guitars feature a plethora of design aspects all of which go into the overall sound output.
When you are shopping for an electric guitar, you will be factoring in the hardware, pickup types, the configuration of its electronics, the tonewood choices among other considerations.
Tonewood is the wood used in building the guitar, particularly acoustic guitars.
Things are seemingly simpler when it comes to the acoustic guitar.
For one, you don’t have to grapple with too many design aspects.
However, one nerve-wracking and overbearing aspect that you will have to look into when shopping for an acoustic guitar is the wood configuration.
The type of wood used in the construction of an acoustic guitar will loom large over its tonal characteristics.
In the acoustic guitar design, wood is used not in the body of the guitar but also in the neck and the fretboard.
Up to 90% of the construction of the acoustic guitar consists of wood.
Apart from the hardware and the meager electronics, the wood used in the construction of the acoustic guitar is therefore almost wholly responsible for the way the guitar will sound.
It goes without saying that the type of wood used in the acoustic, the tonewood, matters significantly.
Every type of wood used in the acoustic guitar is associated with a unique tone.
The best quality sounds usually come from some rare types of woods such as the Rosewood.
The type of wood that is used in the guitar will have a bearing on both the tone and the sound quality.
When shopping for a new guitar, you will be looking for a wood type in the construction that will produce the desired sound.
The most common wood types used in guitar construction include the following:
- Mahogany (or African Mahogany to be specific)
Every type of wood used in building the acoustic guitar has a distinctive sound quality.
This is most significant in the top part of the acoustic guitar.
This top represents the key wooden tonal element in the guitar.
The type of wood used in this part of the guitar will have the greatest bearing on the tonal element of the guitar.
The various guitar manufacturers will opt for different wood choices.
Wood availability may also be subjected to factors outside the manufacturer’s control such as CITES conventions which for years have moved to regulated the circulation of certain endangered species of trees such as rosewood, once the most preferred choice for guitar manufacturers.
To avoid these restrictions, acoustic guitar manufacturers opt for a plethora of alternative wood types, including some exotic wood types.
This allows them to keep a consistent output and avoid paying hefty certification fees for the use of endangered tree species.
The choices they are left with for acoustic guitar tonewoods often boil down to mahogany and sapele wood types.
In this article, we look at the sound qualities of both of these commonly used wood types.
Mahogany vs Sapele Wood
Let's go a little deeper into the topic:
Mahogany was one of the most commonly used tonewoods in the pre-war era and was popularized by the guitar maker Martin and Gibson.
It has often been regarded as a reliable cheaper alternative to the costly and heavily regulated rosewood.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that mahogany is a poorer quality wood type for tonewoods.
Quite the contrary.
Mahogany is easily recognizable thanks to its richly-colored dark reddish-brown color.
It is a very stiff and hard wood type. It is also very dense and produces a very distinctly wood and warm guitar tone.
When used in dense sets, mahogany easily matches the sonic qualities of rosewood.
However, mahogany is more generally associated with a balanced and punchy tone whose midrange is relatively emphasized as opposed to the enhanced highs and lows associated with rosewood.
Sapele is an African tonewood with a close relation to mahogany.
It looks and sounds like mahogany.
Like rosewood, sapele trees are also heavily protected to prevent over-harvesting.
Sapele has a deeply pronounced grain that sounds pretty much like mahogany.
However, this ‘African mahogany’ is a bit lighter and has a red/amber color.
Sometimes, it can have stripes between the dark and the light patches.
Sapele sounds almost the same as mahogany with a strong low-end and a midrange tone.
However, it has a more top-end definition.
Sapele is therefore a very versatile wood type for tonewood in the acoustic guitar and will suit a variety of styles.
Overall, there are only subtle differences between mahogany and sapele.
In fact, they are so similar and indistinguishable in terms of looks and tone that sometimes sapele guitars are marketed as mahogany guitars.
Sapele is harder than the mahogany trees, both African and Honduran Mahogany, but on the plus side, it is easier to carve.
Nowadays, sapele is mostly used in building the necks, backs and sides of the guitars.
Understanding the Differences Between Sapele and Mahogany
Here is a look at some of the nuanced differences between sapele and mahogany:
Tone and Sound
The tonal element in mahogany tends to be warmer and more bass-like.
Mahogany has stronger midrange notes and softer high notes.
Sapele has a wood tone very similar to that of mahogany but it tends to have a stronger treble.
Sapele also produces more subtle complex overtones.
If you are a musician with a preference for warm notes and playing in the midrange, then you’d be better off with mahogany.
However, if you prefer treble and wish to add some sparkle to your strumming, then a sapele wood guitar would be ideal for you.
Sapele is likely to lend itself more easily to lead playing, contemporary styles as well as in the fingerpicking playing parts.
Overall, sapele has a tone that is similar to that of mahogany but with some extra high-end definition.
Just like in their tones, the looks in these two wood types for guitars can get a little confusing.
To the untrained eye, they look almost similar.
They are so much alike that some acoustic guitar manufacturers even market sapele guitars as mahogany guitars and some buyers will mistake a sapele for a mahogany guitar.
However, in spite of the apparent similar looks, there is a slight difference in the looks between the sapele and mahogany wood types.
Mahogany is a rich and dark reddish-brown color while sapele has a slightly lighter red and amber color.
The lines in mahogany are also closely set while sapele has wider straight lines that spread apart.
However, as we have already stated, it is nuanced that you need a trained eye to tell them apart.
Both mahogany and sapele are strong wood types with excellent durability.
However, in spite of its hardness, sapele is generally easier to carve and also easier to work.
Both of these woods are hard wearing and possess excellent durability.
Sapele is much harder than mahogany but in terms of general durability and sound quality, there won’t be much of a difference between the two wood types.
Price is undoubtedly the major differentiating factor between sapele and mahogany.
Due to the wide availability of sapele trees, they are generally more accessible and hence cheaper than mahogany.
As a result, sapele guitars are generally cheaper than mahogany guitars.
Many of the low-end guitars are made from sapele trees while mahogany is generally used for the more high-end and expensive guitars.
Sapele vs Mahogany Tonewood: Final Thoughts
Mahogany and sapele are two of the most commonly used wood types for tonewood in guitars.
Both of these wood types will give you a warm and mid-range heavy tonal performance although sapele has subtler overtones.
Sapele will provide you with an extra brighter tonal characteristic with its strong treble while mahogany has the characteristic deeper and warm tone.
Tonally, sapele and mahogany sound almost the same.
On the looks front, they look almost the same.
Mahogany is costlier than sapele but due to the similarities outlined above, many guitar manufacturers are increasingly opting for sapele over mahogany for use in guitar tonewoods.
In spite of the many parallels between mahogany and sapele, hopefully, this post has helped you learn the nuanced differences between sapele and mahogany wood types in terms of their suitability for tonewood.